One of the few good things to come out of this L’Affaire Interview has been a renewed interest among both the media and viewers in Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 classic, The Great Dictator. With some reason: If The Interview offers a cautionary tale in what happens when you satirize existing world tyrants, The Great Dictator is perhaps the poster child of satirizing existing world tyrants. Chaplin’s film, released before the U.S. had entered World War II, took direct aim at Adolf Hitler. In it, Chaplin played both the Tomanian despot Adenoid Hynkel (the film’s humorously named Hitler surrogate) and a Jewish barber who, after years in a military hospital, returns home only to discover that he’s now living in a brutal, anti-Semitic police state.
Hilarity ensues. No, really — it does. Chaplin’s film is filled with brilliant slapstick, and his wonderfully exaggerated portrayal of the preening, insane Hynkel, often speaking a kind of nonsensical mock-German, is immortal. Hynkel’s speeches are more than just silly bits of humor, however. As Kevin Brownlow and Michael Kloft’s excellent documentary, The Tramp and the Dictator (available on Criterion’s gorgeous edition of The Great Dictator), notes, Hitler and Chaplin had strangely parallel lives, and both had unique relationships with the coming of sound motion pictures. Chaplin had risen to fame as a silent-movie star, and while his early sound films like Modern Times used audio effects brilliantly, the Tramp never spoke. Hitler, for his part, was known for his speeches, but looked ridiculous in silent newsreels, where his exaggerated mannerisms played more to laughs. When Germans could finally see and hear him at the same time, Hitler’s onscreen presence had a powerful — and to some, chilling — effect.
The Great Dictator, which would be the first time audiences heard the Little Tramp speak, toys with this idea: Hynkel’s voice, heard over loudspeakers in ghetto streets, is terrifying, though it speaks nonsense. When you actually see him, with Chaplin going to town with his wild gestures, the effect is more comical. The film both ridicules the Hitler figure and explores just what it is that makes him so compelling and frightening. The film reclaims that power at the end, however, as Hynkel’s speeches give way to an infamously earnest monologue from the writer-director-star, looking straight into the camera and effectively speaking as himself, proclaiming that “the misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed — the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress.” It’s a speech that’s less a rallying cry for war than an appeal for universal brotherhood. Nevertheless, at the time the film came out, the speech was heralded by many as a plea for U.S. intervention in Europe.
The Great Dictator has rightly been held up as an example of Hollywood not caving to the wishes of foreign tyrants, but the reality is a bit more complicated than that. For starters, comparisons to The Interview (which, admittedly, I haven’t seen, despite repeated attempts) are probably inexact at best: For all its comedy, Chaplin’s film was an earnest effort on the part of the filmmaker to make a social and political statement; he was courting controversy and he knew it. And lampooning real-life figures was nothing new to Chaplin: In his WWI short Shoulder Arms, the Little Tramp had kicked Kaiser Wilhelm in the ass; in Modern Times, the dictatorial owner of the comically automatized factory our hero worked at bore a strong resemblance to assembly line pioneer Henry Ford.
Plus, Chaplin had already run afoul of the Nazis, who thought (erroneously) that he was Jewish, banned his films, and even called him “a disgusting Jewish acrobat” in one of their publications. When he visited Berlin in 1931 to promote City Lights — well before Hitler’s rise to the chancellorship in 1933 — pro-Nazi media had effectively run him out of town, calling him an “anti-German warmonger” and an “American film-Jew.” Footage of Chaplin’s visit would be used in the notorious Nazi propaganda film, The Eternal Jew. (“It cannot be denied that one part of the German people enthusiastically applaud the foreign Jews who come to Germany — the deadly foes of their race,” the film’s narrator breathlessly warned, over shots of adoring crowds greeting Chaplin.)
But in 1938, when Chaplin announced that he was setting forth to make The Great Dictator, Hollywood was extremely wary of picking sides in the approaching war. Studios deliberately shied away from commenting on events in Europe and made it a point to take out any material that could be construed as overtly supporting U.S. intervention. Part of it was due to financial relationships they had with the German film market. Part of it was a fear of very vocal isolationists in the U.S. Studio heads also worried that they would themselves become the targets of anti-Semitic attacks if they pressed too hard for war. In his excellent new book, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, Mark Harris describes the tension in Hollywood thus:
Even as most studios maintained a strong financial interest in the German market and continued to do business with Hitler and his deputies, the issue of how to fight Hitler’s rise to power was becoming a subject of discussion, and discomfort, in their boardrooms and executive suites. But in 1938, all of Hollywood’s major moviemaking companies … were adamant on one point: Whatever they thought about the Nazis, they would not allow their feelings, or anyone else’s, about what was happening in Germany to play out onscreen. On rare occasions, a veiled or allusive argument against Fascism or tyranny would make its way into a motion picture, but it was then unthinkable that studios could use their own movies to sway public opinion about Hitler without sparking instant accusations that they were acting as propagandists for foreign – meaning Jewish – interests. Much of Hollywood’s creative class – directors, writers, actors, independent producers – was becoming far more forthright about making its political sympathies known at rallies and in aid organizations, but for the most part, the noise they were making stopped when they passed through the gates and reported for work every morning.
Chaplin, however, had his own studio and could afford to self-finance much of his film. That’s not to say that he wasn’t met with enormous resistance when he initially announced it in 1938. United Artists, the studio he had co-founded, was nervous and worried that the film could not be shown in England, for fear of offending the Germans. Chaplin was fearless, but he still had his worries. There were fears that American non-interventionists and pro-Nazi groups would get the film banned in the U.S. In Brownlow and Kloft’s documentary, one of the director’s assistants claims that it was a personal guarantee from Franklin D. Roosevelt to ensure the film’s release that convinced Chaplin to continue making the film.
Ironically, the director’s deliberate pace with preparation and shooting — The Great Dictator was in production for almost 600 days — meant that, by the time the film premiered in 1940, the world had changed quite a bit. As Chaplin himself tells it in his autobiography:
Half-way through making The Great Dictator I began receiving alarming messages from United Artists. They had been advised by the Hays Office that I would run into censorship trouble. Also the English office was very concerned about an anti-Hitler picture and doubted whether it could be shown in Britain. But I was determined to go ahead, for Hitler must be laughed at…More worrying letters came from the New York office imploring me not to make the film, declaring it would never be shown in England or America. But I was determined to make it, even if I had to hire halls myself to show it…Before I had finished The Dictator England declared war on the Nazis… Then suddenly the holocaust began: the break-through in Belgium, the collapse of the Maginot Line, the stark and ghastly fact of Dunkirk -- and France was occupied. The news was growing gloomier. England was fighting with her back to the wall. Now our New York office was wiring frantically; “Hurry up with your film, everyone is waiting for it.”
The Great Dictator was one of Chaplin’s biggest hits, and its reputation is secure today, but many still find its final earnestness hard to stomach. (Critics at the time were somewhat divided, too.) But it’s hard not to be enormously moved by this film — by its humor and its exceedingly personal, almost intimate quality. There’s something else to it, too. Its use of counterpoint still hasn’t lost any of its force. Consider the sight of Chaplin’s Jewish barber, comically eluding the cops, as he had done in so many films for decades, while Hynkel’s voice is heard overhead, railing against the Jews. It’s a David-versus-Goliath symbol for the machine age, the little man fleeing the ever-growing, all-consuming power of technology and automation. The Tramp is a Jew; the cops have become storm-troopers; the movies speak. The texture of Chaplin’s cinema, and its relationship to modern life, changes before our eyes; his entire filmography gains a renewed resonance and power. Its objects of ridicule may be long gone, but this movie will never die.