By Jessica Singer
The Great Dictator is Charlie Chaplin’s overtly anti-Fascist, anti-Nazi opus. Written, acted, directed, and produced by Chaplin, the film tells the story of a Jewish barber who gets mistaken for a dictator. The dictator, Adenoid Hynkel, is of course a very thinly veiled version of the similarly named Adolph Hitler. The film–and its famous pantomine scene where the dictator dances around the room with a balloon globe of the world–has made an indelible mark in film history and popular culture, and is fondly remembered today for its rich political satire as well as its delicate blend of pathos and comedy. What is not always remembered, however, is just how daring it was for Chaplin to produce this film in the context of his times.
It was very early on in the conflict in Europe, only 1937, when Chaplin began planning The Great Dictator. By the time of the film”s eventual release in 1940, Chaplin’s anti-fascist views were not quite so controversial, but at the time of pre-production, most Americans still did not care much about what was going on in Europe and did not want to take sides between Hitler and those he persecuted. The U.S. was operating under an isolationist foreign policy to stay out of the conflict, and in a 1939 poll, 96 percent of Americans reported that they opposed entering the war.
Consequently, most of Hollywood was unwilling to produce films that dealt with or opposed Nazi Germany, for fear that the government would censor them or break up the industry (although nine months prior, a Three Stooges skit called “You Nazty Spy” escaped the censors, simply because shorts were not given as much scrutiny). Most of all, the studios knew, since Hollywood relied so heavily on international distribution, that the inevitability of having their films banned overseas would result in less profit for them. Sure enough, when word first got out about Chaplin’s plan for his next film, the Hays office warned his production company, United Artists, that they “would run into censorship trouble.” Hearing of the film’s suggestion that Americans should fight the Nazis, a U.S. Senate committee called Chaplin in to testify, and the F.B.I. became concerned that he was a “premature anti-fascist.” German sympathizers threatened to set off stink bombs in theaters showing the movie.
Apparently, it was simply not acceptable to be publicly anti-Nazi, until later, when U.S. profits were at stake. As always, Chaplin was very much ahead of his time. He was a visionary who early on foresaw the dangers that could arise out of the human thirst for power, just as he had foreseen the potentially dehumanizing effects of industrialism with his previous film, Modern Times. When Chaplin created The Great Dictator, the real atrocities and the horrors of the concentration camps were not yet known outside where they were taking place. The war had only just begun, yet Chaplin seemed to know that something horrible was about to occur. Although his film would argue that this inevitability could be prevented and that it didn’t have to be that way, his message would come too late.
Eighteen months into production, when France and Denmark had fallen and Chaplin himself learned more about the atrocities in Europe, he considered stopping production, feeling that “Hitler is a horrible menace to civilization rather than someone to laugh at.” This was a sentiment that many of his critics would later agree upon. Chaplin decided to go through with the production anyway, but he later commented that he would not have done so had he known the entire truth of the Holocaust at the time. And because, more than a year after the film’s premiere, the U.S. still had not joined the war nor expressed much sympathy for those struggling, he was further distressed that his cinematic message had not had the effect he had hoped for.
There are a few different accounts of how the original idea for the film came to be. Some reports say that Chaplin was prompted when he heard of a 1934 anti-Semitic propaganda leaflet that described him as a “disgusting Jewish acrobat.” (The Nazis mistakenly believed Chaplin was Jewish when, in fact, he was raised Protestant and, as an adult, decided he did not want to follow any organized religion).
However, in his memoir, My Father, Charlie Chaplin, Charles Chaplin, Jr. claims that the idea for The Great Dictator arose when his father read a newspaper clipping that was sent to him, perhaps by British studio executive Alexander Korda. The clipping told of how Hitler was banning Chaplin’s films from Germany because he thought the actor looked too much like him. Chaplin allegedly realized at this time that, in his Little Tramp costume with its trademark mustache, he did in fact bear an uncanny resemblance to the German dictator. And upon further thought, Chaplin began to see other points of similarity. He and Hitler were born in the same year, in the same month, just four days apart, and both had known extreme poverty and hardship in their childhoods. However, as Charles Chaplin, Jr. points out:
“Their destinies were poles apart. One was to make millions weep, while the other was to set the whole world laughing. Dad could never think of Hitler without a shudder, half of horror, half of fascination. “Just think,” he would say uneasily, “he’s the madman, I’m the comic. But it could have been the other way around.”
The film, which was the first of Chaplin’s non-silents, premiered in 1940 to much controversy in Europe. Hitler banned the film in Germany and in all occupied countries (although he allegedly got himself a copy which he viewed twice), and it remained banned in Spain until Franco died in 1975. In America, however, the film was a major commercial hit and was the top-grossing film of the year, making two million dollars.
Still, many politicians disapproved. When North Dakota Senator Gerald P. Nye, an isolationist, charged Hollywood with making feature films that were propaganda vehicles urging the American public to war, he cited The Great Dictator as one of his few examples. Looking back, calling The Great Dictator propaganda seems ridiculous in comparison to the World War II anti-Fascist propaganda films, which all appealed to staunch patriotism, not basic human decency, as Chaplin had done.
There were other criticisms made of the film besides those of the politicians. Film critics claimed that the film lacked technical merit and was overly sentimental. These critics often referred to the famous six-minute speech made by Chaplin in the final scene as being particularly poor, with Chaplin completely dropping character and looking directly at the camera. He cries: “We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities life will be violent and all will be lost.”
The words seem almost prophetic, considering the many who would soon loses their lives in the violence of the war and the Holocaust, but, like Chaplin’s politics in general, they were called idealistic and naive. It was, however, clear from the start that they were well-intentioned and harmless. Charles Chaplin, Jr. remembers his father telling him, “I’m praying, son, that this picture will have a good message and maybe help mankind a bit.” With Gandhi as his hero, Chaplin truly wanted peace. Throughout his life, he endured criticism for his politics, particularly for his refusal to obtain American citizenship and for his so-called Communist beliefs (The final speech from The Great Dictator was, after all, published as a special pamphlet by the Communist Party of Great Britain).
After the success of The Great Dictator, Chaplin took time away from filmmaking and focused on becoming more politically involved. He was well known for his public defenses of the Jewish people and for his strong identification with the Jews, so much so that many people mistakenly thought he was Jewish. During World War II, he stopped denying he was Jewish; he believed that to deny it would be implying shame in being Jewish, or “playing into the hands of Anti-Semites.”
In My Autobiography, Chaplin recalls being asked by an acquaintance why he hated the Nazis so much: “I said ‘because they were anti-people.’ ‘Of course,’ he said, as though making a sudden discovery, ‘you’re a Jew, aren’t you?’ ‘One doesn’t have to be a Jew to be anti-Nazi,’ I answered. ‘All one has to be is a normal decent human being.’” In the world of film, Chaplin was certainly more than a normal, decent human being. Maybe I’m a sap for the sentimental or too easily won over, but the ending of The Great Dictator always makes me cry. This is Chaplin at his most honest: no show, no pretense. Perhaps that’s what makes the film so appealing. He speaks to us all and, through the camera, looks us right in the eyes as he does so.
In his autobiography, Chaplin fondly recalls discovering “the kindliest light this world has ever known: love, pity and humanity.” I don’t believe any artist ever more earnestly fought for those virtues than Charles Chaplin.
Jessica Singer is a producer and writer for Associated Broadcast Consultants, Inc., an independent video production company where she primarily develops short documentaries. She holds a B.A. from Clark University in English and Film Studies.
Charles Chaplin Productions/United Artists