All Sound and Fury: The Language of Comedy In Chaplin’s The Great Dictator

It is equal parts hilarity and horror, a curious admixture that suits its specific purpose: to beat inhumanity with comedy
All Sound and Fury: The Language of Comedy In Chaplin’s The Great Dictator

Saadat Hasan Manto’s short story Toba Tek Singh and Chaplin’s The Great Dictator may apparently seem to be poles apart as far as their creative energy is concerned; nevertheless, the two texts, the former problematizing the horror of India’s Partition and the latter discoursing on the politics of fascism use humor to captivate the audience and bring home the central truth: language signifies power. Manto’s story is set in a lunatic asylum where the madmen are due to suffer the contingency of territorial separation based on their religion.

To illustrate the madness of the scheme in general and the abaxial nature of Partition in particular, Manto has his eponymous protagonist vituperate as “"Oper di, good good di, annexe the, bedhyana di, mung di dal of the laltain...” (Manto, “Toba Tek Singh) ( This gibberish symbolizes the nonsense of partition, the breakdown of human communication in times of madness, and language's incapacity to communicate in such conditions. Laden with Manto’s quintessential dark humor, “Toba Tek Singh” is a classic that is uneasily perched between sense and nonsense as it tries to question the politics of India’s Partition and the tool it wields to achieve the end is language and its disturbing disintegration in times of crisis.

The use to gibberish to depose the violent rhetoric of fascist leaders is what makes Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) a classic political satire which sweeps the audience along by a barrage of Chaplinian antics and an exhilarating final speech. Seeing the Great Dictator in our turbulent modern times, especially with a war at large, makes us want to reflect on the gaping hole that lies at the center of humanity. “Time” really seems “out of joint” (Hamlet, Act 1, Sc 5) and language wielded in this unbalanced time loses its credibility.

All Sound and Fury: The Language of Comedy In Chaplin’s The Great Dictator
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The Great Dictator was released in 1940 and is written, directed, produced, and starred by Charlie Chaplin. In fact, it is a groundbreaking movie in Chaplin’s career because it is with The Great Dictator that the tramp forays into the world of talkies. After the Jazz Singer (1927), the use of synchronized sounds in movies slowly became the norm. Chaplin was one of the few artists who stuck to his old ways mostly because the silent era movies depended on the language of the human body, the gestures and postures and were essentially universal in spirit for people would ascribe meanings to them as they deemed desirable. With the advent of synchronized sound, however, the confrontation between the new and old-world order, the silent and the talkies became too potent to ignore and even though the visual gags of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin worked, the artists realized the need for change was imminent.

One of Chaplin’s early silent features that incorporated synchronized sound was Modern Times (1936). The film is an Orwellian dystopia that suggests the endless mundanity of commercialization and the exploitation of the people stuck in its hamster wheels. We see sheep being herded together followed by workers pushing through the subway exit, suggesting they have already been domesticated like farm animals. Among the herd of quadrupeds, we spot a lone black sheep, obviously representing Chaplin himself and possibly suggesting his disinclination to follow the mindless herd of film creators who yielded to the power of the sound. Modern Times is indeed a transitional film for Chaplin through which he comes to terms with the power of language, and Chaplin seems sick of its omnipresence. The aesthetics of somatic movement to evoke comedy, the nuances of gestures and the beauty of postures and facial expressions that made the tramp a universal star weren’t sempiternal after all. Chaplin now realized that it was words that mattered and words had power and power is always problematic. And Chaplin shows as much. 

The booming Metatron-like voice of the overseer in Modern Times lacks sympathy and issues command. At the climax of the movie, the tramp is required to sing and what he sings is gibberish. Chaplin’s gestures in the song force us to consider the banality of speech, the mundanity of words and the unsatisfying pedestrian nature of language. He wants us to look beyond the language, to go above the lyrics of the song and focus on the universality of his body-language. His quintessential gestural idiosyncrasies make the song a true example of Chaplinian slapstick, but jesting aside, the power of language was too compelling for Chaplin to ignore and although gibberish, we make a connection between the sound and the action, the signifier and the signified. The Swiss linguist and the father of Structuralism, Ferdinand De Saussure defined language through words and believed that spoken words are symbols of mental experience. If that is the case then the gibberish nature of the tramp’s song suggests his scatterbrain.

