The world of 1940 was a world of critical political tension. To many the world seemed to stand on the edge of a knife, ready at any moment to fall into chaos. To others it was the birth of a new world order—a new way for mankind to become gods. War had just broken out between the United Kingdom and Nazi-run Germany and it was feared that if and when the United States entered the war, it would cause yet another worldwide conflict. The charismatic chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler, had not yet been revealed as a maniac and was gaining support by certain revolutionaries in the west. Jews were relatively despised everywhere and Hitler’s obvious persecution of them was widely ignored. It was a dangerous time to be making controversial films, and for the most part Hollywood avoided saying anything about Hitler or the war or human dignity. However, one man in the entertainment business took a stand against the great dictator. Who else but the comic genius Charles Chaplin?
The silent age over, Chaplin knew he could not keep playing his beloved fortune-making character The Little Tramp for much longer. His last outing as The Little Tramp came in 1936 (well into the sound era) with Modern Times, a controversial satire of rabid capitalism. Now in 1940, with the world on the cracks of doom, Chaplin again turned to politics to express his genius, but this time he would do it in sound! The Great Dictator was Chaplin’s first foray into talking pictures. It also became his most successful and, at least until the war ended, his most well known. Chaplin, in a trendsetter for Hollywood satire, plays a duel role. Famously he plays Adenoid Hynkel, the dictator of Tomania, and a poor Jewish barber whose misadventures in the ghettos eventually lead him to be mistaken for the “Phooey” (not to be confused with “Führer”). Paulette Goddard, Chaplin’s wife and co-star from Modern Times, plays Hannah, a girl in the ghetto who befriends the barber and helps him evade angry storm troopers.
Recently recovered from a twelve-year coma brought on by combat in World War I, a Jewish barber returns to his home to find the world he knew gone and replaced with a fascist government with an extreme hostility toward the Jewish people. It’s funny that nobody in the ghetto notices how much he looks like the dictator. Over the radio, the barber hears Hynkel’s speech from his palace. It is Chaplin again as the dictator, who speaks in an odd mish-mash of English and gibberish German (much like mimicked French and Italian in the few sound moments in Modern Times). It’s surprising how much Chaplin sounds like Hitler in this scene. He shouts with guttural fury, he points and stabs with his hands and fists, he growls phrases out with passion and anger. And all the time the people cheer. Perhaps Chaplin was trying to point out that as convincing and inspiring Hitler’s rhythmic monologues could be, they really were quite absurd. It’s a running gag in the movie that the dictator only speaks in that linguistic melting pot of Tomanian when rallying the troops or expressing anger. When alone with his captains and generals, he speaks perfectly normal English.
In the ghetto, the barber is beat up and hated on by the storm troopers with whom he gets into more than one slap-fight. The police go around painting “JEW” on store windows and throwing tomatoes at young women. For all of the serious subjects this film covers, it really is quite hilarious. That was Chaplin’s genius: to make comical the atrocious and humorous the despicable. In some way, comedy was Chaplin’s way of combating the fascist government, which he so hated. When guns and threats didn’t work to stop the spread of evil, minimalizing their wickedness was the way to fight them. To some I’m sure the film’s making light of such serious issues was perfectly deplorable, yet I find that in some way the movie brought an extra amount of concern for the war to the public which had not been present before.
Perhaps the single greatest scene in the entire film is the scene in which the dictator, drunk with the thought of ruling the world, plays like a child with the large global balloon that so dominates his office. It flies up in the air and comes down to rest again on the dictator’s finger. For a moment he has the illusion that the world is in his hands, and then the balloon pops – perhaps a sour omen for what would come to pass both in the film and in the war. For a while, Hitler held the world in an iron grip, but soon after D-Day his world would crumble into oblivion. At the time, Chaplin didn’t know this, and The Great Dictator serves as some sort of prophetic work. In the film, Hynkel is quite obviously a madman, yet to his supporters he seems perfectly normal. None of them find it exceptionally odd when Hynkel gets into a rather serious food fight with Benzino Napoli, dictator of Bacteria (played wonderfully by Jack Oakie). Just more proof that evil cannot perceive evil. Whereas good can stand up and call itself good, evil must always be in self-denial and self-hatred.
Through a complex turn of events, the Jewish barber finds himself mistaken for the dictator and forced to give a speech. Here Chaplin takes a chance: he breaks the fourth wall and speaks to the audience – not as Hynkel, and not as the barber, but as himself. His speech about liberty and democracy is truly a rousing mustering of the troops. He seems to invite us to join him in the crusade against evil in the world not with guns and missiles and atom bombs, but with our own laughter. Perhaps if we can somehow minimalize the effect of evil, we may be able to escape evil. It reminds me of a line in Sullivan’s Travels: “There’s a lot to be said for making people laugh.” Chaplin, though he had a serious purpose, achieved that. The Great Dictator is one of his most enjoyable films, not necessarily because of its hilarity, but because of the cause Chaplin is championing.
To think that today this film would be deplorable is somewhat jarring after watching the film. Knowing what we know about the Holocaust and other atrocities of Adolf Hitler, I don’t think it would be at all charitable to make such a film. But the film was released in 1940, before anything of the Holocaust was known. I always say you should put yourself in the mindset of the times when watching a film, and then Chaplin’s genius becomes clear. The Great Dictator was as affective as any bomb, shell, or bullet ever was.
United Artists presents
Cast: Charles Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie, Reginald Gardiner, Henry Daniell, Billy Gilbert, Grace Hayle, Maurice Moscovitch, Emma Dunn.
Directed by Charles Chaplin.