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A Jewish barber, suffering from amnesia since World War I, finally returns to his home in Tomania to discover the country overrun with anti-Semitic storm troopers under the leadership of Dictator Adenoid Hynkel. The only ghetto inhabitant strong enough to defy the soldiers is a young orphan, Hannah, with whom he falls in love. When the barber joins a resistance leader he had served under in the war, the two are arrested, just as Hynkel is plotting world domination in meetings with rival dictator Napolini of Bacteria. The barber and his friend escape prison as Hynkel is hunting nearby. When an accident separates Hynkel from his party, the prison guards mistake him for the escaped barber and take him into custody. Meanwhile, Hynkel's storm troopers mistake the barber for their leader. After leading the country in a successful invasion, he delivers an international address repudiating Hynkel's dictatorship and spreading the message of peace and liberty.
Producer-Director-Screenplay: Charles Chaplin
Cinematography: Roland Totheroh, Karl Struss
Editing: Willard Nico
Art Direction: J. Russell Spencer
Music: Meredith Wilson
Cast: Charles Chaplin (Hynkel, Dictator of Tomania/A Jewish Barber), Paulette Goddard (Hannah), Jack Oakie (Napolini, Dictator of Bacteria), Reginald Gardiner (Schultz), Henry Daniell (Garbitsch), Billy Gilbert (Herring), Carter DeHaven (Bacterian Ambassador), Chester Conklin (Barbershop Customer)
Why THE GREAT DICTATOR Is Essential
The Great Dictator was the first film in which Charles Chaplin spoke on screen. He had used sound effects and sung a nonsense song in his previous picture, Modern Times (1936). It also marked the first film for which Chaplin prepared the entire script in advance.
The Great Dictator marked the last time Chaplin would wear the Little Tramp's moustache on screen. There is some debate as to whether the unnamed Jewish barber is intended as the Tramp's final incarnation. Although his memoirs frequently refer to the barber as the Little Tramp, Chaplin said in 1937 that he would not play the Little Tramp in his sound pictures.
Adenoid Hynkel was the first character other than The Little Tramp that Chaplin had played in two decades.
In the years before the U.S. entered World War II, The Great Dictator was the boldest of the few Hollywood films to deal with events in Europe. Other films dealing with European politics of the day were softened for fear of offending the German government (often at the request of German Consul George Gyssling). And some couched their messages symbolically, like Warner Bros.' The Sea Hawk (1940), whose tale of Elizabeth I's resistance to Spain bore clear parallels to England's battle against Nazi Germany.
by Frank Miller
The Great Dictator (1941)
Director Archie Mayo was so impressed with Charles Chaplin's climactic speech, he had it reprinted in his Christmas cards.
The Great Dictator's success made Chaplin one of the most visible critics of Fascism during the war years. Lecture offers from progressive groups would haunt Chaplin in later years, when conservatives branded him a Communist sympathizer and he was denied reentry into the U.S. after a European vacation.
General Dwight Eisenhower requested copies of The Great Dictator, dubbed into French, to be shown in France after the Allied victory.
Film researchers Kevin Brownlow and David Gill found a rare home movie from a 1929 party at Pickfair in which Chaplin, dressed as Julius Caesar, dances with a large globe. They included the scene in their documentary Unknown Chaplin (1983) to show the genesis of one of the most famous comic bits in The Great Dictator.
Brownlow produced a 2002 documentary on the film's making, The Tramp and the Dictator, which featured an interview with Chaplin's son, Sydney Chaplin. The 58-minute film is included in The Chaplin Collection, Vol. 1, a 2003 collection of four films -- The Gold Rush (1925), Modern Times (1936), Limelight (1952) and The Great Dictator -- and the 2003 restored DVD of The Great Dictator. The latter also includes Sydney Chaplin's color behind-the-scenes footage of the film's production.
On seeing The Great Dictator, Hitler's architect, Albert Speer, commented that it was the most accurate representation of Hitler ever put on screen. He also stated that Hitler had also owned a globe in the form of a balloon, though it was much larger than the one Chaplin danced with in the film.
by Frank Miller
The Great Dictator (1941)
Charles Chaplin and Adolph Hitler were actually born in the same week in April in 1889.
