The Great Dictator is a film directed by and starring Charlie Chaplin. First released in October 1940, it bitterly satirizes Nazism and Adolf Hitler, culminating in an overt political plea to defy fascism.

The film is unusual for its period, in the days prior to American entry into World War II, as the United States was still formally at peace with Nazi Germany. Well before the full extent of the horrors of Nazism had been uncovered, Chaplin's film advanced a stirring, controversial condemnation of Hitler, fascism, antisemitism, and the Nazis, the latter of whom he excoriates in the film as "machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts".[1]

The film was Chaplin's first "talkie", as well his most commercially successful film.

Plot[edit | edit source]

The film begins during World War I. Chaplin, as an unnamed Jewish private in the army of the fictional nation of Tomainia, valiantly attempts to rescue an officer named Schultz (Reginald Gardiner), only to lose his memory when the plane the two had taken off in crashes into a tree. Schultz escapes from the wreckage, and Chaplin spends the next 20 years in the hospital, thoroughly oblivious to the changes that are taking place in Tomainia: Adenoid Hynkel (Chaplin in a double role), now the ruthless dictator of Tomainia, has undertaken to persecute Jews throughout the land, aided by ministers Garbitsch (cf. Joseph Goebbels) (played by Henry Daniell) and Herring (cf. Hermann Göring) (played by Billy Gilbert).

The amnesiac soldier returns to his barbershop in the Jewish ghetto, still unaware of the political situation, and is shocked when storm troopers paint "Jew" on the windows of his shop. In the ensuing scuffle with the stormtroopers, he finds a friend, and ultimately a love interest, in Hannah (Paulette Goddard), a beautiful resident of the ghetto.

Meanwhile, Schultz, who has come up in the ranks in the intervening 20 years, recognizes the barber (who is reminded of WWI by Schultz and therefore gets his memory back) and, though surprised to find him a Jew, orders the storm troopers to leave him and Hannah alone. Hynkel (cf. Adolf Hitler), in addition, has relaxed his stance on Tomainian Jewry in an attempt to woo a Jewish financier into giving him a loan. Egged on by Garbitsch, Hynkel has become obsessed with the idea of world domination. (In one famous scene, he dances with a large, inflatable globe to the tune of a theme from Wagner's Lohengrin.) On Garbitsch's advice, Hynkel has planned to invade the neighboring country of Osterlich (cf Österreich, the German name for Austria) and needs the loan to finance the invasion. Eventually, the financier refuses, and Hynkel reinstates his persecution of the Jews, this time to an even greater extent.

Schultz voices his objection to the pogrom, and Hynkel orders him placed in a concentration camp. Schultz flees to the ghetto and begins planning to overthrow the Hynkel regime. To decide who will carry out this plot, a coin is placed in one of five puddings, and the person who receives the one with the coin in it is to carry out the mission to blow up the palace, considered a suicide mission. However, Hannah has placed a coin in every dessert, leading to one of Chaplin's most comical scenes. Eventually, both Schultz and his barber friend are captured and condemned to the concentration camp.

Hynkel is initially opposed by Benzino Napaloni (cf. Benito Mussolini and indirectly Napoleon Bonaparte) (played by Jack Oakie), dictator of Bacteria, in his plans to invade Osterlich. After some friction (and a comedic food fight) between the two leaders, a deal is made (which Hynkel immediately breaks) and the invasion proceeds successfully. Hannah, who has since emigrated to Osterlich, once again finds herself living under Hynkel's regime.

Schultz and the barber escape from the camp wearing Tomainian uniforms (featuring the double cross in parody of the Nazi swastika). Border guards mistake the barber for Hynkel (with whom he shares a remarkable resemblance, to the point that, if not for his clothes, he would be an absolute duplicate). Conversely, Hynkel, on a duck-hunting trip so that people will not expect an invasion, is mistaken for the barber and is arrested by his own soldiers. The barber, who has assumed Hynkel's identity, is taken to the Tomainian capital to make a victory speech. Garbitsch, in introducing "Hynkel" to the throngs, decries free speech and other supposedly traitorous and outdated ideas. In contrast, the barber then makes a rousing speech, reverting Hynkel's anti-Semitic policies and welcoming in a new era of democracy. The text of the speech can be read at Wikiquote.

