The Great Dictator saw Charlie Chaplin return to the screen following an absence of four years since 1936’s Modern Times. It also marked his first true talkie, a departure from the silent cinema which had for a time made him the most famous person on the planet. From a script written in 1938-39, The Great Dictator satirised the Fascist regimes of Italy and Germany and in particular the moustache stealing Adolph Hitler. Despite pre-production condemnation from Hollywood and a Hitler appeasing British Government, the film which was financed solely by Chaplin himself became a huge critical and commercial success, no doubt spurred on by its staggered release in 1940-41 by which time Europe and then the whole world was at war.
Chaplin who had by this time become increasingly political in his film making can be considered as somewhat of a visionary in his approach to the film. While writing the script much of the world was seduced by Hitler and saw him and his Nazi Party as the antidote to the spread of Communism. His strong, conservative Germany formed a vital buffer between the Soviet Union and the West and became an important trading partner once again. While many politicians were unable to see beyond Hitler’s immeasurable charisma, Chaplin focussed his film on those in the firing line of Hitler’s new Europe, specifically the Jews.
Something for which the film is noteworthy is its prediction of things to come. Not only does Chaplin attempt to show Hitler as the monster he was, albeit in a light-hearted and comedic way, but he makes mention of concentration camps and poison gas. Chaplin would later state his regret at the inclusion of such topics but at the time had no idea as to the extent of the concentration camp system while Zyklon B wasn’t used by the Nazi’s until 1942.
The late 1930s saw Chaplin at a fork in the road. His Tramp character, beloved by millions and the main source of his fame and wealth was effectively retired due to synchronised sound but this freed Chaplin up to consider new characters. An obvious choice was a satirised version of Hitler, a man to whom Chaplin passed a slight resemblance (in facial hair if nothing else). Alongside his Hitler or Adenoid Hynkel as the character would be called, Chaplin also played a Jewish barber and veteran of The First World War who has spent the years since in the hospital with amnesia. When he returns to his barber shop in the Jewish Ghetto he discovers that the world is much changed from the one he left behind. The two characters allowed Chaplin to both mock the establishment and show the plight of the downtrodden everyman thus continuing to display two of the Tramp’s most identifiable traits. It also marked the first time since 1915’s A Night in the Show that Chaplin played multiple characters in the same film.
The film not surprisingly is much more of a drama-comedy rather than comedy-drama and this continued a trend that Chaplin’s latter career took. As his scripts and themes became darker and less slapstick in nature, it was an obvious progression that they should become less funny or at the very least less frequently funny. Personally I didn’t laugh until the seventh minute of this film and laughed only sparingly throughout. It was my second viewing and as I watched I became increasingly aware of just how irregular my laughter was. I’d go so far as to say that this is the least funny Chaplin feature I’ve watched to date. I found much of the humour missed the mark while scenes such as a dazed barber dancing down a street following a knock to the head just didn’t work in the same way as the Tramp’s pratfall or sly look to camera. As a comedy the film just didn’t work for me.
What works wonderfully is Chaplin’s impersonation of Adolph Hitler. He gets the Hynkel character spot on, matching the ridiculousness of the mannerisms and bile of the speech note for note. His costume and overall demeanour while on stage is perfect and the faux German nonsense is amusing and irreverent but captures the essence of Hitler’s speaking ability. Away from the crowds we see a more vulnerable Hynkel which is an interesting decision. It is almost as though the Dictator himself is a puppet, swept along by the tide of his own personality. I was mesmerised by Chaplin’s presence as Hynkel and also enjoyed Jack Oakie’s interpretation of fellow Dictator Benito Mussolini, named Napaloni here. Both Chaplin and Oakie would be Oscar nominated for their performances. As the Jewish barber, Chaplin looks less comfortable. Though perhaps more similar to his Tramp character at first glance, it is in fact something completely different and he occasionally struggles for laughs in a world of dialogue. The character is at his best while silent and reacting to the world he finds himself in.
Chaplin’s wife and co-star Paulette Goddard plays Hannah, a plucky and spirited Jewish laundry girl. She is the real heart of the ghetto and is full of courage while the men stand idly by, watching their world disintegrate. Although only a small role, it’s a departure from the traditional Chaplin female and shows further development of his writing talents. Chaplin at the time was christened ‘Moses of the Twentieth Century’ due to his monetary and political support for German Jews but in his film it is Hannah who plays the Moses character, leading her people towards hope and freedom with her never say die attitude and strong will.
The film’s most famous scene is its closing monologue. This five minute speech delivered straight into the camera sends chills down my spine seventy years after Hitler’s death and I can only begin to imagine its importance at the time. Following a switch of characters, the Jewish barber appears on stage in front of thousands, dressed as Hynkel. Encouraged to give a speech he delivers perhaps the most powerful in cinema history. Beginning solemnly, looking slightly off camera with the words “I’m sorry but I don’t want to be an Emperor, that’s not my business… I should like to help everyone if possible, Jew, gentile, black man, white”. The speech continues to state that the people have been blinded by the promises and corruption of dictators who have enslaved their people, building to a powerful crescendo calling on the world to unite against them. It truly is one of the great speeches of the last century and all that more powerful as it comes at the end of a comedic film. Its themes resonate as much today at they did seventy years ago and the performance packs an incredible punch. Chaplin again mimics Hitler’s power of speech and persuasion but delivers something opposite to that of the Dictator. It’s an incredible scene and a magnificent ending to the film.
The Great Dictator is a film which helped bring Hitler’s ills to the attention of the world and galvanise popular opinion once the war began. It perfectly mocks his ideals and mannerisms and allowed Chaplin to get one over on the man to whom he had been compared to visually for a decade. The two men were not only the most famous in the world at the time but were born just two weeks apart. Both had a history of mental illness in the family, alcoholic fathers and grew up in poverty. The similarities are said to have haunted Chaplin who once said “He’s the madman, I’m the comic. But it could have been the other way round”. The Jewish barber’s beginnings, amnesia and eventual replacement of Hynkel are perhaps Chaplin’s ways of playing this out, visualising his fears and putting them to rest.
This film is not Chaplin’s funniest and is far from his best but it stands up as one of his most important. Not only is the film important to a Chaplin fan but it is important to all of us.