On its surface, comedy seems apt for the present, because characterization is not an inherent responsibility of the author to ooze why her joke is funny; “funny” is largely a function of its setting. If the “high” goal of comedy is simply to encourage laughter, we, the audience, should tune our own understanding to the present laugh factor: is this joke funny or not, right here, right now? If not, can and do we find humor in comedy outside the immediacy of “comedy?” The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin’s most seminal work, proves that we do.
The Great Dictator, 1940’s tongue-in-cheek Nazi satire, is a comedy first and a pièce de triomphe second. Chaplin aims to leech the bad blood and the sadness of Adolf Hitler’s tyrannical and megalomaniacal Third Reich through a mish-mash of slapstick comedy and cartoonish caricature. Within the loose confines of a story of immediate relations, there’s Marx Brothers-esque pan-smashing and paint-throwing and lots of falling, sliding and slipping. Sure this comedy is easy – our natural schadenfreude loves to watch and relish in the misfortune of others – but its simplicity is essential to setting a mood. Because comedy has a foil – tragedy – that runs all too deeply through The Great Dictator. Chaplin plays two characters (an essential plot device): one, Chaplin is a Jewish merchant injured and amnesiac from The Great War; he conveniently revives and attempts to resume normality only to find that his normal activities are stymied by Adenoid Hynkel and his regime, “The Double Cross.” The humor is plentiful in this whole set up, ripe for a serious demolishing of the current regime and its antics. The other: in a likeness is purely coincidental, obviously, is Adenoid Hynkel himself. He is a more obvious allegory to the specific Führer and because his real-life counterpart is ubiquitous and completely characterized, the comedy is simpler, if not funnier. As with chess, comedy follows an important paradigm: simplify to exploit.
As a pièce de triomphe, The Great Dictator is devastating. Very rarely in allegory is the subject simultaneous with its mocker; also, very rarely has a situation been so dire and ripe for parody as National Socialism. Combined with Chaplin’s global popularity and his penchant for choosing the most apt methodology to impart his comedy, these factors helped to foil the unbelievable tragedy rapidly unfolding across Europe. Because herein lies comedy’s unwieldy power. We assume that comedy lifts an indifference; that assumption is wildly incorrect. Instead, comedy’s exuberance comes from its power to lift horror and devastation, like the overt themes in The Great Dictator, to a reconstituted temperance. Comedy-cum-devastation is more about absolution than it is about distraction; sure we can giggle at the Hitler proxy, but instead we laugh at the blown-out absurdity that is the pure attempt to control people’s uncontrollable – their skin color, religious ancestry, age, sex, sexuality, familial ties. Hitler’s Third Reich attempted to control circumstance, and Hynkel’s Double Cross is a complete parody on this very idea. Chaplin’s take is very funny, very poignant and very complementary, the combination of which creates great satire and a lasting foil as we continue to grieve and analyze the first part of the twentieth century.
More important than the comedy (the funniest scene being Hynkel’s prancing around to Wagner’s Lohengrin*) is the simplicity of the comedy and how Chaplin knows how to wield it for maximum effect. The gimmick is quite simple: our barber and Hynkel are supposed to resemble one another enough that it might be simple to mistake one for the other. Not once does Chaplin draw attention to this fact until the story presents an (albeit absurd) opportunity for the paths to cross. Within this major/minor subplot, Chaplin can use his voice (as a grandiose metaphor for the world’s) to denounce himself (the barber-as-Hynkel) and thus create a mirror to reflect Hitler. If only power were that easy.
Why and how we find some things funny and others tiresome is a topic for another essay, but for The Great Dictator specifically, we find it funny because Chaplin knows how to make his audience laugh without added noise because he’s had so much practice. His pedigree is in silent film, by definition simple; The Great Dictator was one of his first “talking” pictures because he had achieved so much success in silent film he rightly avoided the pastiche of rapid change for better or, in The Great Dictator‘s case, worse.
In a fashion ahead of its time, in true 2009 form, The Great Dictator earned a nomination for Outstanding Production (vis-à-vis Best Picture) along with a slew of other films in 1940. (The nomenclature has changed four times from its original Outstanding Picture through Best Picture, but the difference is highly contemporary, having to do with in vogue technique.) 1940 was a strong year: Hitchcock’s first American film (in what would be an almost-onslaught of important films) Rebecca took home the top honor out of a possible ten choices, which simultaneously makes the award more prestigious and less important. Other notable films that year: Hitchcock’s other film Foreign Correspondence, The Philadelphia Story, The Grapes of Wrath and two Bette Davis films: The Letter and All This, And Heaven Too. Notice that talent was considerably dense: two Hitchcock and two Bette Davis features, which means that either no one wanted to hire anyone else or the talent was just that good. What the other nine films have in common is that they all, collectively, ignored laughter and Hitler, two things that we don’t normally associate with one another, but Chaplin found a way to make it work.
*Coincidentally, Richard Wagner was Hitler’s favorite composer for a myriad of reasons.