Best Picture Winners #13a – The Great Dictator (1940)

You couldn’t have two more different movies if you tried.

Even though ten (!) movies were nominated for Best Picture in 1940, Andrew and I chose only one “aside” movie for that year. That was the year that the excellent Rebecca won Best Picture. No one knew at the time, but that film would be the only Hitchcock movie to ever win that award.

Within the long list of Best Picture nominees was the first Charlie Chaplin “talkie,” our only “aside” movie for 1940. Andrew had always heard good things about it, so he suggested we add that one to the list.

Rebecca, as we all know, is a drama.

The Great Dictator?

Ummmmmm, not so much.

Andrew put it this way: if you’ve ever seen The Producers, and you remember that scene with the song “It’s springtime for Hitler and Germany,” then imagine that scene and sense of humor extended into almost two hours. And you’ll get a sense of this movie.

You get Charlie Chaplin playing a nameless Jewish barber who is injured during battle in Tomania (Germany) trying to save the life of his friend Schultz. He loses his memory through a bad concussion and has to spend time in a care-home for about twenty years recovering. When he comes out, a ruthless dictator has taken over with his Double Cross party and forced Chaplin’s fellow Jews to live in ghettos, which are run by his former friend Schultz. And who is Schultz’s boss? The great dictator Adenoid Hynkler, who looks just like our Jewish barber hero.

Chaplin as the Jewish barber in the movie..... and now.....
Chaplin as the Jewish barber in the movie….. and now…..
No, that's totally not Hitler...... *shifty eyes* (From Wikipedia)
No, that’s totally not Hitler…… *shifty eyes* (From Wikipedia)

Schultz protests Hynkel’s new policy of eradicating the Jews, so he is jailed, but then escapes and hides out with his old friend and Chaplin’s girlfriend Hannah in the ghetto. Stormtroopers come in and find Schultz and the barber and take them away to a camp, but Hannah and her family escape to the nearby Osterlich (Austria; the German word for Austria is Österreich), which hasn’t been invaded yet. However, Hynkel has plans for that country, and after failing to ally with Napaloni, he invades Osterlich. Schultz and the barber are trapped at the camp, but manage to escape, and given that the barber looks just like Hynkel, he uses that to his advantage when Hynkel is planning his invasion of Osterlich…..

When we went into this movie, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d never seen a Charlie Chaplin movie, and I came to find out that he was the only Hollywood filmmaker to continue making silent movies even well into the sound era. And it wasn’t until The Great Dictator that he made his first “talkie.” I had only vaguely heard of this movie, and I didn’t read much about it beforehand. I wanted to judge it on its own merits.

What I came away with was the first truly hilarious comedy of this entire list so far. More than that, this was the first satire that made the list of nominees too. And what a hilarious one this was! I have never laughed more than during the first scene of Charlie Chaplin making his speech as Adenoid Hynkler. Oh and the globe scene, and the meetings between Hynkler and Napaloni, the leader of Bacteria, all capped off with a touching ending with a wonderful speech about hope and humanity, I absolutely loved this movie. Watching this seventy-six years later, with generations of hindsight behind us, this movie still holds up, in my opinion. It’s such a great send-up of Adolf Hitler and just how ridiculous he came across, and while it did drag in some parts, I was engaged for the movie.

Chaplin did everything to make Hitler/Hynkel as ridiculous as possible, and that is where the humor in this movie comes from. The random babble that sounds like German, inserting random words that sound like German (“cheese and crackern!”) as well as actual German words like sauerkraut and wienerschnitzel, how he would raise his hand to stop the clapping and all applause would stop…… Well, you can see it for yourself in this scene, the first time that Hynkel makes his appearance in the movie:

And who can forget the closing speech, with our barber hero dressed as Hynkel, at the invasion of Osterlich:

Hands down one of my favorites of the project so far! If you enjoy satire, political humor, and/or just want to see a classic comedy that can still make you laugh in 2016, I recommend this movie! 😀

Five stars out of five

Next time: We move forward to 1941’s Best Picture winner, How Green Was My Valley, and two other asides for that year, Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon, which Andrew and I have never seen.