The resemblance between Chaplin and Hitler was so widely noted it even gave rise to a song, "Who Is That Man (Who Looks Like Charlie Chaplin)" sung by British comic Tommy Handley.
Charlie Chaplin's films were already banned in Nazi Germany because of the erroneous belief that he was Jewish.
Before settling on The Great Dictator, Chaplin was looking for a showcase for his protge and later wife Paulette Goddard. These included a remake of A Woman of Paris (1923), the only silent film he directed but did not star in; Regency, a novel about an independent British noblewoman; and a story about a White Russian countess who stows away on an ocean liner. The latter would eventually become his 1967 A Countess from Hong Kong, starring Sophia Loren and Marlon Brando. All of these would have been sound films.
Chaplin also considered starring in a biography of Napoleon, a project that had interested him on and off since the silent era.
After studying Hitler extensively, Chaplin pronounced him one of the greatest actors he had ever seen.
Scenes documented in press articles and photos that did not make it into the film included a Russian dance performed by the barber and his attempt to escape the concentration camp by chewing through a barbed wire fence.
During production, Picturegoer magazine optimistically reported, "There is always the danger that, by the time the picture is eventually completed and shown, we may all have forgotten who Hitler was."
Publicity for the film centered on its being Chaplin's first talking picture. One tagline read, "Chaplin talks...while You Laugh!"
"Note: ANY RESEMBLANCE BETWEEN HYNKEL THE DICTATOR AND THE JEWISH BARBER IS PURELY CO-INCIDENTAL." -- Opening title for The Great Dictator.
The Great Dictator premiered October 15, 1940, at two theatres in New York (an unusual move).
Despite charges that the film was pro-Communist, Chaplin was invited to read the climactic speech at a Daughters of the American Revolution rally in Washington, D.C.
After the film's opening, Konrad Bercovici sent Chaplin a letter stating that he wanted no money for his story idea, just a screen credit. Chaplin never replied. At a press conference, however, Chaplin admitted that Bercovici had given him the idea for the film's plot.
In 1942, Bercovici sued Chaplin and United Artists for $5 million, claiming that he had given Chaplin the idea for the film. In depositions, Chaplin denied any of Bercovici's contributions to the film. Eventually, however, he and United Artists settled the case for $90,000.
In 1941, Chaplin was among the filmmakers subpoenaed by a Senate subcommittee investigating pro-war propaganda in Hollywood films.
At the height of World War II, Chaplin withdrew the film from circulation, knowing that the international situation lampooned in the film would now be hard to laugh at.
During the war, a group of resistance fighters smuggled the film into the Balkans and replaced a commercial screening of another film with it. The German officers in attendance enjoyed the film greatly until they realized what it was. Then some left, while others shot at the screen.
An escapee from Hitler's Germany who had worked in the Ministry of Culture told Chaplin that Hitler had gotten hold of a print of the film and screened it twice in private. Chaplin responded by saying, "I'd give anything to know what he thought of it."
After the war, Chaplin stated that if he had known of the true horrors of the concentration camps, he never would have made The Great Dictator.
The Great Dictator had a charity screening in Rome in 1944, its first appearance there. The audience laughed at many of Chaplin's scenes, but Oakie's performance was met with embarrassed silence. When it finally played publicly in Rome in 1961, long after Mussolini's death, it became a big hit. Even then, scenes with Grace Hayle as Madame Napolini were cut for fear of offending Mussolini's widow and her family. When it finally played there, it became a huge hit. The uncut version finally screened in 2002.
The Great Dictator was banned in Spain until General Franco's death in 1975.
Memorable Quotes from THE GREAT DICTATOR
"Democracy shtoonk. Liberty shtoonk." -- Charles Chaplin, as Adenoid Hynkel, addressing the nation in Tomanian.
"Strange, and I thought you were an Aryan."
"No. I'm a vegetarian." -- Reginald Gardiner, as Commander Schultz, and Chaplin, as A Jewish Barber
"We've just discovered the most wonderful, the most marvelous poisonous gas. It will kill everybody." -- Billy Gilbert as Field Marshall Herring.
"Far from perfect." -- Chaplin, as Hynkel, responding to another failed invention.
"You a nice-a leetle man, Hynkie." -- Jack Oakie, as Napolini, talking down to Chaplin, as Hynkel.
