"Classic satire--but is it as good as you've heard?"
The advent of sound cost many silent stars their careers. Actors who exuded pure animal magnetism to audiences during the '20s often lost the magic when they had to open their mouths. Even Charlie Chaplin, perhaps the greatest of them all, nearly failed to make the transition. The Tramp, after all, was nothing less than Everyman--the effect would be ruined if he had to deliver dialogue.Chaplin's difficulties with this dilemma explain why Modern Times(1936) contained only a limited soundtrack. But when he finally embraced sound for good, he found an audience: The Great Dictator(1940) was a major hit, the only one of his films to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.
It was above all the right movie for the right time: Nazism was on the march, but no one in 1940 knew about the Final Solution. Not yet the symbol of evil incarnate, Hitler was regarded as a schoolyard bully, albeit a very ambitious one--and a good subject for comedy.
Chaplin, as "Adenoid Hynkel," pulls off one of the great satirical performances; his opening bit, wherein he delivers a frothing-at-the-mouth speech in pseudo-German, is still hilarious 60 years later. (Note to German speakers: Yes, you really do sound like that to us.) He's also well served by his supporting cast. As the boisterous, back-slapping "Napaloni," Jack Oakie nearly blows Chaplin off the screen; both men would receive Oscar nominations for their performances.
But The Great Dictator probably does not belong with the finest of Chaplin's films, with City Lights, The Circus, Modern Times. It is inescapably a period piece. Chaplin's final speech, in which he breaks character and addresses the audience directly, makes it clear that the film is at least partly war propaganda--certainly justifiable then, but nowadays it seems quaint. And it is perhaps true that Chaplin, the most popular star of the silent era, could not fully flourish once modern times rolled around.A classic? I suppose so. But I would have to argue that it occupies the second tier in the Chaplin canon.