With The Great Dictator, one of the last great holdouts of the silent era finally relented and embraced sound, but to say Charlie Chaplin waved the white flag of surrender on this front would be unfair.
The Charlie Chaplin of 1940 had carte blanche like no one working today could imagine. How else to you explain his ability to get made a thinly veiled satire about one of history's greatest monsters? No, The Great Dictator is Chaplin's first sound film because he was confident his physical skills would transcend this technical change, because political comedy during that moment in time deserved clarity, and because his storytelling abilities were up to the task.
The Great Dictator is a sound film because Charlie Chaplin wanted it that way.
That's what makes the famous globe scene so noteworthy. It runs just three and a half minutes, but it so brilliantly encapsulates the two competing sides of Chaplin's comedy—physical and verbal—in a way that's biting and timeless.
The Chaplin character in this particular scene is Adenoid Hynkel. He has aspirations of and some means toward dictatorship domination, but he's also a man baby, and in the scene's first half, he's basically being told a bedtime story by his top adviser, Garbitsch. Hynkel dreams about a nation, Tomania, exclusively populated by blonde-haired, blue-eyed men and women. Garbitsch tells him to dream bigger—an Aryan Asia, Africa, and America.
“You will be worshipped like a God,” Garbitsch says.
Hynkel gasps, jumps back, and says he’s starting to feel afraid of himself. He climbs the curtain in this tall, almost cavernous room—like a frightened animal being stalked by prey. He asks Garbitsch to leave him alone, and the verbal portion of this scene basically ends.
What does a man baby do when he’s afraid? He plays with his toys, of course, and Hynkel’s toy is symbolic in several ways. He looks longingly at the globe in the middle of the room. He longs to control the full-scale version of it, but this one will have to do. He lifts it up and reveals it to be a balloon, which he plays with in a twisted but brilliant way.
Here, we enter the portion of this scene that could conceivably come from one of Chaplin’s silent films, and the musical choice to accompany the love taps and kicks he gives the world is perfect.
The parallels between Chaplin and Hitler were pointed out during our Opening Statement this week, but one is that the two men shared a great admiration for the music of Richard Wagner. The use of the prelude from Wagner’s Lohengrin opera during this bizarre dance works, then, as an additional nod to Hitler and an acknowledgement to the character’s almost romantic relationship to the toy and what it represents. The opera, in fact, is best known for producing the music we might know as “Here Comes the Bride.”
The scene ends with a surprise. The balloon pops—signifying the inevitable end result of the scenario in which Hynkel’s plans succeed. He reacts predictably—pouting in the most exaggeratedly childish way Chaplin could.
In a film that does represent a slight departure for its director and star, this scene feels most traditionally Chaplin-esque, but the opening minute with his adviser is arguably more timeless. [It’s hard not to look at Hynkel as a Trump-like figure and Garbitsch as his Steve Bannon.] The combination of these two qualities is what makes it worth examining, however, and seeing a towering figure in film history make a significant change to his style and tools he uses is unquestionably noteworthy and extremely interesting.