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Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Great Dictator (1940) d. Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin does his Hitler.

The Great Dictator (1940)
 d. Charlie Chaplin
Criterion Collection #565

  Really digging Charlie Chaplin right now, but unable to slip him into casual conversation.  Compare the contemporary relevance of Chaplin to another recent emphasis of mine, Russian movies.  I've used Russian movies in two different conversations in the last week and gotten good responses both times.  So Chaplin isn't very cool, but he is a genius.

  Like any artistic genius who controls his/her own means of production AND obtains positive critical, popular and financial response to his/her early work, Chaplin became obsessed with a passion project.  As the accompanying featurette by Chaplin archivist Cecilia Cenciarelli documents, Chaplin wanted to make a movie about Napoleon.  He spent close to a decade working on this proposed film of Napoleon in exile.  He had people doing research, he bought rights to a book on the subject, he paid to have a screenplay created.   The featurette uses excerpts from letters between Chaplin and his close associates that show he didn't really abandon the Napoleon in exile project until the mid to late 1930s.

  The Great Dictator was released in 1940, and it incorporates many of the characteristics of the unamde Napoleon movie.  Specifically, the central plot point of The Great Dictator: Chaplin playing both the Hitler character and a Jewish barber who looks exactly like the Hitler character.  Watching The Great Dictator for the first time, it was hard not to be shocked at Chaplin's aggressively political film.  Even with the funny included, The Great Dictator is a serious fucking movie.   The Chaplin Dictator character talks about exterminating the Jews repeatedly, as well as casually discussing murdering 3000 striking factory workers because he "doesn't want any of his worker to be unhappy."

  Even more amazing is that The Great Dictator came out before the U.S.entered into World War II.  As readers may or may not know, during the Jo McCarthy led Communist witch hunts after World War II, attacking Fascism BEFORE the US entered officially into World War II was called being a "premature anti-Fascist" and was grounds for being accused of being a closet Communist. The Great Dictator is the kind of bold film that could only have been produced and released by an Artist with complete control of his means of production.   It is quite an accomplishment, and an astonishing film, but in terms of film art itself vs. historical significance, it is a flawed masterpiece with a clunky 2 hour run time and dozens of cringe inducing moments.  Still worth seeing.

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