Hannah, despondent over the recent events, hears the barber's speech on the radio, and is amazed when "Hynkel" addresses her directly: "Hannah, can you hear me? Wherever you are, look up! Look up, Hannah! The clouds are lifting, the sun is breaking through! We are coming out of the darkness and into the light! We are coming into a new world; a kindlier world, where men will rise above their greed, their hate, and their brutality. Look up, Hannah!" The film concludes with Hannah indeed looking up, with a renewed sense of optimism.

Cast and analysis[edit | edit source]

The film stars Chaplin as Hynkel and the barber, Paulette Goddard as Hannah, Jack Oakie as Napaloni, Reginald Gardiner as Schultz, Henry Daniell as Garbitsch and Billy Gilbert as Field Marshal Herring, an incompetent adviser to Hynkel. Chaplin stars in a double role as the Jewish barber (the Tramp in all but name) and the fascist dictator, clearly modeled on Adolf Hitler.

The names of the aides of Adenoid Hynkel are similar to those of Hitler. Garbitsch (pronounced "garbage"), the right hand man of Hynkel is very similar to that of Joseph Goebbels and Field Marshal Herring was clearly modeled after the Luftwaffe chief, Hermann Goering while beyond doubt the "Diggaditchie" of Bacteria, Benzino Napaloni, was modeled after Il Duce, Benito Mussolini.

Much of the film is taken up by Hynkel and Napaloni arguing over the fate of Osterlich (Austria). Originally, Mussolini was opposed to the German takeover since he saw Austria as a buffer-state between Germany and Italy. The international community (in particular, France and Britain, Mussolini's Stresa front partners) did not share Italy's concern over German annexation of Austria and even supported League of Nations sanctions against Italy. Left alone, Mussolini soon (1936) submitted to Hitler's will, withdrew Italian troops from the Brenner Pass along the Austrian border, and moved closer to Germany, as Hitler did not apply sanctions against Italy. This conflict is almost forgotten today given Italy's alliance with Germany and Austria during World War II.

The film contains several of Chaplin's most famous sequences. The rally speech by Hynkel, delivered in German-sounding gibberish, is a superb caricature of Hitler's oratory style, which Chaplin studied carefully in newsreels.[1] The German words schnitzel, sauerkraut and liverwurst can be made out, along with English phrases such as "cheese'n'crackers" and frequently "lager beer", in the fake German Hynkel speaks during the rally and at other points in the film when he is angry (though he normally speaks English). Billy Gilbert as Herring is also required to improvise this fake German at times, and at one point (where he is apologizing for having accidentally knocked Hynkel down the stairs) he comes up with the word "banana". Chaplin is clearly taken by surprise and repeats, "Der banana?" before incorporating the word into his own reply.

Chaplin, as the barber, shaves a customer in tune with a radio broadcast of Johannes Brahms's Hungarian Dance No. 5, recorded in one continuous take. But the film's most celebrated sequence is the haunting ballet dance between the power-mad dictator and a balloon globe in his palatial office, set to Richard Wagner's Lohengrin Overture, which is also used at the end of the film when the Jewish barber is making the victory speech in Hynkel's place. The globe dance had its origins in the late 1920s, when Chaplin was filmed at a Hollywood party doing an early version of the dance, with a globe and a Prussian military helmet (this footage appears in the documentary Unknown Chaplin).

The film ends with the barber, having been mistaken for the dictator, delivering an address in front of a great audience and over the radio to the nation, following the Tomainian take-over of Osterlich (an obvious reference to the German Anschluss of Austria on March 12, 1938). The address is widely interpreted as an out-of-character personal plea from Chaplin. Chaplin's controversial speech, seen as an overtly political speech, may have contributed to the litany of reasons he was ultimately denied reentry in the United States during the McCarthy era (see the article on Charlie Chaplin for further detail). The speech was also denounced by the American Communist movement as Stalin had signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler before the release of the film.

