The Great (Dictator) War

So, just like that, without any fuss, Chaplin speaks — not nonsense words, but English ones (despite him playing a Tomainian — only Hynkel and his close confederates seem to speak the language).

The opening of THE GREAT DICTATOR is a return to the terrain of SHOULDER ARMS, but Chaplin resists any urge to repeat gags, it’s all new material, folks. And very funny — the Jewish Barber is not having a good war.

I’m a little uncertain about the dud shell following, with its nose, Chaplin’s movement. I don’t see the comic logic there. It’s doing exactly what the fought-over rifle in THE GOLD RUSH did, aiming squarely at the Little Fellow wherever he goes, but without some line of explanation saying it’s magnetized, or a homing missile or something, it’s un-shell-like behaviour is a tad disturbing to our sense of the film’s reality. It’s really the only joke tinged with this kind of surrealism (unless we count the improbability of Hynkel’s globe being a balloon).

Who was it did the hand grenade gag where the one with the pin pulled out falls into the box full of others? That’s a very nice joke, but Chaplin dropping the thing down his sleeve is arguably even better, because it’s even worse — you can’t run away from the consequences.

The nightmare gag depends on a horrific situation that hasn’t quite reached its grisly climax, and it has to be caused by something going wrong. A gas attack in the trenches isn’t comical, since the enemy’s equipment is working just as it should. The dropped hand grenade loose in one’s own clothing IS, because of the human error and the irony of it being your own weapon, and because of the unexpectedness. So many separate elements seem to be necessary to make a mere event into a gag.

I like Chaplin’s silence while tracing the missing bomb — an officer is yelling at him but he can’t reply — he’s concentrating. Keaton said his character couldn’t smile because he was concentrating on what he was doing. Could Chaplin perhaps have kept dialogue to a minimum by the same device?

But, I think, for good or ill, Chaplin now wanted to talk — if he was going to make a talkie, he was going to take advantage of the possibilities.

Getting lost in the smoke of battle is another great gag. And so in character that the Jewish Barber apologises to the enemy for intruding. How many takes to get the smoke to billow just right? In the scene where the JB finds himself surrounded by doughboys, the men’s shadows stretch far along the ground, so it’s evidently the very end of a long, long day.


4 Responses to “The Great (Dictator) War”

  1. Simon Kane Says:

    “Big Brother” is a hell of prop! I presume it’s a prop, at least.

  2. Big Bertha — definitely a prop!

  3. Simon Kane Says:

    Ah, “Bertha”!

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