"Today, democracy, liberty, and equality are words to fool the people. No nation can progress with such ideas. They stand in the way of action. Therefore, we frankly abolish them. In the future, each man will serve the interest of the State with absolute obedience. Let him who refuses beware!" -- Henry Daniell, as Garbitsch, introducing Chaplin, disguised as Hynkel
"I'm sorry, but I don't want to be an emperor. That's not my business. I don't want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone if possible; Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other's happiness, not by each other's misery. We don't want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone, and the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way. Greed has poisoned men's souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical; our cleverness, hard and unkind. 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 airplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men; cries out for universal brotherhood; for the unity of us all. Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world, millions of despairing men, women, and little children, victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people. To those who can hear me, I say, do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish. Soldiers! Don't give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you, enslave you; who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel! Who drill you, diet you, treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder. Don't give yourselves to these unnatural men - machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines, you are not cattle, you are men! You have the love of humanity in your hearts! You don't hate! Only the unloved hate; the unloved and the unnatural. Soldiers! Don't fight for slavery! Fight for liberty! In the seventeenth chapter of St. Luke, it is written that the kingdom of God is within man, not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people, have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure. Then in the name of democracy, let us use that power. Let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill that promise. They never will! Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people. Now let us fight to fulfill that promise. Let us fight to free the world! To do away with national barriers! To do away with greed, with hate and intolerance! Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men's happiness. Soldiers, in the name of democracy, let us all unite! Hannah, can you hear me? Wherever you are, look up Hannah! The clouds are lifting! The sun is breaking through! We are coming out of the darkness into the light! We are coming into a new world; a kindlier world, where men will rise above their hate, their greed, and brutality. Look up, Hannah! The soul of man has been given wings and at last he is beginning to fly. He is flying into the rainbow! Into the light of hope, into the future! The glorious future, that belongs to you, to me and to all of us. Look up, Hannah. Look up!" -- Chaplin's final speech, disguised as Hynkel.
Compiled by Frank Miller
The Great Dictator (1941)
As Adolph Hitler was rising to power in Germany, many fans and filmmakers noted Charles Chaplin's resemblance to the Fuehrer. In 1937, British producer-director Alexander Korda suggested that Chaplin create a film built around The Little Tramp's character being mistaken for Hitler.
In 1937 and 1938, Chaplin and friend Konrad Bercovici, a political writer and noted anti-Fascist, worked on story treatments for different projects that might serve as a follow-up to Modern Times (1936). At a party in early 1938, Bercovici suggested a story that fellow guest Melvyn Douglas later said bore strong resemblances to The Great Dictator. A treatment written by Bercovici shortly afterwards included such scenes as the Little Tramp's escaping from a concentration camp in a military uniform and being mistaken for Hitler, Hitler's stripping Goering of his medals and a failed attempt to demonstrate a new parachute. Chaplin said he would have to check with the State Department to see if such a film could be made. Later he told him they had counseled against the idea.
In October 1938, the German Consul, George Gyssling, wrote to Production Code chief Joseph Breen complaining that Chaplin was preparing a satire of Hitler. Breen responded that he had heard nothing of any such picture. At the time, his office had to approve all film scripts before they went into production.
Chaplin attempted to register a script under the title The Dictator in November 1938 only to learn that Paramount Pictures had already registered the title, having bought the rights to a play with that title by Richard Harding Davis. When they refused to part with the title for less than $25,000, Chaplin changed his title to The Great Dictator.
Other titles Chaplin registered at the time were Ptomania, The Two Dictators, Dictamania and Dictator of Ptomania.
When word got out that Chaplin was preparing a comedy to poke fun at Adolph Hitler, executives at United Artists, the studio Chaplin had co-founded and through which he released all of his films, tried to convince him to give up the project on the grounds that the film that could not be released in the lucrative German market and that it would alienate the many people who still sympathized with the Fuehrer.
When Bercovici read the first press reports about Chaplin's plans for The Great Dictator, he sent the star a registered letter asking what was happening, but got no reply. Subsequent attempts to set up meetings were ignored.
At one point, Chaplin planned to cast Ziegfeld Follies comedienne Fannie Brice as the dictator's sex-starved wife. An associate suggested the wife's scenes were cut because of problems with the Production Code Administration.
