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Great Dictator, The

Now re-released in a superbly restored version in what is hoped to be just the curtain-raiser to a much larger Charlie Chaplin project, The Great Dictator was the first all-talking feature from the first media superstar of the twentieth century. In a highly controversial project, Chaplin ridiculed Hitler and his cohorts by using his comic genius and humanity as weapons. When he began work on the script in 1938, he was strongly discouraged by everyone from the British government to Jewish Hollywood producers. Ignoring them, Chaplin financed the expensive film himself. Bravely speaking out against Nazism with brilliant parody, he lampooned Hitler and Mussolini. Playing dual roles as a humble Jewish barber and Adenoid Hynkel, the ranting dictator of Tomania, Chaplin combined trademark slapstick with sharp political satire. The film contains some of the comic’s most delectable sequences, including Hynkel’s balletic pas de deux with a luminous globe and a spaghetti-tangled food fight with Jack Oakie’s scene-stealing Napaloni.
With the war raging in Europe by the completion of a lengthy shoot, Chaplin had his own doubts. He considered shelving the film, feeling that ‘Hitler is a horrible menace to civilisation rather than someone to laugh at.’ Then, in another risky move, he released the film with the addition of a coda in which he speaks as himself in an impassioned plea for tolerance. Despite being banned in occupied Europe, South America and Ireland (yes!), The Great Dictator was an immediate success. It was nominated for five Oscars, including ‘Best Picture’. As Chaplin scholar David Robinson succinctly puts it, ‘The Great Dictator remains an unparalleled phenomenon . . . the greatest clown and best-loved personality of his age directly challenged the man who had instigated more evil and human misery than any other in modern history.’ (U.S.A., 1940. Black and white. 125 mins.)

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