Florence Parry's review of "The Great Dictator" (10-28-40)

The Pittsburgh Press (October 28, 1940)


The New Apostle

By Florence Fisher Parry

You youngsters have many things that we have not, but there is one treasure which, until this year, we possessed exclusively, and could not share it with you; Charlie Chaplin, the Little Man with the mustache that Hitler imitated.

Oh yes, you saw him, perhaps in Modern Times some years ago. Oh yes, in revived two-reelers, perhaps, occasionally. But Charlie Chaplin was a legend to you rather than an idol.

You hadn’t the memory, as we had, of the Charlie in Shoulder Arms, standing by in the trench watching the others reading their mail, himself forgotten and friendless, or Charlie in The Gold Rush, walking blithely around the narrow ice ledge followed by a big black bear, or Charlie sitting with The Kid upon a curbstone happy because one living creature loved and needed him.

There is no way to make you understand how we loved this little man with the delicate air, the wistful little elegances, the mongrel tail-wagging smile. It was an innocent devotion we had for him, for ours was an innocent day compared with yours. This cheerful little Under-Dog, with his ingratiating efforts to make friends with a hostile world, became the very symbol of ourselves. However sad we might be, we laughed at him, and the furrows that the laughter made, carried the tears down our cheeks until they were gone, and only a smile remained.

Herr Hynkel

The other night we went to welcome him back again. It had been many years since he had given us a picture. The one we were to see, he had been working on for years; scrapping, overhauling, revising, trying to match its fantastic pace with the still more fantastic pace of world events.

When he began the picture, Hitler, the model for his preposterous hero, was still a ridiculous figure; the world was laughing at his frothing threats. But by the time he had finished the picture, Hitler has squeezed the world of its last smile, and laughter and innocence had fled the earth.

It was too late to laugh at Hitler. It was too late even for Chaplin to laugh at Hitler.

So he gave up the task of fashioning a Comic; and instead created a far more devastating object for our laughter. For slapstick he substituted satire; for the bludgeon of low comedy he substituted the rapier of deadly irony. He built a Dictator so abnormal, so effeminate, so UN-natural, that the distortion took on the aspect of some monstrous Joke too vast even to laugh at!

The result is electric. Chaplin has performed a cinema miracle. He has presented, in a comic satire, the status of our world. He manages to bring the realization home that this, even THIS mustached abnormal whom we see prancing and posturing upon the screen, is no more fantastic than his prototype. This effete little abnormal EXISTS. He has collapsed the world. He has prostrated history. He has swung the earth from its orbit, challenged its destiny among the constellations. And he is as ridiculous as this jerky little puppet on the screen. What, have we mortals become so…screwball…that we have let a tranced little maniac ruin our world?

For The Great Dictator does more than show Hitler up. It shows US up. It says in effect: “You think this is funny? You think this is a comic character? Why this is an understatement. There is no longer any way to cartoon Hitler, for the distortion he has created is greater than lies in any lampoon. This is the kind of man you have LET LIVE. Let rise in power. Let kill and pillage and corrupt. Look at him.”

He is funny, is he not? But it is too late to laugh at him.

The Awful Joke

Chaplin knows it is too late. That is why he does not try to slapstick us into laughter. That is why his picture leaves the old formula and essays a new pattern. Once in a while, once in a while only, he cuts free from his cruel satire and gives us the blesses relief of his Little Comic Mongrel of long ago.

But now laughter has become a complicated thing. Why look!, we say. Only yesterday our hearts were bleeding for France! Vive la France, even if we had to drop everything at home and fight with her again. Now, she is to aid Hitler against Great Britain. How…FUNNY! We start to laugh, and the laughter gripes us, that we should have been so innocent, only yesterday, as to imagine we could cure Europe of her ancient disease…

France bombing London, England bombing Paris. Ha. Ha. That is the kind of laughter we laugh today. Hitler, the Great Comic, bestriding the world. Ha. Ha.

So knowing the new quality of our laughter, Charlie Chaplin f=does not try too often to jerk it back to its lost innocence. Only here and there does the familiar little clown emerge in The Great Dictator. For the rest, the picture gives us a kind of dedicated Chaplin, the apostle of satire, rather this its mime.

His Hitler dances with a great balloon, the Earth. Watch that dance. It has in it all the decadence and dementia that animate Hitler to the performance of his own dance of death. Watch his Little Man, escaped from prison and mistaken for Der Fuehrer, assume as though by sleight-of-hand the Manner of a Dictator, so that the slavish people be quickly fooled.

A satire on Hitler? A satire on us, his fools.

Laugh? Of course we laugh. We laugh 'till it hurts. How it hurts!

Charlie Chaplin has performed a work of bitter genius.