Some of the signs in the shop windows of the ghettoized Jewish population in the film are written in Esperanto, a language which Hitler had condemned as a Jewish plot.[2]

Making of the film[edit | edit source]

The film was written and directed by Chaplin, and was shot largely at the Chaplin Studios and other locations around Los Angeles (such as Laurel Canyon). The germ of the idea undoubtedly came from the physical resemblance between Chaplin's Tramp character and Hitler (particularly the mustache).Template:Fact Chaplin was also motivated by the escalating violence and repression of Jews by the Nazis throughout the late 1930s, the magnitude of which was conveyed to him personally by his European Jewish friends and fellow artists.

Several similarities between Hitler and Chaplin have been noted and may have been a pivotal factor in Chaplin's decision to make The Great Dictator. Chaplin and Hitler had superficially similar looks, most famously their mustaches, and this similarity is most commented upon. (Tommy Handley wrote a song named "Who is This Man Who Looks like Charlie Chaplin?"[3]) Furthermore, the two men were born four days apart in April 1889, and both grew up in relative poverty. In addition to these similarities between the lives of Hitler and Chaplin, there may have been some direct rivalry between the two men at the very pinnacle of human fame and this may have played some role in generating the film.

As Hitler and his Nazi Party rose to prominence, Chaplin's popularity throughout the world became greater than ever; he was mobbed by fans on a 1931 trip to Berlin, which annoyed the Nazis, who published a book in 1934 titled "The Jews Are Looking at You," in which the comedian was described as "a disgusting Jewish acrobat." Ivor Montagu, a close friend of Chaplin, relates that he sent Chaplin a copy of the book and always believed this was the genesis of "Dictator."[4]

Chaplin prepared the story throughout 1938 and 1939, and began filming in September 1939, one week after the beginning of World War II. By the time he finished filming almost 6 months later, France had fallen to the Nazis. The controversial final speech that ends the film was a late modification to the script, and has been thought to have been motivated by the dire developments in Europe that occurred over the film's long productionTemplate:Fact. The 2001 BBC documentary on the making of the film, The Tramp and the Dictator claimed to have evidence (largely newly discovered footage of the film production shot by Chaplin's elder half-brother Sydney) that the ending was only changed due to technical difficulties.[5]

The making of the film coincided with rising tensions throughout the world. Speculation grew that this and other anti-fascist films such as The Mortal Storm and Four Sons would remain unreleased given the United States' neutral relationship with Germany. The project continued largely because Chaplin was financially and artistically independent of other studios; also, failure to release the film would have bankrupted Chaplin, who had invested $1.5m of his own money in the project. The film eventually opened in New York City in September 1940, to a wider American audience in October and the United Kingdom in December. The film was released in France in April 1945, shortly after the liberation of Paris.

When interviewed about this film being on such a touchy subject, Charlie Chaplin had only this to say: "Half-way through making The Great Dictator I began receiving alarming messages from United Artists ... but I was determined to go ahead for Hitler must be laughed at." The documentary The Tramp and The Dictator provides audio of a 1983 interview with Chaplin associate Dan James, in which he reports that President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent his adviser Harry Hopkins to personally meet with Chaplin and encourage him to move ahead with the satirical film.

According to The Tramp and the Dictator, the film was not only sent to Hitler, but an eyewitness confirmed he did see it.[5] According to the Internet Movie Database, Chaplin, after being told Hitler saw the movie, replied: "I'd give anything to know what he thought of it."[6]

Reception[edit | edit source]

The film was well received at the time of its release, and was popular with the American public. Critical opinion was mixed, with many reviewers critical of Chaplin's final speech, and some felt the slapstick portrayal of storm troopers was inappropriate (this opinion magnified as the horrors of the Nazis were uncovered, and is readily apparent to modern audiences). But Jewish audiences were deeply moved by the portrayal of Jewish characters and their plight, which was still a taboo subject in Hollywood films of the time.

When the film was in production, the British government announced that it would prohibit its exhibition in the United Kingdom in keeping with its appeasement policy concerning Nazi Germany. However, by the time the film was released, the UK was at war with Germany and the film was now welcomed in part for its obvious propaganda value. For instance, it was shown in London during the Battle of Britain, and was reportedly a great morale booster. However, in 1941, London's Prince of Wales Theatre screened its UK premiere. The film had been banned in many parts of Europe, and the theatre's owner, Alfred Esdaile, was apparently fined for showing it [7]. It eventually became Chaplin's highest grossing film.

