The Great Dictator might not be the best of Charlie Chaplin’s films; it has some rough edges and quite a bit of that strange quality of unto-itself-ness that Chaplin’s films carry. But it is my favorite Chaplin feature, and its achievement seems stronger as each year goes by, especially in a age when political satire tends to be absent from the movies. Chaplin began writing the film in 1938, when most Hollywood studios were still hesitant to criticize the political developments in Germany, a huge overseas market. There continues to be something exhilarating about the sheer lustiness of Chaplin’s head-on broadsides against Hitler. It’s easy to mount “Springtime for Hitler” in 1967, as Mel Brooks did; trickier to plunge ahead even before World War II had begun.
But Chaplin owned his own studio, and he was Charlie Chaplin. He could do whatever he wanted. And if he wanted to end his film with a lengthy speech in which he might ventilate his own ideas about humanity, he could do that too. The speech is often knocked for a variety of reasons (one being the idea that a humble barber could not possibly summon up such eloquence, a condescending criticism that severely underestimates barbers), but I think it’s swell, and I think it would have been rather amazing to hear it in 1940. And I also like that the speech ends not on Chaplin, but on Paulette Goddard’s face.
That’s my best movie of 1940. The uniqueness of The Great Dictator outpoints unusually good years for John Ford and Preston Sturges (who not only directed his first two features, The Great McGinty and Christmas in July, but also wrote the splendid Stanwyck vehicle Remember the Night, directed by Mitchell Leisen). Here are the Ten Best:
1. The Great Dictator (Charles Chaplin)
2. His Girl Friday (Howard Hawks)
3. Foreign Correspondent (Alfred Hitchcock)
4. The Grapes of Wrath (John Ford)
5. The Shop Around the Corner (Ernst Lubitsch)
6. Christmas in July (Preston Sturges)
7. Contraband (Michael Powell)
8. The Long Voyage Home (John Ford)
9. The Letter (William Wyler)
10. Fantasia (Walt Disney et al.)
Fantasia nips in there ahead of that other colorful example of the producer’s art, Korda’s Thief of Bagdad, which I might evelate to the big Ten if I ever see it in a decent print. Also, “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence from Fantasia captures, in the way that unaware popular art sometimes does, the mood of the moment, the genuinely frightening sense of the world spiraling out of control.
His Girl Friday is the most modern film on the list, despite the new energy Sturges was bringing to movie comedy. The Letter gives the neurotic Bette Davis-William Wyler collaboration its most charged-up airing, and the two Ford films are beautiful examples of someone working within the studio system and creating truly personal movies.
Where’s Rebecca? Bested by Foreign Correspondent, which has more pure, jumped-up Hitchcock, unadulterated by Selznick’s literary instincts. But Rebecca does have Mrs. Danvers.
Next week: 2002, if I can figure out how to fix movies to a specific year-of-release. Film festival debuts are a scourge to the list-maker.