The Great Dictator (1940)
Since Adolf Hitler had the audacity to borrow his mustache from the most famous celebrity in the world--Charlie Chaplin--it meant Hitler was fair game for Chaplin's comedy. (Strangely, the two men were born within four days of each other.) The Great Dictator, conceived in the late thirties but not released until 1940, when Hitler's war was raging across Europe, is the film that skewered the tyrant. Chaplin plays both Adenoid Hynkel, the power-mad ruler of Tomania, and a humble Jewish barber suffering under the dictator's rule. Paulette Goddard, Chaplin's wife at the time, plays the barber's beloved; and the rotund comedian Jack Oakie turns in a weirdly accurate burlesque of Mussolini, as a bellowing fellow dictator named Benzino Napaloni, Dictator of Bacteria. Chaplin himself hits one of his highest moments in the amazing sequence where he performs a dance of love with a large inflated globe of the world. Never has the hunger for world domination been more rhapsodically expressed. The slapstick is swift and sharp, but it was not enough for Chaplin. He ends the film with the barber's six-minute speech calling for peace and prophesying a hopeful future for troubled mankind. Some critics have always felt the monologue was out of place, but the lyricism and sheer humanity of it are still stirring. This was the last appearance of Chaplin's Little Tramp character, and not coincidentally it was his first all-talking picture. --Robert Horton
The Gold Rush (1925)
After the box-office failure of his first dramatic film, A Woman of Paris, Charlie Chaplin brooded over his ensuing comedy. "The next film must be an epic!" he recalled in his autobiography. "The greatest!" He found inspiration, paradoxically, in stories of the backbreaking Alaskan gold rush and the cannibalistic Donner Party. These tales of tragedy and endurance provided Chaplin with a rich vein of comic possibilities. The Little Tramp finds himself in the Yukon, along with a swarm of prospectors heading over Chilkoot Pass (an amazing sight restaged by Chaplin in his opening scenes, filmed in the snowy Sierra Nevadas). When the Tramp is trapped in a mountain cabin with two other fortune hunters, Chaplin stages a veritable ballet of starvation, culminating in the cooking of a leathery boot. Back in town, the Tramp is smitten by a dance-hall girl (Georgia Hale), but it seems impossible that she could ever notice him. The Gold Rush is one of Chaplin's simplest, loveliest features; and despite its high comedy, it never strays far from Chaplin's keen grasp of loneliness. In 1942, Chaplin reedited the film and added music and his own narration for a successful rerelease. --Robert Horton
Certainly, Charlie Chaplin at this point in his career (1952) had earned the right to reflect on his years as an entertainer, and could make his film as overlong and soppy and sentimental as he darn well pleased. But that doesn't mean the rest of us have to abet this kind of melodramatic indulgence. Chaplin stars as Calvero, a fading clown who helps a paralyzed dancer regain the use of her legs and achieve great fame, but of course at grave cost to Calvero. The film is famous for featuring the only onscreen teaming of Chaplin with the other legendary comic of the silent era, Buster Keaton, and is equally infamous for Chaplin having allegedly cut out most of Keaton's best bits in their sequence together. How much Chaplin sabotaged his own movie to keep Keaton from shining has been much debated, but consider: In Keaton's autobiography, he calls Chaplin the greatest screen comic of all time. In Chaplin's autobiography, he never mentions Keaton. --David Kronke
The Great Dictator is as relevant today as it was when it skewered Hitler and his gang of Fascist bigots back in 1940. It took aim at Hitler but its target could easily be any warmongering regime from any period of history. The parallels are all there. Chaplin addresses each of them and does it well. His character Hynkel is a bumbling and ineffective "leader". He's driven by greed. As the film unfolds it's obvious his greed is rooted in feelings of inferiority. The more his mouth moves the less he says. His economic policies are a disaster-to wage war he has to borrow money from the "enemy". He is petty beyond belief. Ultimately, without an "enemy" to point toward, he's nothing. His entire mantra-loss of liberty, racial persecution, lust for control and so on-is all for one thing: he has to cover the fact that he can't rise to the level of the most humble of those he torments. This is a fundamental truth about people who lust for conquest. Chaplin illustrates it brilliantly.
The film isn't perfect. Chaplin and his crew weren't entirely comfortable when working with sound. Many scenes have dialogue but lack background noise. It was a common fault of the time though. The players have an assortment of accents. The Tomanians (with the exception of Herring) sound British. As the Jewish barber Chaplin sounds British. Many of the Jews in the Ghetto sound Jewish but Palette Goddard as Hannah, sounds as if she came from Queens. There are at least a couple of interludes that interfere with the continuity of the film. These are small complaints though. There are many scenes that have never been bettered. One is the episode with the coins and the cakes. On its own it's pure comedic brilliance. Combined with the statement it makes about the utter ridiculousness of martyrdom for its own sake (not to mention the unwillingness of leaders to become martyrs) it's timeless. The scene with the cannon is a gem. The "ultimate" weapon is shown as the ultimate (and expensive) waste; this could easily be the Crusader Artillery System. The tenderness between Chaplin and Goddard is a thing of beauty. Jack Oakie is fabulous as a Mussolini clone. The scenes between him and Chaplin are hilarious. (Watch the scene with the hot mustard and do some thinking.) The innuendo in the film is brilliant. Who but Chaplin would conceive of Tomainia (after "Ptomaine, poisonous and putrefying organic matter), the "Sons of the Double Cross" or Hynkel's first name, "Adenoid"? The entire backdrop with its "Thinkers of Tomorrow" and other absurdities modeled on the vanity of the Dictator is amazing; it captures the madness completely. The ballet with the globe is beautiful and astonishing. The music representing the ideals for the greedy and the humble is identical. The message: people are alike. As is the norm for Chaplin he did it in a way that was subtle; it's the theme of the Grail Knight descending from Wagner's Lohengrin. Hitler loved Wagner's music. Chaplin would have known that. It's his way of saying Wagner's music wasn't to blame for Hitler's madness. There's more but this should give an idea.
What nobody seeing the film for the first time can be prepared for however, is the way it ends. I wasn't. I saw a few of Chaplin's films as a student but had missed this one. I was floored. His statement about the nature of the people who make war is valid in any age. It always will be.
Watch it and then look closely at the events of the present.