The Great Dictator (Chaplin, 1940)

Another film everyone thinks they know. You know, by the time you get through childhood, you’ve probably seen so many clips of Chaplin films that you feel like you’ve actually watched Chaplin films. I never had much interest in Chaplin until I screened The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema at the 2007 Toronto Film Festival. Early in the year I also screened Monsieur Verdoux and A King in New York for the first time.

A lot of critical ink has been used to talk about how politically brave the film is, given that the outcome of the war was in no ways assured in 1940. So I was ready for the political satire and the humanistic speech at the end. Here’s what I wasn’t ready for–how darn funny the film can be. The embedded pudding scene, above, isn’t dark humor, exactly. The participants have agreed that whoever gets the cake piece with a coin in it has to take the dangerous mission. The tone is one of desperation. And in spite of the circumstances there is a joy that breaks through that is essential to all comedy, because the desperation stems from the love of life.

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