Chaplin cast his wife, Paulette Goddard, as Hannah, the Jewish orphan. He had previously used her as his leading lady in Modern Times.
Goddard's character, Hannah, was named for Chaplin's mother.
Comic actor Jack Oakie was in a career slump in the late '30s, partly because of his reputation as a heavy drinker. He was desperate to play the Mussolini role and got friends to put in a good word for him with Chaplin. When Chaplin called him to discuss the work, he never let on that he knew how desperate Oakie was. Instead, he took him out to a luxurious dinner where he assured him that he wanted an actor, not an impersonator. When Oakie brought up his reputation as a drinker, Chaplin said it didn't matter. If Oakie got too drunk, the director would just work around him. Oakie was so impressed he stopped drinking altogether until the film was completed.
The Hollywood Reporter announced the start of set construction in June 1939, but Chaplin then delayed the start of production to do further work on the script.
Chaplin's first shooting script for The Great Dictator was 300 pages long, about three times the length of the average Hollywood feature.
In October 1939, Chaplin finally released the news that he would be playing a Jewish tailor (later changed to a barber) and a character modeled on Hitler.
Along with Chaplin's portrait of Hitler, other characters modeled on contemporary political figures were Napolini (Jack Oakie), inspired by Mussolini; Garbitsch (Henry Daniell), based on Joseph Goebbels; and Herring (Billy Gilbert), modeled on Hermann Goering.
by Frank Miller
The Great Dictator (1941)
The Great Dictator went into production in September 1939.
Chaplin maintained a closed set throughout production, partly out of fear that other filmmakers would steal his idea. When Life magazine printed an unauthorized photo of him as dictator Adenoid Hynkel, Chaplin sued and won. Half the issues printed for that week were recalled before they could hit news stands.
Chaplin spent hours studying films of Hitler to perfect an imitation of his speaking style. He would eventually do this with a combination of nonsense syllables and isolated German words.
The barber's scenes were mostly shot in the slower speed used for silent films (16 frames per second), made possible by the fact that Chaplin gave the character less dialogue than Hynkel, who was shot in the standard speed for sound film.
For the first time in years, Chaplin brought in a new director of photography, Karl Struss, to work with his usual cameraman, Rollie Totheroh. He did so at the urging of his brother, Syd, who felt that Totheroh's techniques were behind the times. Struss quickly learned that the director preferred to shoot scenes as though they were being performed on stage. He finally convinced Chaplin to let him shoot the scenes from two cameras at once, placed at different angles, to make it easier to edit the film.
Chaplin's adapting to talking pictures was complicated by his inability to give up control over any production area, including sound. He labored endlessly to come up with the right effect for the sound of an airplane flying by vibrating different types of celluloid materials in front of an electric fan. After he gave up, the sound technician went to an airport to record the real thing.
To keep the characters separate, Chaplin shot most of his scenes as the barber first, then moved on to Hynkel's scenes.
Chaplin's son Sydney ruined a $15,000 take during the World War I sequence by laughing at one of the gags. The director was furious until he realized that his son had reacted to the scene as he hoped audiences would so it was a good sign.
Initially, Hynkel's big speech was shot on location in the San Fernando Valley in front of an audience of extras. Despite the extreme heat, Chaplin entertained the extras between shots with scenes from Sherlock Holmes and a variety of pratfalls. In the end, he couldn't use any of the footage. The scene required retakes, and Struss couldn't match the lighting from the location.
Hynkel's dance with the globe was originally written as a scene in which he cuts up a map of the world to rearrange the countries the way he wants. When this evolved into the globe dance, Chaplin spent six days over a two month period filming the sequence, plus three days of retakes.
Chaplin and Paulette Goddard clashed frequently on the set of The Great Dictator. At this point in their lives, Goddard was beginning to build a career of her own outside Chaplin's films and she resented her small role in the film and the unglamorous hair and costumes required for it. At one point, Chaplin complained that she wasn't using a scrub brush properly and ordered her to clean the entire set with it until she got "the proper swing of the brush." She stormed off the set, and he dismissed the rest of the company until she gave in.
Principal shooting ended in March 1940, with a final budget of $1.5 million. The only scene left to shoot, the barber's climactic speech while impersonating Hynkel, was put off until June. Postproduction work and retakes consumed six months.
