When a film opens with the above note, referring to Chaplin's dual role, but also a cheeky dig at the fact that Hynkel is a not-at-all disguised parody of Hitler, you know exactly what you're in for. This two-hour long lambasting of the Nazi regime may not be subtle, but by God Chaplin knew how to rip the p***.
If rumours are to be believed, Hitler had him placed at the top of his death list after this film's release – now that's street cred. We first see Adenoid Hynkel addressing the German (Tomanian) nation, giving a speech that involves much arm-saluting, nonsense English that makes use of the phrase "sour kraut" and his more embittered rages descending into coughing fits. "His excellency has just referred to the Jewish people", informs an announcer after a rage-filled moment that causes microphones to bend and quiver in fear. His first German-language dictates to his minister of war (Herring) involve "banana" and "cheeseuncrackerz". Look out too for instructions to his Minister of Interiors, Garbitsch.
I've never really gotten into Charlie (always credited as Charles) Chaplin, as I find his innocent sentimentality a little hard to get to grips with in today's society. W.C.Fields, and, to an extent, Harold Lloyd and Laurel & Hardy can still entertain, as they have something of the attitude, or edge, that Chaplin lacks. Ironically, it's modern times that mean we now find it hard to fully appreciate Modern Times. However, dialogue and a harsher undercurrent – including a Jewish barber (Chaplin, again) being hung from a lamppost mean that even today The Great Dictator is relevant.
There are some nice silly jokes, such as the barber, confronted by a Stormtrooper, being told: "and I thought you were an Arian". "Well, I'm a veget – arian", replies Chaplin, trying to fit in. Many jokes – such as Hynkel making a long speech and his secretary typing up just a couple of words; then saying just a couple of words only for her to translate it into paragraphs – were originated here and have been repeated countless times in other places. Some of the most amusing slapstick is when Hynkel meets fellow dictator Mussolini (Napaloni), and tries to impress him by having the greater psychological perspective in all their meetings. In a gag much honoured by Bugs Bunny, the two crank themselves up to ever-greater heights on barber's chairs.
Elsewhere, the film also has a grand scale, with ceilings on sets and news reports propelling the narrative – you know, the sort of thing Citizen Kane was so highly praised for the following year. If there's a fault with this film then it's not so much with the sentimental, whiter-than-white Jewish population, but with Chaplin's interpretation of Hynkel. Although he gets all the best jokes and scenes, he's simply too likable to really convey the threat Chaplin was trying to stop. Nevertheless, this is forgotten as the ending gives us the Jewish barber taking Hynkel's place, and Chaplin making an impassioned, three-minute speech in the name of freedom.
Charles Chaplin played two roles in this movie, wrote, directed, produced and, uncredited, composed original music for it. To claim it changed the world is an overstatement. America still had a good opinion of Hitler at the time, and, after it was released... they still had a good opinion of Hitler. It was still some time before they would even enter the second world war, and with the final speech being adopted for Communist pamphlets in England, this only caused Chaplin troubles when it came to the McCarthy witch trials. There's a sense that Chaplin isn't the master in the field of talkies, and that his use of mime was beginning to date. History was overtaking him, but The Great Dictator still stands as one of the most personal, and risk-taking films ever put on celluloid.
Postscript, April 2012: I've since watched all of Chaplin's features and every short. So, I was talking rubbish when I said twelve years ago that he didn't have modern appeal. Sorry about that. However, I stand by most of the review, even if "Chaplin on Hitler's death list" is a "fact" I've only read in Trivial Pursuits. Oh, look out for the documentary that's included on the DVD - "The Tramp and the Dictator" - well worth seeing, as well as Chaplin's extensive thoughts on this film and its aftermath in his 1964 autobiography.