Title: The Great Dictator
Release Date: October 15, 1940
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Production Company: Charles Chaplin Film Corporation
13 years after the first “talkie,” Charlie Chaplin finally made his first film with true sound. And let me tell you, it is very strange to hear Chaplin talking. But he puts words to good use in this startling satire of Adolf Hitler and fascism. Filming began the same month that World War II began and The Great Dictator appeared in theaters at the same time the Battle of Britain was raging. Not knowing the full extent of the Nazi horror was justification for turning away Jewish refugees on the MS St. Louis in 1939, and yet this movie refers to “concentration camps” by name.
Chaplin plays two roles in this movie. One is a Jewish barber who loses his memory in one of the final battles of the Great War while valiantly aiding Commander Schultz (Reginald Gardiner) secure valuable documents. 20 years later he’s finally recovered and returns to work at his barbershop in the ghetto, unaware of the rise of fascism and the persecution of the Jews. In this role, Chaplin very much resembles his Little Tramp character in attire. The barber befriends Mr. Jaeckel (Maurice Moscovich, who liked so much in Make Way for Tomorrow and falls in love with Hannah (Paulette Goddard), who help him adjust to the new situation. Schultz is even able to arrange a brief reprieve of the oppression in the ghetto in recognition of the barber’s heroism in World War I.
Chaplin’s other role is Adenoid Hynkel, Dictator of Tomainia, a not at all subtle parody of Adolf Hitler. Chaplain mimics Hitler’s oratory style, complete with wild arm gestures, in a German-sound gibberish. His depiction of a power hungry tyrant who is vain, irrational, and stupid feels a bit close to the surface to watch in 2019. Other parodies target Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Göring, and Benito Mussolini as Garbitsch (Henry Daniell), Herring (Billy Gilbert), Benzino Napaloni (Jack Oakie) respectively.
It is not at all surprising with Chaplin playing two characters that it will eventually lead to mistaken identity. But what is stunning is the speech the barber delivers in the guise of Hynkel at the film’s conclusion. All the comedy ceases, and Chaplin essentially speaks as himself for several minutes on peace and unity. It’s a powerful ending to a film that I’m still amazed even exists.