Chaplin's first full-fledged talkie, THE GREAT DICTATOR is an earnest, over-long, sometimes melodramatic and often funny condemnation of Adolph Hitler's megalomania and treatment of Jews. The film was something of a risk for Chaplin, who had triumphed magnificently with his two previous silent films, CITY LIGHTS and MODERN TIMES. America had not yet entered the war in Europe, and there was a strong isolationist sentiment throughout many sectors of the country. Today, of course, THE GREAT DICTATOR is no longer controversial.
Chaplin plays both Adenoid Hynkel ("Der Fooey") and the Jewish barber who lives in the ghetto and, not coincidentally, looks just like the dictator of Tomania. There is some question as whether the barber is actually Chaplin's "Tramp", although deference should be paid to Chaplin himself, who stated that the barber was most definitely not The Tramp.
Although this was Chaplin's first talkie, Chaplin wisely chose to fill the film with much physical comedy, good old-fashioned silent movie slapstick and a handful of beautiful pantomime scenes. Among the highlights are the Barber shaving a customer to the strains of Brahms's Hungarian Dance #5 and Hynkel doing a comic ballet with a large balloon shaped like the Earth. Chaplin also hedged his bets by adding several top notch comics of the day to the cast, including Billy Gilbert, hilarious as oafish Field Marshall Herring, and Jack Oakie, who yanks his scenes from right under Chaplin as the fast-talking and hot-headed fellow dictator Benzino Napoloni ("Il Digaditchy"). Chaplin himself is very funny in many scenes, especially when he gives speeches as Hynkel, delivered in mock-German.
After two hours of slapstick and melodrama, Chaplin grinds the film to a halt with an earnest but amateurish speech given directly to the audience by the Barber, who, owing to hasty plot complications, has been mistaken by his people as Adenoid Hynkel. The argument on whether this is a rousing, passionate finale or a huge indulgence by Chaplin will go on forever. As it is, the story is left hanging while Chaplin speaks nearly non-stop for the final few minutes of the film.
A big hit in its day, THE GREAT DICTATOR, despite pacing flaws and several comic sequences that don't pay off, is still arguably Chaplin's greatest talkie. - JB
MORONICA FOR MORONS!
Because they could crank out two-reelers like nobody's business, Columbia and The Three Stooges actually beat Chaplin to the punch in the arena of Hitler satire with their two-reeler You Nazty Spy, released nine months before THE GREAT DICTATOR. Sharper than most Stooge shorts, it is twenty minutes of wonderful nonsense, clever wordplay and typical Three Stooges eye-poking and head bashing. Moe plays Moe Hailstone, former wallpaperer installed as the dictator of Moronica by some shady businessmen. Curly is Field Marshall Gallstone and Larry is Pebble, Minister of Propaganda. Despite all three being eaten by lions at the conclusion, You Nazty Spy was sequelized a year later with the equally fun I'll Never Heil Again. Curly played Field Marshall Herring in the sequel, a name taken directly from Chaplin's film. The sequel contains a classic line from Moe when Curly rips off his phony Hitler mustache: "Gimme my personality!"