I recently watched the two famous comedies from the early 1940s that tackled the Nazis at the height of their power. I first watched 1942s To Be or Not to Be (first viewing for me) and followed that up with 1940s The Great Dictator (my second viewing many years after the first). I intended to just watch the former but when the idea for this article popped in my head I decided to watch the latter too.
Both of these movies are considered to be comedies and both have plot elements involving people impersonating Nazis. They are also both in black and white. That’s where the similarities between these movies end.
I don’t intend to go into major spoilers with these movies in case you want to watch them (both are embedded below).
Let me start by saying this; The Great Dictator isn’t funny. At all. It’s great as a political piece of propaganda and as a satire it works but I didn’t laugh a single time. The broad comedy clashes with the subject matter of the Jewish Ghetto and our knowledge of the atrocities of the Axis powers during the Second World War.
It isn’t a terrible movie, quite the opposite actually but 80 years after its release I appreciate it more as a product of its time, a cinematic time capsule into a time and place than as something I’m going to watch because I enjoy it (which I don’t).
The biggest problem I have with The Great Dictator is the tone is all over the place and there isn’t any consistency or internal logic for a variety of things. For example, early in the movie, Chaplin has his Hitler avatar, Hynkel give a speech that goes on for what seems like ten unfunny minutes in a mixture of random German words, English, and gibberish. As soon as this speech is over this character basically just speaks in Chaplin’s normal voice for pretty much the rest of the movie.
The humor in this movie is stuff like that speech and Chaplin’s typical slapstick schtick from his Little Tramp days (hell, his other role in this movie besides Hynkel is basically that character). These comedy bits alternate almost on a scene by scene basis with Hynkel’s stormtroopers tormenting Jews in the Ghetto and other serious subjects.
The movie ends with Chaplin breaking the fourth wall and basically spouting his political views into the camera for several minutes. It’s the strangest choice in a movie filled with them.
The production values in this movie are top-notch. Its a really expensive looking movie with a lot of big, detailed sets and that’s probably the thing about it I enjoyed the most. It looks great (except the Hollywood Hills are a stand-in for the French countryside – these two places couldn’t look less alike).
The other movie, To Be or Not to Be while not rolling on the floor hilarious, has a consistent tone all the way through and although it has dramatic moments throughout it works with the subtle, nuanced, comedic elements.
This movie features Carole Lombard and Jack Benny as Polish actors in a theatre company that gets involved in the Polish Underground Movement and work as spies against the invading Nazi forces going as far as to impersonate specific German agents.
Carole Lombard is the true standout star of the movie, which was her last. This is the first movie I have watched her in and I was greatly impressed by the gravitas she commanded on screen. She’s dynamite in this as Maria Tur, the most desirable actress in Warsaw.
Jack Benny is also great and his dryness works wonderfully as Maria’s jealous husband Joseph, whose dream is to play Hamlet in Shakespeare’s homeland. His main frustration occurs when a Polish pilot played by Robert Stack leaves the theatre on more than one occasion to try to make time to his wife (he’s more upset that he’s doing this during his Hamlet performance than that he’s doing it at all).
The is also a Jewish character in this movie, Greenberg, also an actor whose main storyline pertains to his desire to play Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. It’s a minor storyline that works well within the structure of the movie and has a payoff that is integral to the climax of the film.
The production values of this movie are much less elaborate than those in The Great Dictator. It looks and feels more like a play that works given the movie is about actors in a theatre.
Overall I would recommend both of these movies, but The Great Dictator is more of a curiosity than anything more substantial for the viewer.