In 1940, shortly before the United States went to war against Hitler’s Germany, the famed and highly-acclaimed comic actor and director Charlie Chaplin made a wonderful movie called “The Great Dictator.” You can get The Great Dictator for home viewing, and it is a worthwhile purchase.
This movie plays up the classic doppelganger gag. The story is of a little Jewish tailor who is drafted into the army of the country of “Tomania,” (a satirical reference to Germany) during the First World War. The Jewish tailor helps save a comrade in battle and is wounded, ending up with amnesia in the hospital. After 20 years, just before the beginning of World War II, he somehow leaves the hospital to go back to his barbershop, thinking he has only been gone a couple of weeks. Of course, the anti-Jewish pogroms were in full swing by then.
As an odd wrinkle, our little Jewish tailor bears an uncanny physical likeness to the insane dictator of Tomania , Adenoid Hynkel, (another satirical reference, this time to Adolf Hitler) who is rising to power on anti-Semitism and anticommunism. In fact, at the beginning of the movie, there is an advisory that the resemblance between Adenoid Hynkel and the tailor is purely coincidental! Our Jewish tailor is completely unaware of the anti-Jewish fever sweeping the country or the redoubtable Adenoid Hynkel’s rise to power.
In one of this movie’s most famous scenes, as the Jewish tailor returns to his barbershop in the Ghetto, he discovers it boarded up with anti-Jewish slogans painted on it. Bit by bit, the reality of the anti-Jewish pogrom in progress sinks into the head of the puzzled and hurt Jewish tailor. Yet despite the tragic dimension we see in this period of history today, Chaplin squeezes real comedy out of the situation. This is classic Chaplin: slapstick physical comedy that is at the same time trenchant social commentary. As a mime and physical comedian, perhaps only Rowan Atkinson’s Mr. Bean comes close to him decades later.
You can see a YouTube video of that scene by clicking here.
Charlie Chaplin was indeed a master of physical comedy, as well as being an excellent mime, highly-skilled dancer, and a very fit and athletic person. One of my favorite scenes shows Adenoid Hynkel quite alone in his office lovingly caressing his inflatable globe of the world, which he dances with in a sensuous and almost sensual manner. The music that accompanies this dance is the Prelude from Act 1 of Richard Wagner’s opera, Lohengrin. Suddenly the balloon pops. Hynkel is devastated by the sudden explosion of his toy in his face.
For all you physical fitness buffs out there, check out this wonderful YouTube video of that dance.
The doppelganger angle comes in when the regime is trying to mobilize the fighting spirit of the nation for an invasion of a neighboring country while the military is trying to capture the Jewish tailor as well as trying to coordinate the logistics of a huge propaganda rally and the invasion itself. Meanwhile, the Jewish tailor has dressed up in a military uniform to disguise himself. Naturally, the guys looking for the tailor arrest Hynkel, thinking he is the tailor, and the guys who are in charge of the rally grab the Jewish tailor, who they mistakenly think is Hynkel, and expect him to give a martial speech.
Watching the movie up to this point leaves one laughing heartily at the clever puns, double meanings, slapstick, and satire.
But then, the Jewish tailor, in his guise as Hynkel, gives his sobering speech instead, and it is one of the great antiwar speeches of the 20th century, a bloody century indeed.
Chaplin gives an appeal for human solidarity against the war machine that heartlessly drive us into war. Suddenly, the spectator does not feel like laughing. Instead, the spectator feels like cheering or even weeping.
Although the speech seems a bit dated in its style and perhaps a bit too sentimental in spots, it still is wonderful. Imagine a political leader of a great world power giving a speech like it today. Imagine what the world would think if these words came out of President Obama’s mouth:
We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness – not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there’s room for everyone and the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone.
The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way. Greed has poisoned men’s souls – has barricaded the world with hate – has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in……….
Soldiers! Don’t give yourselves to brutes – men who despise you and enslave you – who regiment your lives – tell you what to do – what to think and what to feel! Who drill you – diet you – treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men – machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men!
By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill that promise. They never will! Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people. Now let us fight to fulfill that promise! Let us fight to free the world – to do away with national barriers – to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason – a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness.
Watch this speech, observe its moving delivery, and see if you don’t agree with me that this was one great speech, sadly, one the world failed to take to heart in 1940.
January 23, 2010