The Great Dictator (1940)

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After the movie world transitioned to sound, Charles Chaplin continued making silent films through the 1930s with City Lights and Modern Times. Not until 1940 did he make his first talkie. Playing both an unnamed Jewish barber who fought in the first world war and the dictator of Tomania, Adenoid Hynkel. This was the right time, the right way, and the right subject matter for his first talkie. Some of the funniest moments involve Chaplin’s voice (the barber’s confused murmurs when caught in a mist as a soldier, unwittingly finding himself on the other side of the battle and the mock German he uses for the dictator involving mostly food and scatological words, an influence on the language of the Despicable Me minions). Chaplin wrote the story, directed the film, and played both of the leading roles all with the point of leading up a speech he would give, one of the most electrifying scenes in film history.

Though the sound is an important way that Chaplin achieved his goals, he never abandoned the physical humor that made him so successful. He cuts hair and shaves a customer in rhythm to one of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances. He resists storm troopers through a hilarious choreographed routine. Most importantly, Chaplin uses techniques of physical comedy to have the impact he wanted his movie to have. In the scene pictured above, Chaplin literally walks on walls and dances with a giant balloon globe. Although he’s doing things that are common in the silent physical comedy of his earlier years, there is nothing at all funny about this scene. Showing the depths of the dictator’s self-delusion and all-consuming desire for world domination, the scene is more terrifying than anything horror movies could ever dream of delivering.

What makes every scene of the movie work is the fact that Chaplin plays both of the main characters. He mocks and uses to his advantage the strange fact that he (a person of Jewish descent) and Adolph Hitler looked so much alike. He used his comedy, his physical agility, his personal convictions, and even his voice to try to change the world. In 1940, America didn’t have much understanding of what was happening in Germany, and it showed little interest in intervention until it was attacked itself. But Chaplin used this movie to try to convince the country that there was reason to get involved, to fight for democracy, peace, and equity. Several scenes in the movie show a very limited understanding of what concentration camps look like so that today’s viewers may be put off at how much it minimizes the atrocity. This is exactly why it’s important for us to know and to remember that this movie was made two years before the U.S. entered WWII. Chaplin used whatever knowledge he had to make his case and a brilliant movie. Limited as it was, he did everything in his power to fight the Nazis through The Great Dictator.

The powerful speech that closes the movie is not so much a speech to the Nazis of the world though the context of the movie places it there. It is a speech to Americans and to others who at least had the pretense of desire to help others. He called for people to embrace humanity and to fight for what is right in a way that breaks through past the brainwashing and demoralization of both tyrants and of the inner tyranny of fear that he thought was keeping Americans inactive. In hindsight, I think Chaplin would say that had America intervened earlier than they did, the results of WWII would have been more like those in the movie. Whether or not there is any truth to that, watching The Great Dictator is much more than watching a great movie. It is watching the passion of a man using everything he has to make the world he knows a better place.

List: Greatest Male Acting Performances

Last summer, I posted a list of what I think to be the 25 best female acting performances. It’s been five months since that list and I’ve neglected the men, so here are my picks for the best male acting performances of all time.

 

25. Paul Muni, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

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24. Humphrey Bogart, Casablanca (1942)

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23. Peter O’Toole, The Ruling Class (1972)

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22. Marlon Brando, On the Waterfront (1954)

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21. Peter O’Toole, Becket (1964)

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20. Anthony Quinn, Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962)

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19. Sal Mineo, Rebel without a Cause (1955)

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18. Laurence Olivier, Wuthering Heights (1939)

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17. Jack Lemmon, Some Like It Hot (1959)

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16. George C. Scott, Patton (1970)

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15. Peter Lorre, M (1931)

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14. Spencer Tracy, Captains Courageous (1937)

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13. Humphrey Bogart, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

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12. Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote (2005)

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11. Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man (1988)

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10. Henry Fonda, On Golden Pond (1981)

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9. Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump (1994)

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8. Brad Pitt, Inglourious Basterds (2009)

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7. Jack Nicholson, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

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6. Yul Brynner, The King and I (1956)

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5. Walter Huston, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

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4. Orson Welles, Citizen Kane (1941)

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3. Marlon Brando, A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

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2. Marlon Brando, The Godfather (1972)

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1. Charles Chaplin, The Great Dictator (1940)

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The Gold Rush (1925)

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Only a short part of Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush is set at New Year’s Eve, but the whole movie is about the need, the attempt, and the chance for a new start. “Auld Lang Syne” is played twice in the movie, obviously at midnight at the start of New Year’s Day but also at the last scene of the movie, recalling that what happened on New Year’s was that chance for a new start that has now been complete.

Chaplin’s movies always find a very fine line between comedy and tragedy and are often filled with the darkest of themes that only a true master could work with honestly and still be true to his great gift for physical comedy. In 1936, he made a shockingly inspiring and hilarious story centered around homeless people during the Great Depression, Modern Times. In 1940, he made his funniest film which far more shockingly was set in Nazi Germany, The Great Dictator.

This film, is no exception. In the Klondike, the Tramp is a prospector existing in a world that cares only about survival. His only friend is so starved that he becomes tempted towards cannibalism and tries to kill the Tramp on several occasions. Every attempt the Tramp makes to keep himself and his friend safe is met with great opposition showing just how desperate and how dangerous this lifestyle is. Of course, it’s a Chaplin movie so every danger, every situation that threatens and scares the Tramp finds its own special way to make the audience laugh because of all the brilliant ways Chaplin uses his body to make something funny out of something in that in reality is grim and even terrifying.

Just before New Year’s Eve, the Tramp meets Georgia who pays attention to him only to ward off the unwanted advances of another man. She and her friends soon see that they can take advantage of his quirks and the way he is smitten with her for their own selfish entertainment. He invites them all over to his shack for New Year’s Eve where he performs his famous dance with dinner rolls. This scene is sheer delight, being the only way he has (without money, intelligence, or anything else to give) to show his affection for her. He believes that if he makes her laugh, she will continue to pay attention to her. He’s right, but not in the way he wants to be. By the beginning of New Year’s Day, he knows that Georgia has just been playing mean games with him, but that doesn’t stop him from being in love with her.

Once the Tramp knows the truth, New Year’s Day becomes an opportunity for him to have the new start he has needed all along. It takes the rest of the movie to see the benefits of that, but that’s why we hear “Auld Lang Syne” once again at the end of the film. That’s why there’s no movie I can think of to better recommend for watching on New Year’s Eve than The Gold Rush.