There is always a kind of praise or a kind of criticism that can't be quarreled with or argued about. "It's funny" or "It isn't funny." Who knows except you? Even the laughter may fool you. "It's beautiful" or "It isn't beautiful." We are a democracy; we are allowed a difference of opinion, and every single, blessed one of us is right. Thank heaven for that!
Chaplin is taking a rather more accepting attitude towards criticism than I imagine he actually possessed, but the first part, about something being funny or not funny and that reaction being unique to each individual, is something that has been latched onto by the defenders of any given comedy ever since (and likely long before). The idea is, if an audience laughs, they think it's funny, and therefore it is funny, and so comedy is a more subjectively judged artform than pretty much any other artform you might name. Well, that's horseshit. By the logic just outlined, if I cry at a movie, that film is emotionally powerful, or if I get scared by a horror movie, it's a good horror movie, or if I etc. at a movie, that movie succeeds at being etc. In short, if anyone feels the emotion the filmmaker wants you to feel, then the film is good. And so it is, to me (or you). But criticism is supposed to grapple with, among other things, why a thing works or doesn't, and the widespread attempt to remove comedy from this process with a kind of "Ah, what can you do?" shrug is nonsensical at its core, and even patronizing towards comedy, in that this attitude assumes that there is no such thing as a good joke or a bad joke, but only jokes that make you laugh, or don't.
The Great Dictator often seems regarded as a comedy only in a technical sense, because the film's remarkable historical stature has nearly overwhelmed everything else about it. But it really is a comedy, through and through (the excellent DVD commentary on the Criterion disc, by Dan Kamin and Hooman Mehran, thankfully provides a complete picture of the film, which includes Chaplin's general approach to comedy and how he applies and executes it in The Great Dictator). Few scenes go by without some sort of gag -- at one point, a transitional shot of Adenoid Hynkel, Chaplin's Adolf Hitler substitute, simply walking through a room includes a fluidly comic pratfall -- and the film is classically structured around a series of comedic set-pieces: the slapstick WWI opening, Hynkel's absurd German-gibberish speech, the Jewish barber's (also Chaplin) initial abuse by the German police which includes his famous dazed dance down the street after being accidentally clonked on the head by a frying pan-wielding Paulette Goddard, and so on. And then there's the variety: slapstick, puns, one liners, surrealism, scatology. The result is that The Great Dictator is a sprawling comedy epic of the kind you almost never see anymore, and when you do you often wish you hadn't.
But it can never be forgotten that The Great Dictator is also a film with -- shudder -- a "point", though in this case that is vitally important to Chaplin's success. For one thing, rarely has a point been more worth making, in any venue. Made in 1940 after the nightmare of Hitler's Germany was in full swing, but before America had entered the war, The Great Dictator manages to somehow be both zany and unblinking (at least within reason, if that qualifier doesn't sound like too much of a contradiction) of Hitler's, or Hynkel's, savage crimes. Many of Chaplin's jokes are downright audacious in their blackness. Take the moment when Chaplin's barber is about to be hanged from a lamppost, following a series of physical comedy hijinks that echo the much more light-hearted antics between the Little Tramp and the police in City Lights. It's all a lot of fun, but then they are going to lynch him. Not only that, but when a kindly German officer named Schulz (Reginald Gardiner) stops the lynching, the barber, who has been strung up off the ground by this point, drops out of frame, and this is played for laughs. And not only that, but it's funny.
The jokes that flow from the palace scenes, that is the scenes that directly involve Chaplin's version of Hitler, can be downright shocking (and, as I mentioned, surreal; Hynkel's manic scamper up the curtain is positively Lynchian). Some of the shock comes from historical context, not just of the war and the Holocaust, but in regards to what was considered generally permissible in Hollywood at the time. The pay-off to the bullet-proof uniform gag, for instance, or the parachute hat, which is played with terrific quiet by Chaplin and Billy Gilbert, whose robust performance as Herring, Chaplin and Hynkel's Goering, is one of the film's secret weapons (as is Henry Daniell as Garbitsch, whose horrific nature is highlighted by the fact that he doesn't get any jokes). Gilbert actually has the film's single best line, when he can barely contain his excited joy as he tells Hynkel about this "wonderful new poison gas" that's just been discovered. "It will kill everybody!" he enthuses. It's a joke that cuts out the middle man in a way that Dr. Strangelove, The Great Dictator's wiseass younger brother, never quite allows itself to try.
Meanwhile, of course, there's the film's most famous scene, which shows Hynkel dancing with a balloon made to look like a globe of the planet it is Hynkel's dream to conquer. It's a virtuoso scene, funny and strange and elegant. There's an uneasy beauty to it that would later be reproduced, in a much different way, decades later in the "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" number from Cabaret. In the DVD commentary, Dan Kamin claims -- rightly, in my view -- that Chaplin never tops this moment...well, this moment, and the one that immediately follows, a barber scene between Chaplin and Chester Conklin, though to me even that one pales in comparison.
If anything in The Great Dictator proves that not all jokes are created equal, and that the involuntary response of laughter, or absence of same, from the audience is not necessary any indication of the level of craft and artful imagination at work, it's the globe scene. And that's not even the one I laugh at the hardest. It's simply the one I'm most in awe of. It's the one that boils the film down into one glorious flourish of creativity, disgusting in its beauty and appalling in its entirely correct implications. This is the art of comedy.