The Great Dictator."—At the Prince of Wales, the Gaumont, and Marble Arch Pavilion.
IT is a far cry to the days when Chaplin two-reel comedies flowed in a fantastic spate from the studios. For more than ten years now each film has come to be more and more of an Event. Years in the making, running to as long as two hours in the cinemas, and appearing at rarer and rarer intervals, they have directed on to them a barrage of critical attention which The Gold Rush, The Kid or Shoulder Arms never had to undergo. With expectations so keenly raised, it is not surprising that the reaction to Modern Times or City Lights was neither unanimous nor wholly favourable. Charlie has been accused, often enough, of taking himself too seriously ; and that accusation is certainly going to be made again as regards The Great Dictator. For in this film he takes on more than a mimed representation of common humanity ; he states, and accepts, the responsibility of being one of humanity's best and most widely- loved representatives.
By a quaint historical chance Chaplin chose as part of his make-up a moustache which was later to become Hitler's facial signature. The course of world events made it inevitable that The Great Dictator should be made ; for what greater compulsion could there be than this mad resemblance of the murderer to the clown? And if he had to make the film, Chaplin equally had to take it (save the word) seriously ; for the evils of dictator- ship could not, and cannot and will not, be conquered by a laugh, a flick of the stick, or a tilt of the battered bowler. There is now no convenient sunrise towards which Charlie can walk. It is clear that this thought permeated Chaplin's mind while he was making The Great Dictator. The film, which is neither more nor less episodic and shapeless than Modern Times, is at times unwontedly serious in its direction, weighted down, as it were, by its suspended advance towards Chaplin's final apologia. At such moments his failure fully to master the sound medium becomes painfully noticeable. The scenes are long ; the com- position stilted ; the dialogue banal. Their object—for the most part—is to emphasise the misery of the Jews under the Nazi regime; but they are too dully sentimental to do more than bore.
It is only with Chaplin himself that we can feel and under- stand the cruelties and stupidities. As the little Ghetto barber, plunged after many years of amnesia into a vile world of storm- troopers and spies, his audacious application of pails of whitewash to the thugs says all, for the time being, that we need. The barber, indeed, is the old Charlie—though a little alarming at first because he talks, and we are not used to that. Concussed by a frying-pan, he dances his famous and fantastic dream-dance in that narrow street we have seen so often before ; he shaves a customer in strict time to a Brahms Hungarian rhapsody ; he has monstrous adventures with malevolent shells and with the painful mechanism of Big Bertha ; and still no one but him can produce a shaving brush from a till with a deftness of movement and timing which is a split second of comic grace.
But there is another Chaplin in this film, an actor playing the part of Hitler (it is hardly worth while to maintain the fictional name of Hynkal). This new Chaplin—through whose merciless show-up of Adolf the spirit of Charlie often and uncontrollably bursts—is a revelation. He must have studied Hitler for years. Not an intonation of his speechifying voice nor a real or reported personal foible has been missed. So strong is the impersonation that one really believes that Hitler in privacy behaves as Chaplin would have us believe—even to the glorious fantasy'of the balloon dance with the globe, the pen which will not emerge from the inkstand, and the unexpected stumble (Charlie breaking through) as the Fiihrer crosses the marble vestibule.
Gorgeously convincing, too, is the lunatic meeting of Hitler and Mussolini, with the train which will not stop in front of the red carpet, the conflict of personalities in the conference hall, and the undignified rough-and-tumble at a ball-room buffet over the signing of an Axis pact. Here, by the way, Jack Oakie, as Mussolini, gives a superb performance, deliberately coarse as against the subtle malice of Chaplin's Hitler. There is one supreme moment, where every preparation has been made for the reception of the Italian dictator in Hitler's vast conference room. Mussolini is due to walk uneasily down this vast hall and to sit on a low-sprung chair, so that his presumed inferiority complex can be finally established. The stage is set. Hitler strikes an attitude at his palatial desk. The trumpets sound_ Whereupon Mussolini enters by a rear door, slaps Hitler alarm-
ingly on the back (so that he collapses under the desk), strikes a match on the Sacred Bust, and pokes Goebbels-Ftibbentrop in the stomach. There is here that splendid commingling of slap- stick with psychological understanding which makes all the Dictator sequences the most memorable in the film.
There remains for consideration the finale. This will no doubt be a matter of considerable controversy, for in it Chaplin directly takes up the position of spokesman for htimanity. Note first the circumstances of the story. The Jewish barber escapes from a concentration camp in officer's uniform ; is mistaken for the Fiihrer ; and finds himself facing a great multitude which he must immediately address. Here then is Charlie (as the barber) impersonating Chaplin (as Hitler). There is nothing else to do —either in terms of the script or in terms of reality—except for Charlie to face his audience, and appeal with passion and sincerity for the establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. Those who are embarrassed and possibly enraged by being asked to consider the New Testament in relation to the realities of life will be embarrassed and possibly enraged by being asked to do so by Chaplin. They will at any rate have the excuse that the speech is not well written and that Chaplin clearly has difficulty in expressing himself. But nevertheless he speaks with such sincerity that the speech is true and moving ; and perhaps his difficulties of expression are of special effectiveness, for they are difficulties which also pertain to the "little men and women" all dyer the world of whom Chaplin is the most visible living champion.
The Great Dictator may be an uneven film both in mood and construction, and it is certainly too long. But it has an undeniable greatness, both in its pure comedy and in its bold contrast between the small people of the Ghetto or the slums and the big people of the Fascist chancelleries, equating both in terms of fantasy and in terms of the adored Chaplin himself. Is it his last film? The final speech suggests that it is perhaps his swan song