In his 1964 autobiography, Chaplin stated that he would not have been able to make such jokes about the Nazi regime had the extent of the Nazi horrors been known, particularly the death camps and the Holocaust. While Ernst Lubitsch's 1942 To Be or Not To Be dealt with similar themes (even including another mistaken-identity Hitler figure), after the scope of Nazi atrocities became apparent it took over twenty years before any other films dared to satirize the era. Mel Brooks' The Producers (1968) and the television series Hogan's Heroes each represented later comedic takes on the era.

The film was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Academy Award for Best Picture, Academy Award for Best Actor (Chaplin), Best Supporting Actor (Oakie), Academy Award for Best Original Score (Meredith Willson), and an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay (Chaplin).

In 1997, The Great Dictator was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

The film was Chaplin's first true talking picture and helped shake off accusations of Luddism following his previous release (Modern Times) released in 1936 when the silent era had all but ended in the late 1920s.

After the success of the film, it was suggested that Chaplin might make a similar one about Stalin. He replied "It is hard to play a man who has no faults."

Score[edit | edit source]

The score was written and directed by Meredith Willson, later to become well-known as creator of the 1957 musical comedy The Music Man.[8] Willson wrote:

I've seen [Chaplin] take a sound track and cut it all up and paste it back together and come up with some of the dangdest effects you ever heard—effects a composer would never think of. Don't kid yourself about that one. He would have been great at anything—music, law, ballet dancing, or painting—house, sign, or portrait. I got the screen credit for The Great Dictator music score, but the best parts of it were all Chaplin's ideas, like using the Lohengrin "Prelude" in the famous balloon-dance scene.[9]

According to Willson, the scene in which Chaplin shaves a customer to Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 5 had been filmed before he arrived, using a phonograph record for timing. Willson was to re-record it with the full studio orchestra, fitting the music to the action. They had planned to do it painstakingly, recording eight measures or less at a time, after running through the whole scene to get the overall idea. Chaplin decided to record the runthrough in case anything was usable, and 'by dumb luck we had managed to catch every movement, and that was the first and only 'take' made of the scene, the one used in the finished picture' [9].

Lawsuit[edit | edit source]

The film was the subject of a plagiarism lawsuit (Bercovici v. Chaplin) in 1947 against Chaplin. The case was settled with Chaplin paying Bercovici $95,000.[10] In his autobiography, Chaplin insisted that he had been the sole writer of the movie's script. He came to a settlement, though, because of his "unpopularity in the States at that moment and being under such court pressure, [he] was terrified, not knowing what to expect next." (Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964)

See also[edit | edit source]

Notes[edit | edit source]

References[edit source]

  1. R. Cole, "Anglo-American Anti-fascist Film Propaganda in a Time of Neutrality: The Great Dictator, 1940" in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 21 2 (2001): 137 - 152. Chaplin sat "for hours watching newsreels of the German dictator, exclaiming: ‘Oh, you bastard, you!"
  2. Template:Citation/core, p. 116: "Between world wars, Esperanto fared worse and, sadly, became embroiled in political power moves. Adolf Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf that the spread of Esperanto throughout Europe was a Jewish plot to break down national differences so that Jews could assume positions of authority.... After the Nazis' successful Blitzkrieg of Poland, the Warsaw Gestapo received orders to 'take care' of the Zamenhof family.... Zamenhof's son was shot... his two daughters were sent to the Treblinka death camp."
  3. "Who Is This Man" lyrics
  4. Review of the movie "The Tramp and the Dictator" by David Stratton, February 21, 2002, Variety
  5. 5.0 5.1 The Tramp and the Dictator, official BBC web site Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "trampdict" defined multiple times with different content
  6. Trivia for The Great Dictator on IMDb
  7. Template:Citation
  8. 9.0 9.1 Template:Citation/core

Additional references[edit | edit source]

  1. Chaplin and American Culture: The Evolution of a Star Image. Charles J. Maland. Princeton, 1989.
  2. National Film Theatre/British Film Institute Notes on The Great Dictator.
  3. The Tramp and the Dictator, directed by Kevin Brownlow, Michael Kloft 2002, 88 mn.

External links[edit | edit source]


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