THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940)
The Great Dictator was Charlie Chaplin’s vehicle for combining satire, politics and comedy to make a mockery of tyrannical regimes and provide a strident condemnation of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, fascism, antisemitism, and the Nazis. The film was his first true talking picture, and followed his previous release, the mostly dialogue-free Modern Times (1936).
In the film, Chaplin plays both leading roles: Adenoid Hynkel, a ruthless fascist dictator; and a persecuted Jewish barber, who is nameless throughout. At the time of its first release in 1940, the United States was still formally at peace with Nazi Germany and neutral during what were the early days of World War II. The Great Dictator was popular with audiences, becoming Chaplin’s most commercially successful film. Modern critics have also praised it as a historically significant film and an important work of satire. In 1997, it was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Chaplin prepared the story throughout 1938 and 1939, and began filming in September 1939, six days after the beginning of World War II. He finished filming almost six months later. In his 1964 autobiography, Chaplin stated: “Had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator, I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis”.
The film was directed by Chaplin (with his half-brother Wheeler Dryden as assistant director), and written and produced by Chaplin. The film was shot largely at the Charlie Chaplin Studios and other locations around Los Angeles.The elaborate World War I scenes were filmed in Laurel Canyon. Chaplin and Meredith Willson composed the music.
In the 1930s cartoonists and comedians often built on Hitler and Chaplin having similar mustaches. Chaplin also capitalized on this resemblance in order to give his Little Tramp character a “reprieve”. In his memoir My Father, Charlie Chaplin, Chaplin’s son Charlie Jr. described his father as being haunted by the similarities in background between him and Hitler; they were born four days apart in April 1889, and both had risen to their present heights from poverty. He wrote: “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.”.
Chaplin arranged to send the film to Hitler, and an eyewitness confirmed he saw it. Hitler’s architect and friend Albert Speer denied that the leader had ever seen it. Hitler’s response to the film is not recorded, but another account tells that he viewed the film twice.