Thursday, April 16, 2015

Birthday Take: Charles Chaplin in "The Great Dictator" (1940)

Charles Chaplin
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Charles Chaplin
Born: April 16, 1889
Died: December 25, 1977 (88 years old)
Nomination: Best Actor - The Great Dictator (nominated) as Hynkel and A Jewish Barber

The Take

For a man as iconic as Charles Chaplin, it is odd to note how spotty his reputation was at the Oscars. He received five nominations and his only win was for an honorary one. Considering that he wasn't only an adept actor but an enviable director, musician, choreographer, writer and various other things. His work spans what a true icon should achieve and he has thankfully remained a central figure in pop culture. However, there is one man that you might jokingly mistake him for: Adolf Hitler.

What makes The Great Dictator fascinating is that this was before the atrocities began to happen in Germany. Yes, Hitler was in power. However, Chaplin's choice to satirize him proved to be a bold statement considering that it was a public figure who happened to have the same mustache as him. In the film, he plays an odd "Prince and the Pauper" scenario through a political lens in which he shows a Hitler-esque bumbling fool who rises to power and a barber who looks like him. Thankfully, there's enough slapstick to counterbalance the dark undertones and the overall goal of the film. 

In the film's most iconic moment, A Jewish Barber gets mistaken for Hynkel and is forced to give a speech in front of the crowd. What does he say? Does he chastise the community for following a fool who caused travesties? No. In one of the best moments of breaking character, Chaplin speaks from the heart directly to the camera a speech about loving one another and trying to make the world a better place. In a film full of silliness and a lot of Chaplin trademarks blended into seriousness, this moment plays out as a thesis worthy of addressing the public.

It was also a performance that had the chance to make a social difference. Yes, Chaplin was eventually deported to England for his views, but the film became a striking note that sadly predicted things to come during the Holocaust. It is commonly reported that Hitler saw the film twice, but never publicly allowed it released. Many speculate what he actually thought of it, even if the film was only broadly referencing his stature. However, it became a masterpiece in which Chaplin showed that film can make you laugh while provoking. It may be one of his only major talkies to receive this recognition, but it shows why he was an artist.

It is tragic to note that Chaplin didn't win much of anything for this film, even though it was up for Best Picture as well. It was edgy and powerful. It was him operating at the most conscious state that he could have. Suddenly the man behind The Gold Rush made a film that was worthy of studying and captured the political climate of the time without being pretentious. His performance was especially powerful and was able to make for compelling physical moments. This is Chaplin at his best because he proved that cinema could have purpose beyond entertainment. It was a move that unfortunately the Academy wouldn't recognize.

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