As originally written, Chaplin's final speech, in which the barber is still masquerading as Hynkel, was a call for peace through appeasement. As news reports came in from Europe, however, he re-wrote it as a call for peace and liberty for all. Some critics, most notably columnist Ed Sullivan, claimed that the speech was pure Communist propaganda.
Chaplin had also planned shots of people all over the world accepting the message of peace as goose stepping German soldiers broke in a waltz and Japanese bombers dropped toys on Chinese children. He actually started shooting some of these scenes before abandoning the idea. They survive in home movies shot by his son.
Some of Chaplin's associates tried to talk him out of the final speech about peace. One film salesman said the speech would cost him a million dollars at the box office. "Well, I don't care if it's five million," Chaplin replied.
Jack Oakie (Napolini) had been on a diet before filming started. To make him large enough to contrast effectively with Chaplin, the director ordered his cook to fatten Oakie up.
Chaplin and Oakie enjoyed their roles so much, they often stayed in character after shooting finished for the day. They even attended a party thrown by Mary Pickford in full costume.
As the premiere approached, Chaplin had good reason to be concerned about his gamble on political commentary. Gallup polls revealed that 96 per cent of Americans opposed U.S. involvement in the war in Europe, and threatening letters from Nazi sympathizers poured into the studio. At one point he even asked a friend with the Longshoreman's Union in New York if they could have some union members present at the opening to prevent a pro-Nazi demonstration.
by Frank Miller
The Great Dictator (1941)
AWARDS & HONORS
The Great Dictator placed second on the National Board of Review's annual ten-best list. The Grapes of Wrath came in first. The National Board of Review also listed Charles Chaplin's among the year's best performances.
The film ranked ninth on The New York Times' ten best list, which was topped by The Grapes of Wrath
The New York Film Critics voted Charles Chaplin Best Actor of the year for The Great Dictator. Chaplin declined the award, claiming that he did not believe actors should compete and was distressed at the "electioneering" over the awards. Later commentators have suggested other reasons. Some say he was disappointed that his contributions as producer, director, writer and composer had been overlooked. Others pointed to his anger at some of the reviews, particularly their criticism of his climactic speech. One source even suggested he had only been voted Best Actor because the critics hoped his presence would be good publicity for the awards presentation. When he learned of their reasons, he was so offended he turned down the award. Whatever the reason, Chaplin remains the only winner ever to refuse the New York Film Critics Award.
The Great Dictator received five Oscar® nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Chaplin), Best Supporting Actor (Jack Oakie), Best Original Screenplay and Best Score. It lost Best Picture to Rebecca, Best Actor to James Stewart in The Philadelphia Story and Best Supporting Actor to Walter Brennan in The Westerner.
The Great Dictator was named to the National Film Registry in 1997.
THE CRITICS' CORNER
The Great Dictator made more than $5 million in international rentals, making it Charles Chaplin's highest-grossing film ever.
"The Great Dictator may not be the finest picture ever made, in fact, it possesses several disappointing shortcomings. But, despite them, it turns out to be a truly superb accomplishment by a truly great artist -- and, from one point of view, perhaps the most significant film ever produced." -- Bosley Crowther, The New York Times.
"It is when he is playing the dictator that the comedian's voice raises the value of the comedy content of the picture to great heights. He does various bits as a Hitler spouting at the mouth in which he engages in a lot of double talk in what amounts to a pig-Latin version of the German tongue, with grunts thrown in here and there, plus a classical 'Democracy shtoonk.' Chaplin is swell on the vocal horse-play with the German language." -- Char., Variety.
"...it is also tragic because a people is being persecuted; these Jews are straight characters, not the old cartoons; and the laughter chokes suddenly and is reluctant to start again. Chaplin likes to pull out all the stops on sentimental passages, but this thing is too near and meaningful. It isn't that a comedian should be denied indignation and kept clowning forever; it is that old thing in all art of the demands of unity, of a complete and sustained mood or tone. He was always a funny figure against the rude world, but the gulf between a kick in the pants and a pogrom is something even his talent for the humorous-pathetic will not cross. And his unrelieved six-minute exhortation to the downtrodden of the world, look up, stand up, etc., is not only a bad case of overwriting but dramatically and even inspirationally futile." -- Otis Ferguson, The New Republic.
