The Great Dictator (USA, 1940, Charlie Chaplin)
After a five-year absence from movies, Charles Chaplin took on a dual role in his first full-length talking feature, famous for its comic attack on Nazi Germany (and Adolf Hitler, or "Hynkel" as he is known in the film, in particular). "This is the story of the period between two world wars--an interim during which insanity cut loose, liberty took a nose dive, and humanity was kicked around somewhat." This opening title kicks off the film, with a script that was written before Hitler's invasion of Poland. Chaplin subsequently noted that, had he known the scope of the evil perpetrated on Europe by the Nazis, he would never have made them the subject of this lampoon. Nonetheless, time has allowed us the distance necessary to recognize that the skewering in Chaplin's barbs, both visual and verbal, while not as maniacally funny as Chaplin's classic comedies of the 1920s, have more in common with Chaplin's later films, which were more lyrical in approach and more overt in their socio-political messages.
In this case, Chaplin's tendency to proselytise turned out to be prescient, as Hitler would soon prove Chaplin's concerns well-founded. This was one of very few films made in the West before World War II that dared to take on Hitler and Mussolini. Still, many critics found fault with Chaplin's approach, claiming that, by portraying German Nazis and Italian Fascists as schoolyard bullies and buffoons, Chaplin was cheapening the impact of their evil actions on millions of Europeans. Despite these criticisms, Chaplin's lampooning of Hitler is a moment of comic genius, complemented by Jack Oakie's ridiculously exaggerated portrayal of the Mussolini-like Italian fascist (nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor). When he drops the persona's at film's end, it may mark a dramaturgical break with the film's narrative, but Chaplin's pleas for peace represent the best and worst of the man. Both heartfelt and damned affecting, the speech also sucks all the energy out of the film's simetimes wonky plot.
The Great Dictator is loosely structured, lacking the tight pace and sense of direction of Chaplin's best films: its long-winded concluding speech is the most egregious example. It was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Chaplin for Best Actor.