Friday, October 15, 2010


He Speaks! O, Speak Again...

By Jonathan Pacheco
Hearing a Charlie Chaplin character crack a quick quip to cap off a conversation can take some getting used to. It's a somewhat jarring experience, and it's understandable why The Great Dictator, Chaplin's first true talkie, feels a bit awkward as it starts out, as if it's trying to find its footing in an attempt to balance the new norms of sound pictures with the classical, timeless techniques and traditions of Chaplin's best silent and physical comedies. But the 70-year-old film doesn't struggle for long.

Partially to blame, I suppose is the viewer (or maybe just this viewer), trying to adjust his past biases and expectations of what a Chaplin film should be to allow the comedian to showcase something different. After all, Chaplin didn't go easily into the sound era, still insisting on making silents well after others had ditched that style of filmmaking, so when he finally decided to make a full-fledged talkie, it was for a reason — that being the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in the 1920s and '30s. Chaplin felt compelled to respond to their methods and beliefs. His satirical 1940 comedy chronicles the reign of a fictional dictator, Adenoid Hynkel (played by Chaplin), paralleled with the struggles of an unnamed Jewish barber (also played by Chaplin).

The introduction of sound and talking slightly diminishes a certain charm of Chaplin's silent comedy. In past films, The Tramp's silence made him somewhat childlike, even a little naive. He could get so angry and upset, or so surprised and joyous, but his inability to express that with noise (at least to our ears) was endearing, like a cute puppy that doesn't quite know how to harness its frustration or excitement. In The Great Dictator, we get a little bit of that old style with a little bit of a new one. There are still many silent reactions by Chaplin's characters, occasionally feeling out of place (Why are they so quiet? Don't they know they're allowed to talk, to make noise?), though many work just as well as they did in the silents. But there's now the added element of quick spoken reactions in The Great Dictator — quips and witty punch-lines to finish conversations.(Not to say Chaplin never employed audible gags in the past, in fact reusing in this film one such bit from City Lights in which his character swallows a particularly noisy object.)

However, it's in the monologues and longer forms of speaking that Chaplin shows his new prowess (or rather, new to his audiences). When Hynkel speaks to the masses (or when he's particularly upset), he employs a kind of German-gibberish amalgam (Gerberish?) in a virtuoso display of the actor's lips, tongue and throat the likes of which we're only accustomed to hearing and seeing from, say, Robin Williams. Imagine my surprise, after all those silent comedies, to behold Chaplin improvising this rapid-fire dialect, incorporating random English, German, and Yiddish words in an otherwise nonsensical (yet somehow calculated) sea of sounds — never fumbling over his tongue, always in control. Chaplin absolutely mesmerizes in these scenes.

Still, his most important and most renowned speech isn't as Hynkel, but rather as the humble Jewish barber dressed as the great dictator during the film's climax. In a speech directed not only toward the characters in the film but to the viewer beyond the fourth wall, the barber passionately pleads with humanity to overcome greed with compassion, love, and understanding. Greed is what causes hate, persecution, and a machine mindset. It causes wars and strife and neglects understanding. Chaplin loses himself in the speech, delivering with such force and real passion; he's no longer performing as a character for the camera, but rather imploring us as a humanitarian, begging the world to let go of these destructive, horrendously selfish ideals. The speech is just as captivating as Hynkel's, but for much more profound reasons.

What's interesting about Chaplin's Hynkel is that he's not so much hateful as he is simply greedy. His discrimination against the Jews isn't quite out of contempt but out of strategy. When he needs something from them, he eases up. When he's advised to speak out more violently against them, he does. Later, he's informed that brunettes are "proven" to be more troublesome people, leading him to logically conclude that, to mold the world to his wanting, he needs to get rid of those pesky, feisty brunettes and just keep the blonds. Simple.

Chaplin has said that while he was making the film, he didn't know the full extent of Hitler's actions; if he had, he probably wouldn't have gone through with The Great Dictator. I'm glad he did, though, because his satirical portrayal of the dictator falls in line with the message of the barber's speech; there's no hatred toward the character of Hynkel. A film such as Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds seeks to tear down Hitler's aura of dominance and imposition by portraying him as a weak, red-faced weasel, whiny, insecure, and frightened, but Chaplin's take is much less venomous. Hynkel is silly, sometimes oblivious, occasionally naive. Sure, it's a de-mything of Hitler all the same, but one can see this as Chaplin's way of taking a higher road, choosing to show understanding toward those that seem beyond understanding.

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As great as Chaplin in, I can't believe you didn't mention the pivotal contribution of Jack Oakie as the Mussolini equivalent Napaloni. He's hysterical.
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