[1940] The Great Dictator

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. Continue reading