The days after Trump’s election prompted a serious discussion about the role of comedy in our civic discourse. Can one laugh about a functionally insane con artist in the White House? Thankfully, consensus rapidly settled around the obvious position: far from making light of a grim situation, humor serves as a potent weapon to denude, irritate and perhaps even help unseat our manifestly unfit “leader.” Social media outlets like Twitter – Trump’s weapon of choice against his enemies – have proven equally adept at delivering potent zingers in the other direction. Ordinary people take their shots at him every day, alongside more notable figures from political opponents to celebrities. That comes on top of a host of traditional forms of satire… topped, perhaps, by Melissa McCarthy’s merciless SNL takedown of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer.
Trump’s thin-skinned seething over such perceived slights leaves no doubt as to their effectiveness: laugh at the bully and he never seems quite so frightening again. But the blueprint for such attacks lies not in the present, but 75 years in the past… with Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.
Chaplin invested a considerable amount of his own money, as well as a large part of his reputation, in the project. It succeeded critically and financially, but at great cost to its creator, and essentially marked his swan song as an onscreen presence. He acted in only four movies after that – never as the Tramp – and directed only five before his death 37 years later. One presumes that the effort was worth it.
Certainly, there’s no question as to the target. He plays dual roles in the film: fascist dictator Adenoid Hinkel ruling over the thinly disguised version of Nazi Germany, and a lowly unnamed Jewish barber (essentially the Tramp) living in the ghetto after fighting in the Great War. Chaplin used his first sound film to mock anything and everything about Hitler’s regime, from his apoplectic speeches to his overt yearning for ever larger conquests. It finds a high point in an entrancing (and quietly terrifying) dance around a balloon shaped like a globe, but the director’s instincts find potent ground at practically every turn.
He shifts back and forth between Hinkel and the barber, the latter acting as a release valve for the darker, more potent jabs at the former. Critics disagree whether the barber is “pure” Tramp, a debate rendered ridiculous once Chaplin shows up in his famous derby-and-cane ensemble. Regardless, the barber’s antics hearken back to his silent days: sight gags involving shaving, passing food back and forth, and scuffles with authority figures in which his delicate acrobatics save the day.
The lighter stuff gives us time to breathe during the more chilling humor of the Hinkel scenes, though Chaplin never forgets the stakes. The sight of him facing down a horde of policemen becomes all the more unsettling for the armbands on the goons’ sleeves, and he doesn’t pussy-foot around when it comes to the nature of Hinkel’s targets.
It makes the film a bit of a mess structurally, though plot and narrative really aren’t the point. With a target he clearly despises and decades of filmmaking experience at his disposal, Chaplin wants us to understand the horrors of fascism without lending too much credit to the scuttling toads responsible. It takes a great deal to retain that balance, and even the greatest comedian of the 20th Century struggles to maintain it. At times, Hinkel comes across as more buffoonish than horrible, and the icy brilliance of the globe scene often gives way to easier “look at the clown” jabs. They work in a generic context – akin to, say, a Warner Bros. cartoon on the same subject – but can’t maintain the bite that other scenes deliver with such grace.
Granted, that’s holding him to an impossibly high bar. No one else could come close to the artful juggling of emotions on display here and the fact that he succeeds so often speaks to his unparalleled genius. Indeed, avoiding all the pitfalls may have required him to see the future, since the worst was yet to come at the time of the film’s release. (He later said that if he had known about the Final Solution before shooting, he never could have proceeded.)
Beyond that, it took courage to do something like this at a time when the U.S. viewed Russia with more skepticism than Germany and criticizing Hitler was far from universally acceptable. The Great Dictator enjoyed critical and commercial success, but it came with a huge amount of controversy, fueling the later paternity suit and FBI smearing that drove him from the country. He certainly knew the risks when he undertook the project and he forged ahead anyway. It was that important to him.
Which leads us to The Great Dictator’s finale (Spoiler Alert, yada-yada) in which the barber, having taken Hinkel’s place, admonishes the world to fight for liberty, democracy and the common good. It stands in marked contrast to the rest of the film, and has been criticized by a number of notables for dropping the pretense of the story and simply delivering a manifesto. (One wonders whether Chaplin would have felt the need to include it had he a blog or Twitter account to express it separately.) Such criticism often stemmed from easier times when danger seemed less dire… or in the case of the film’s initial release, from the controversy of contemporary politics.
Certainly, the speech stems from an immense ego – three-and-a-half uncut minutes of Chaplin alone onscreen – and the lack of subtlety stands in contrast to the comedic grace that preceded it. But his words become far more powerful in moments of crisis, when the institutions we all took for granted suddenly feel as fragile as origami flowers and the prospect of real, lasting damage to the better angels of our nature demands a swift and unequivocal response.
Chaplin likely understood this too, and having already devoted his most beloved creation to the endeavor, saw no reason not to go for broke. It’s an astonishing capper to his career, and there was certainly no greater cause to break his rule of never hearing the Tramp’s voice. The speech bolsters the humor: directly and bluntly, but with power all its own. When the film came out, Paris had fallen, the Blitz raged over London, and America sat on its hands wondering whether even sending weapons to the Allies was a good idea. It was not a time for subtlety, and Chaplin had no intention of holding anything back.
77 years later, the lessons remain, and the strength of his statement still inspires his descendants – professional or otherwise – to follow his example. The situation is less dire, of course, but we stand but a few feet back from the abyss that Chaplin stared into without flinching. Humor takes courage when speaking truth to power, and given Trump’s fondness for throwing his weight around (to say nothing of his howling mob of followers), criticism of any sort comes with the promise of backlash. Kudos to anyone – prince and pauper alike – who sees that charging bull and resolves to toss a few banana peels in his path. You’re in very good company.