Both Hynkel and the Jewish barber are played by Charles Chaplin, who presents the former as a ridiculous, nasty, vicious creature, without humanity or dignity and the second as a simple, kind, and surprisingly brave soul. While both the characters are engaging, Chaplin's simultaneously repugnant and ludicrous portrayal of Hynkel is an especially delightful success. He reveals Hitler's power and grandeur as nothing but empty vanity and absurd pretension and allows the viewer to laugh at a truly vile, contemptible, and unpleasant individual. The Jewish barber is always sympathetic and occasionally entertaining, but, it must be admitted, he is hardly an inspired character. In fact, he is, to a large degree, a reincarnation of Chaplin's earlier Tramp, but is never as well realized or as funny.
While there have been few persons in history as worthy of derision as Adolf Hitler and his followers, The Great Dictator is, unfortunately, not wholly successful in its mockery of them. The movie is often slow and many of the comedic routines are either prolonged too long, so that their humor begins to grow tedious, or are simply not particularly funny.
A few scenes are, nevertheless, inspired. The film's most famous sequence, for example, in which the megalomaniacal Hynkel tosses and kicks about a balloon globe while dreaming of ruling the world, is a delight to watch. It is not, however, nearly as funny as are the scenes Hynkel shares with Napaloni, the bombastic dictator of Bacteria and Chaplin's version of Mussolini. The viewer is almost certain to laugh when he is shown how Hynkel, despite all his efforts to impress his power and dignity upon Napaloni, only succeeds in comically demonstrating his petty foolishness. Sadly, such routines are exceptions to the movie's general lack of inspiration. Most of its scenes are, in fact, far more likely to leave the viewer cold than anything else.
I must admit that what is found to be funny at one time or place is often not found to be so at another time or place, and that, perhaps, audiences of 1940 enjoyed the humor of The Great Dictator more than I did. Nevertheless, as it is unlikely that many of the film's routines will appeal to audiences today, because the movie is not a comedic triumph, Chaplin has not created an enduring masterpiece. He has, however, included a sufficient number of enjoyable elements to make the movie worth watching.
Review by Keith Allen
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