"The Great Dictator is a frank, hard-hitting attack on Fascism, in which violent caricature bulks even larger than the immutable comedy of human existence that Chaplin knows so well." -- Howard Barnes, The New York Herald Tribune.
"I find it difficult to understand how after five years of Hitler terror (and in the year XV of Mussolini's regime) the sensitive creator of The Gold Rush  and Modern Times  could still have considered Fascists and Fascism as something just funny." -- Rudolf Arnheim, Films.
"Chaplin's satire on Hitler has a few funny moments, but the rest is heavy going, the production is cheeseparing, and the final speech to the world is a grave mistake." - Halliwell's Film & Video Guide.
"For this film he takes on more than a mimed representation of common humanity; he states, and accepts, the responsibility of being one of humanity's best and most widely-known representatives." - Basil Wright.
"You must go back to Intolerance  for another motion picture that is so completely one man's personal expression of his attitude on something about which he feels deeply and passionately." - James Shelley Hamilton, National Board of Review.
"No time for comedy? Yes, I say, time for comedy. Time for Chaplin comedy. No time ever for Chaplin to preach as he does in those last six minutes, no matter how deeply he may feel what he wrote and says. He is not a good preacher. Indeed, he is frighteningly bad." - John O'Hara.
"The Great Dictator is an extraordinary mixture of comic mime, halting construction, and an embarrassing sermon at the end." - David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film.
"The Great Dictator will provide you with an evening with Charlie Chaplin; an evening with pantomime by the master, an evening with a caricaturist whose psychological interpretation of Hitler is at times more frightening than amusing - an evening of comedy, satire, burlesque, fantasy, and tragedy, such as no other actor in the world could present." - Pare Lorentz, Lorentz on Film.
"The Great Dictator has aged, and that is wonderful. It has aged like a political editorial, like Zola's J'accuse, like a press conference. It is an admirable document, a rare piece, a useful object that has now become an art object...What is striking about The Great Dictator today...is Chaplin's desire to help his fellow men see more clearly...The Great Dictator is not only a defensive farce but also a very precise essay on the Jewish crisis and the mad racist program of Hitlerism - a little like Jean Renoir's La Marseillaise - in which two series of sketches alternate, Hitler's palace and the ghetto." - Francois Truffaut, The Films in My Life.
"Some great pantomime, but the final speech sounds pompous today." - Peter Cowie, Eighty Years of Cinema.
Compiled by Frank Miller & Jeff Stafford
The Great Dictator (1941)
The Great Dictator (1940) traces the very different paths of two men from the imaginary country of Tomania: the first is a Jewish barber who suffers amnesia as a result of a plane accident which occurred while rescuing an officer during World War I. The second is Hynkel, the Dictator of Tomania, who gesticulates wildly, shouts incomprehensible gibberish and harbors not-so-secret ambitions of global domination. Years after his accident, the Jewish barber finally recovers from his amnesia and returns home, only to find the ghetto under the oppressive rule of Storm Troopers who wear the infamous "double cross" on their sleeves. The barber befriends Hannah, a spunky young laundry girl given to resistance; he later runs into Schultz, who is now a close associate of Hynkel but orders the Storm Troopers not to harass the Jews of the ghetto out of gratitude for the barber's help years ago. Meanwhile, Hynkel plans to invade the neighboring country of Osterlich but must negotiate with Napaloni, the wily Dictator of Bacteria first. The barber winds up arrested with Schultz and thrown into a concentration camp, but his uncanny resemblance to Hynkel gives him - and the world - one last hope.
The Great Dictator was a turning point in the creative development of Charles Chaplin. Up to that point he had played largely silent roles, resisting the transition to the dialogue-oriented filmmaking that dominated the sound era. His previous film Modern Times (1936) was not truly a silent film, insofar as it featured a limited amount of dialogue in addition to the sound effects and music on the soundtrack. However, Chaplin still relied almost entirely on visual gags as an actor for that film. While the Jewish barber in The Great Dictator talks normally (though sparingly), Chaplin's impersonation of Hitler via the character of Hynkel was an extraordinary tour-de-force. Chaplin not only imitated Hitler's gestures, he concocted a kind of pseudo-Germanic gibberish, which Hynkel shouts during public speeches and his frequent tantrums. Jerry Epstein has reported that Hitler's favorite architect Albert Speer regarded it as the most accurate impersonation of Hitler's mannerisms. According to some sources, Hitler himself screened the film twice in private, though never shared his feelings about the film. At the same time, the film has several visual gags that remind one of Chaplin's genius for physical comedy. The most famous of these is Hynkel's graceful ballet with a balloon painted as a globe. Two of the set-pieces--the Jewish barber shaving a customer to the tune of a Hungarian dance by Brahms and the competition between Hynkel and Napaloni as to who can raise his barber chair the highest--are surely the inspiration behind Chuck Jones' Bugs Bunny short Rabbit of Seville (1950), demonstrating Chaplin's continued impact on other filmmakers.