All Sound and Fury: The Language of Comedy In Chaplin’s The Great Dictator
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Four years after Modern Times, Chaplin seemed to have made up his mind as far as the power of sound is concerned. The Great Dictator is as much Chaplin’s take on the tyranny of sound as a political satire. A caustic mockery of Nazi ideology, The Great Dictator is also a comment on the sound and fury of language, the power of speech. And frankly speaking, Chaplin seems distrustful of the booming omnipresence of human voice. In the film, he subverts Saussure’s idea that speech is directly connected to meaning and shows us that a speech act can also be a tale “[t]old by an idiot…Signifying nothing.” (Macbeth, William Shakespeare, Act 5, scene 5, lines 26–27). Adenoid Hynkel’s speeches are bereft of context and a spoof on language. Chaplin apprehended that he had to throw gibberish at the voice of the despots if he needed to beat them and their megalomania. And in The Great Dictator he does just that.

As a film, The Great Dictator is an outstanding comedy with unique comic sequences. It is equal parts hilarity and horror, a curious admixture that suits its specific purpose: to beat inhumanity with comedy. The visual gags used are adapted from earlier Chaplin films, the opening, for example, from Shoulder Arms (1918) while the pudding scene from The Gold Rush (1925). Even the hackneyed scenario of the gutsy tramp standing up to brute is renegotiated as a Jewish man confronting the stormtroopers. Nevertheless, the similarities aside, it is Chaplin’s use of dialogue in the film, the banter, and the speech acts as well as his double role that as the Jew (violated) and the demagogue Adenoid Hynkel (violator) that elevate The Great Dictator to the level of classics.

Chaplin seems to direct our attention to the idea that the demagogues are often ordinary folks. It is their access to language and the power to use it to drown out the voice of the subalterns that makes them terrifying. In one scene we see Adenoid Hynkel’s voice booming through the microphones installed in the ghetto. Though gibberish, the words seemed to suggest to the residents of the ghetto with unequivocal clarity Hynkel’s mindless antisemitism.

All Sound and Fury: The Language of Comedy In Chaplin’s The Great Dictator
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 It is interesting to note here that although Chaplin essays the two principal roles with equal elan, his representation of Hynkel as a puerile and dimwitted stooge whose gestures are inf(l)ected with Hitler’s elephantine splendor makes him seem especially ludicrous. He is a transmogrified version of the tramp and the demagogue with a mustache. One scene where Hynkel plays with the balloon shaped as a world is especially memorable. And yet, for all his childishness, Hynkel is never innocent. Unlike his Jewish counterpart, he spreads violence and hatred and his actions have consequences which he refuses to acknowledge.

Ultimately, it is the similarity and the difference between Hynkel and the Jew that underscores the ultimate appeal of The Great Dictator. While Hynkel speaks nonsense, the Jew’s words always make sense; while the Hynkel’s words are laden with hatred, the Jew practices universal brotherhood. As such, it is language, its sense and nonsense, that separates the violated and the violator. They are refractions of one another armed with different ideology, one practicing sanity, the other proliferating insanity.

And yet, Chaplin never lets the voice of hatred win. In the end, we see the Jew dressed up as Hynkel addressing the crowd with inimitable eloquence. The Jew’s acquisition of language and his consequent subversion of Hynkel’s rhetoric is fraught with comic sensibility of an artist accosting a macabre subject. The message he disseminates is one of liberty, equality, and fraternity. Ideals that are counter to the person he impersonates.

In the end, The Great Dictator is a quest to secure language for the subdued, the pliant, the denizens of the margin, the voiceless. As Hynkel’s doppelganger the Jew exorcises the demonic hatred from the system and realigns the power dynamics by speaking from the same position of authority as Hynkel did. Only his words made sense, they were not gibberish anymore. There is a tectonic shift, a generous celebration of humanity with unmistakable precision and no nonsense.

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