October 17, 2014

Charlie Chaplin, The Great Dictator

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Won: New York Film Critics Circle - Best Actor
For some odd reason I've never really taken to Charlie Chaplin's films as enthusiastically as all other cinephiles. Trust me when I say that I've certainly wanted to love! his films, and if anything, I've always thought them to be perfectly fine works of comedy, but I've always only ever liked The Circus and City Lights and Modern Times. The same thing applies to Chaplin's performances in these filmsit's hard for me to be duly enthusiastic about them when you feel as though you've seen it all before, because there's only so many Tramp-in-wacky-uncompromising-physically-comedic-scenarios one can take before the novelty wears off and an otherwise great piece of work is just plain "good", or the "usual". And so with that I went into The Great Dictator, Chaplin's last (or technically first and only, believe what you want) nominated performance, knowing very well that I was going to leave being pleased at best.

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The Great Dictator was Chaplin's first full-on foray into the talking pictures. What I forgot was that with talking comes boundless opportunities to induce laughter that is otherwise not possible with silent flicks. I like to think of Chaplin's performance here as three different components pulled together into one single performance piece. The first component obviously being the Tramp character, this time embodied by the Jewish Barber. The Jewish Barber does everything we've come to expect from the Trampthe excellent comedic timing under all that slapstickbut what's different here is that this time he is finally allowed to talkHis faces of displeased dread are accentuated and made all the more hilarious with Chaplin's deadpan vocal delivery (instances like the way he says "I know it" to Schultz's discovery that they are upside down, are so ridiculous it kills me). The second component would be Hynkel, which is my first experience with Chaplin giving a full-fledged attempt at a completely different character. Noticeable looks aside, he delivers such an expert, devoted, and spirited parody of Hitler, and his great impression of the man is made all the more crystal clear when he's contrasted against Jack Oakie's pretty dreadful and half-assed attempt at parodying Mussolini. So with that, I was enjoying Chaplin more than is typically the case; he had exceeded my expectations after all and was heading straight towards a solid 4. But in the final minutes of the film I was flooredthat famed final speech of his, that which I had heard much about but wasn't anticipating, sealed the deal for me. He is stirring, tender, soulful, broken, electrifying, filled to the brim with passionall over the span of a few minutes. After having only watched him in worlds of silence, I was stunned by the power he had in the talking world, stunned by the way he could manipulate his speech in the same way as his contemporaries. This was the third component of the performance for me, in which Chaplin shows that he can act (and that he can do dramatic acting to boot!), in which he shows that his work here isn't all fun and games, that there is in fact more to him than just funny faces and running around and falling down. It ties everything else together into the wonderful showcase that this performance is; slapstick comedy, expert satire, and skilled acting.


  1. His only talking movie I watched was Monsieur Verdoux, and I really liked him in it. I wonder If I will like him more than Fonda, or even than Grant in His Girl Friday (my personal pick).

    1. i think it would be hard not to like Chaplin in this one! Definitely worth the watch if you have the time.

  2. I doubt there ever was a film / a performance, at least an Oscar-nominated one that I know of, with more social impact and importance than this one. It's mindblowing, when put into the context of 1940.
    His final speech (which I saw again on youtube in the last year; seen the film about a decade ago) is epic.

    1. I definitely agree with you :) You called my liking him too!!

    2. WWII has always been a fascinating topic for me and one of the great tragedy of the last centuries. So that speech really moves me.

      Let's see if I also get my Best Actress prediction correct. :) but what i hope is that I won't influence.