Some sources credit the initial concept for the film with a 1937 conversation between Chaplin and film producer Alexander Korda. However, Konrad Bercovici, a writer and close friend of Chaplin, sued Chaplin for five million dollars in 1942, claiming to be the author of the original story. The case was eventually settled for approximately $90,000. Such lawsuits over creative works are hardly uncommon - the French production company Tobis had previously attempted unsuccessfully to sue Chaplin over the alleged resemblance between Modern Times and Rene Clair's A Nous La Liberte (1931), to give just one example. However, Bercovici's case appears to have some merit: for her 1997 biography of Chaplin, Joyce Milton uncovered Bercovici's original treatment and quoted it at length. She suggests that Chaplin's failure to give credit was due at least in part to a desire to distance himself from Bercovici, who had run afoul of the Communist Party (with which Chaplin associated) thanks to his comparisons of Stalin to Hitler.
Chaplin's attempt to satirize deadly serious subject matter was destined to be controversial. In 1938, once word spread about the project, German Consul George Gyssling wrote a letter of protest to Joseph Breen, head of the Production Code Administration, regarding Chaplin's plans to "burlesque" Hitler. Once the film was released, critics expressed mixed feelings about the film's approach. On the one hand, the reviewer in Variety felt that the film would be a hit with audiences in spite of "the portions of the film which dwell too strongly on the persecution of Jews in Germany, the pathetic lot of the ghetto unfortunates, or the manner in which Chaplin burlesques the dictatorships." Film critic Otis Ferguson was more critical, describing the film's central difficulty with his usual eloquence: "When this is funny it is funny as always [...] but it is also tragic because a people is being persecuted; these Jews are straight characters, not the old cartoons; and the laughter chokes suddenly and is reluctant to start again. Chaplin likes to pull out all the stops on sentimental passages, but this thing is too near and meaningful. It isn't that a comedian should be denied indignation and kept clowning forever; it is that old thing in all art of the demands of unity, of a complete or sustained mood or tone. He was always a funny figure against the rude world, but the gulf between a kick in the pants and a pogrom is something even his talent for the humorous-pathetic will not cross. And his unrelieved six-minute exhortation to the downtrodden of the world, look up stand up, etc., is not only a bad case of overwriting but dramatically and even inspirationally futile."
In spite of such reservations, the film was Chaplin's greatest financial success to date and received five Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor (Chaplin), Best Supporting Actor (Jack Oakie), Best Original Screenplay (Chaplin) and Best Score (Meredith Willson). Chaplin, of course, would not be the only great comedian to take on such subject matter. Jerry Lewis directed and starred in the legendary unreleased drama The Day the Clown Cried (1972), about a washed up clown who entertains children in a concentration camp. More recently, Italian actor Roberto Benigni directed and starred in Life is Beautiful (1997), which earned him Academy Awards for Best Actor and Best Foreign Film. While Life is Beautiful may arguably do a better job of maintaining the impossibly tricky balance of slapstick comedy, sentimental romance and historical tragedy, it can hardly match The Great Dictator's Olympian heights of inspired lunacy.
Producer/Director/ Screenplay: Charles Chaplin
Photography: Karl Struss and Roland Totheroh
Art Direction: J. Russell Spencer
Editing: Willard Nico
Principal Cast: Charles Chaplin (Hynkel and the Jewish Barber); Paulette Goddard (Hannah); Jack Oakie (Benzini Napaloni, Dictator of Bacteria); Reginald Gardiner (Schultz); Henry Daniell (Garbitsch); Billy Gilbert (Herring); Maurice Moscovitch (Mr. Jaekel).
By James Steffen