After all, no one in Hollywood was talking about the rise of this powerful fascist leader in Germany; America, after all, was at peace with the nation, with Henry Ford even supporting Hitler’s rise with pro-Nazism rhetoric. So the idea of an artist coming out against both Hitler and Mussolini was not something Hollywood embraced; why poke the hornet’s nest, after all?
During production, Chaplin almost pulled the plug on the film entirely when he learned of Hitler’s invasion of Poland, suggesting that the man was far too monstrous to be made into a joke. A letter from President Roosevelt to Chaplin urging him to continue on with the movie kept the film on track, and it was released to American theaters in 1940. It was immediately banned in occupied Europe and Latin America.
Besides this fantastic cultural context, of a celebrity artist actively and directly speaking out against a powerful tyrant, the movie is an essential piece of cinema for other reasons.
It was Charles Chaplin’s first “talkie” after making his name in silent cinema, and it was certainly his most conventional narrative film up to that point. Charles Chaplin had always been a fantastic comedian, but with his films, he was allowed to grow as a filmmaker as well.
Where he had started with episodic shorts, he had evolved into crafting longer episodic films, such as City Lights and Modern Times, and with Dictator, he makes an episodic narrative—the film parallels the lives of its two characters through set pieces and gags, but it ties everything together in a narrative style that was pretty advanced for Chaplin.
This episodic format works because it structures Chaplin’s classic brand of comedy well. Whenever I think of the film, there are several pieces that come to mind and immediately make me smile: Hynkel’s first acidic speech to the crowds, the barber’s ballet down the street when he is knocked silly by a frying pan, the two dictators [Chaplin and Jack Oakie as Napaloni] trying to gain the literal upper-hand on each other in barber’s chairs, the insanity of giving someone a straight razor shave in sync with the music of Brahms.
Music also plays an important role later in the film when Hynkel, fantasizing about being the brunette leader of an all-blonde Aryan race, performs an oddly beautiful dance with an inflated globe set to Wagner’s prelude to Lohengrin. It manages, in one scene, to encapsulate everything I personally love about Chaplin’s films all at once: it is at once beautiful and absurd, with a frightening warning emanating from its core. It reduces everything down to its absurdity, but in doing so, somehow manages to give it all a deeper meaning. I don’t how the hell he did it, but it worked.
Professor Lori Bedell
10 October 2012
Let Us All Unite!
In his first speaking role, Charlie Chaplin makes one of the most moving and thought-provoking speeches in history. The Great Dictator, a movie written, produced, directed, and starring Charlie Chaplin, premiered on October 15, 1940, while the United States was still promoting appeasement with Nazi Germany. The film was originally meant to satirize Adolph Hitler and condemn the Nazi party and it’s values. The plot circles around two characters, both played by Chaplin. One is a dictator and the other is an amnesic Jewish barber who is a doppelganger for the dictator. The dictator, Adenoid Hynkel, believes in a purely Aryan state and wants nothing more than to be emperor of the world. That power lust lays a merciless grip on the country, which includes sending the Jews to concentration camps and invading a neighboring country, much like Hitler’s strategy leading up to World War II. Schultz, a traitorous commander under the dictator, who was saved previously by the barber, escapes from being sent to the concentration camps with the barber in tow. Ultimately, the barber is mixed up with the dictator himself. The crux of the film is when the barber is given the opportunity to speak to the people of the two warring countries as the dictator. However, the speech is more directed toward the viewers outside of the film than to the dictator’s audience within the movie, an audience appalled by the policies of Hitler, yet supporting a country stance on appeasement to avoid another conflict like World War I. Taking advantage of a great kariotic moment as the United States stood on the brink of entry into World War II, Charlie Chaplin uses the medium of film and, more specifically, The Great Dictator speech, to lament the pessimism, violence and greed that had overtaken the “free and beautiful” way of life that is inherent in human nature. Chaplin’s use of power and passion in delivery and reflection on the loss of a responsible humanity dedicated to bettering life for all makes for a convincing pathetic appeal that the audience has the ability to reinvigorate the righteous and reasonable life everyone deserves.
Chaplin’s delivery of the speech seamlessly maintains the mockery of Hitler, as Chaplin directly mirrors the common pattern Hitler used in addresses, yet the humane charge Chaplin promotes juxtaposes the barbaric content in Hitler’s speeches, making for an immediate connection to the audience. Hitler had a very specific strategy to his speeches; he would begin calmly and quietly, and as the speech progressed he became increasingly impassioned. Although the content was often controversial and cruel, Hitler’s rhetorical ability was outstanding. Chaplin mimics this skill perfectly.
Chaplin, posing as the dictator begins his speech rather unobtrusively, speaking simply and softly. However, as the speech progresses, he becomes more and more emotionally involved and passionate about what he is saying. His voice level rises, he begins gesticulating wildly, and everything he is saying becomes more relatable because of his delivery. Before the audience even takes into account what is being said, they are intrigued by the simple fact that the presenter is so enamored with his subject. The audience is immediately more attuned to the speaker because of his intensity. They are captured by his delivery, and thus are exhilarated about the subject, more inclined to truly listen and understand the plea that Chaplin is making to better humanity.
Once Chaplin ensnares his audience by his delivery tactic, he is in prime position to provoke his listeners, those sitting in the theater watching his film, to react to his appeal. Chaplin creates a very provocative emotional appeal. He claims that humanity has sacrificed the responsibility to provide a quality life to all people and replaced that responsibility with greed, hate, pessimism, and violence. He uses intensely charged words that cut straight to the core of human emotion. One of the most electrifying statements he makes is that “We think too much and feel too little: more than machinery, we need humanity; more that cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost”. Humanity is immediately criticized, but the critique is warranted. Chaplin’s use of pathos to call his audience to action is outstanding. He uses phrases such as “We think too much and feel to little” to conjure up feelings of remorse and conviction regarding the current state of affairs in the human population. When the audience is faced with this judgment and experiences these emotions, it immediately begins looking for ways to reverse the opinion.
Because the audience is now seeking a path to follow that will allow for the reversal of the current despair surrounding life, they are even more likely to react to Chaplin’s declaration “Do not despair”. His claim that “the very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men, cries out for universal brotherhood for the unity of us all” supplies hope to the population that all is not lost and that life can be made rewarding for all humans once again. He provides optimism to an increasingly cynical society. “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 will die and the power they took from the people will return to the people and so long as men die now liberty will never perish” supplied the perfect pathos at that moment in time. At a moment when the dictator Hitler was forcing his hate all around his region, the future looked bleak. However, Chaplin provides the perfect channel to those listening to realize they can become stewards of the beautiful and free life. This channel is fully opened when he pronounces that “the people have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness. You the people have the power to make life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure. Then in the name of democracy, let’s use that power, let us all unite.” Chaplin’s emotionally saturated statements instill a series of feelings in his audience, beginning with penance, leading to hope, and then finishing with elation and motivation to create a better world where all people are granted liberty and happiness.
At a time when the world seemed to be crumbling, Charlie Chaplin provided a call to action to revive the state of humanity. By accessing a powerful delivery and a very stimulating emotional proposal, he effectively conjures up the deterioration of liberty and energizes his world audience to “fight to free the world, to do away with national barriers, do away with greed, with hate and intolerance”. He fully evokes his audience to stand against injustice and to unite together against the “unnatural men”, mainly the great dictator Hitler. He provides the world with a reason and avenue to better life for all.