Charlie Chaplin made “The Great Dictator” to get back at Adolf Hitler for stealing his moustache — or so wrote French film critic Andre Bazin. Using satire as his weapon in his first all-talking film, the legendary screen comedian gave the world a devastating indictment of fascism, anti-Semitism and the threat of Germany’s Nazi regime to the future of humanity. As David Robinson, Chaplin’s biographer, put it, “The greatest clown and best-loved personality of his age directly challenged the man who had instigated more evil and human misery than any other in modern history.”
Out this week on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection ($29.95/$39.95 Blu-ray, not rated) with a high-definition digital restoration, “The Great Dictator” was produced at a perilous time. Begun in 1938 and completed in 1940 when the United States remained an interested bystander to the war raging across Europe, Chaplin’s film was one of the first Hollywood productions to take on Hitler. Warner Bros. “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” and the Three Stooges’ short, “You Nazty Spy!” came out before “The Great Dictator,” in part because of Chaplin’s painstakingly slow pace, due to his being the writer, producer, director, co-composer and star of his film. According to the 2001 documentary, “The Tramp and the Dictator,” included with the DVD, Chaplin spent 559 days shooting “The Great Dictator,” and almost abandoned the movie after Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 launched the Second World War.
Chaplin and other filmmakers who wanted to take on the Nazis faced opposition on several fronts. Most of the major Hollywood studios feared the loss of the European market for their movies, with Warner Bros. being the only studio willing to face that prospect. Powerful conservatives and isolationists in Congress opposed U.S. involvement in the European war and even held hearings about Hollywood making “propaganda” films that favored intervention. Will Hays, the head of the film industry’s Production Code Administration, even stated that anti-Nazi films were in violation of the nation’s position of neutrality. Fortunately, as the aforementioned documentary and the DVD audio commentary by historians Dan Kamin and Hooman Mehran explain, Chaplin received encouragement from none other than President Franklin D. Roosevelt to continue making his film. Although America’s entry into the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 made neutrality in Hollywood a moot point, Chaplin’s fearlessness cannot be underestimated.
The resemblance between Chaplin’s famous character, the Little Tramp, and Hitler forms the basis for Chaplin portraying both a Jewish barber and Adenoid Hynkel, the ruthless dictator of Tomainia. As the courteous and mild-mannered barber, a World War I veteran who had suffered from amnesia, he is shocked to discover what has happened to his country under the rule of Hynkel after he returns to the Jewish ghetto and meets a lovely woman, Hannah (Paulette Goddard, Chaplin’s wife). As Hynkel, Chaplin captures the buffoonish villainy and puffed-up egotism of the German Führer.
Making full use of sound for the first time, Chaplin delivers Hynkel’s speeches, or tirades, in a hilarious faux-German language that combines pure gibberish and guttural sounds with recognizable German words like “sauerkraut” and “wiener schnitzel” and made-up words like “pinheaden,” “tightendebelten” and “cheesencracken.” The names of various characters and nations were devised with a devilish sense of parody meant to be spoken and heard — from Hynkel’s trusted henchmen, Garbitsch (Henry Daniell) and Herring (Billy Gilbert), to Hynkel’s fascist ally, Benzino Napaloni (Jack Oakie), the dictator of Bacteria. Viewers in 1940 would have had little trouble identifying these characters as stand-ins for Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, German military commander Hermann Goring and Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, respectively.
Yet some of the most indelible images in “The Great Dictator” are sight gags that rely on Chaplin’s physical grace and silent film mastery, including microphones bending at Hynkel’s furious invective, the statues of the Venus de Milo and The Thinker raising their arms in Nazi salutes, and Hynkel’s dance with an inflated, balloon globe.
Even among the early anti-Nazi films from Hollywood, “The Great Dictator” stands out for its forthright attack on anti-Semitism. While other films of the era emphasized such matters as Germany’s breaking of treaties, its military aggression, Hitler’s violent oratorical style, the Nazi’s suppression of dissent and the existence of pro-Nazi spies and supporters in America — all legitimate subjects for criticism — Chaplin was not afraid to defend the Jewish people who were bearing the brunt of Nazi hatred. (Incidentally, when Chaplin, who was not Jewish, was attacked by Nazi propagandists as a Jew, he refused to contradict them. As Chaplin wrote a friend about the subject, “Anyone who denies this in respect of himself plays into the hands of the anti-Semites.”)
“The Great Dictator” was released in October 1940 and immediately banned in German, Italy and the countries they had conquered. It was also banned in Ireland (neutral in the war, but hostile to Great Britain), several South American countries with fascist governments and in some American cities, including Chicago, with large German populations. But the film received rave reviews from most critics in the United States and Britain, with the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther calling it “a truly superb accomplishment by a truly great artist and ... perhaps the most significant film ever produced.”
Yet Crowther and others also complained about the film’s climax — in which the barber, disguised as Hynkel, gives a speech in which he addresses the cameras directly and speaks with the voice of Charles Chaplin. He delivers an impassioned six-minute monologue defending democracy and freedom, extolling the potential of humanity for goodness rather than evil and giving hope for a world fighting fascism.
Chaplin felt so strongly about his speech that he wrote a defense of it in reply to Crowther’s review that was published in the Times and is reprinted in a booklet accompanying the new DVD.
“To me,” Chaplin wrote, “it is the speech that the little barber would have made — even had to make. People have said that he steps out of character. What of it? ... (M)ay I not be excused for ending my comedy on a note that reflects, honestly and realistically the world in which we live, and may I not be excused in pleading for a better world?”
Now, more than 70 years after its release, both the humor and the seriousness of “The Great Dictator” continue to speak eloquently of the genius, courage, empathy and commitment to social justice of Charlie Chaplin. It’s a commentary on our own modern times that his famous speech doesn’t seem the least bit dated.
THE GREAT DICTATOR
Starring: Charles Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie, Henry Daniell, Billy Gilbert and Maurice Moscovich
Writer-director: Charles Chaplin
Distributor: Criterion Collection