After the movie world transitioned to sound, Charles Chaplin continued making silent films through the 1930s with City Lights and Modern Times. Not until 1940 did he make his first talkie. Playing both an unnamed Jewish barber who fought in the first world war and the dictator of Tomania, Adenoid Hynkel. This was the right time, the right way, and the right subject matter for his first talkie. Some of the funniest moments involve Chaplin’s voice (the barber’s confused murmurs when caught in a mist as a soldier, unwittingly finding himself on the other side of the battle and the mock German he uses for the dictator involving mostly food and scatological words, an influence on the language of the Despicable Me minions). Chaplin wrote the story, directed the film, and played both of the leading roles all with the point of leading up a speech he would give, one of the most electrifying scenes in film history.
Though the sound is an important way that Chaplin achieved his goals, he never abandoned the physical humor that made him so successful. He cuts hair and shaves a customer in rhythm to one of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances. He resists storm troopers through a hilarious choreographed routine. Most importantly, Chaplin uses techniques of physical comedy to have the impact he wanted his movie to have. In the scene pictured above, Chaplin literally walks on walls and dances with a giant balloon globe. Although he’s doing things that are common in the silent physical comedy of his earlier years, there is nothing at all funny about this scene. Showing the depths of the dictator’s self-delusion and all-consuming desire for world domination, the scene is more terrifying than anything horror movies could ever dream of delivering.
What makes every scene of the movie work is the fact that Chaplin plays both of the main characters. He mocks and uses to his advantage the strange fact that he (a person of Jewish descent) and Adolph Hitler looked so much alike. He used his comedy, his physical agility, his personal convictions, and even his voice to try to change the world. In 1940, America didn’t have much understanding of what was happening in Germany, and it showed little interest in intervention until it was attacked itself. But Chaplin used this movie to try to convince the country that there was reason to get involved, to fight for democracy, peace, and equity. Several scenes in the movie show a very limited understanding of what concentration camps look like so that today’s viewers may be put off at how much it minimizes the atrocity. This is exactly why it’s important for us to know and to remember that this movie was made two years before the U.S. entered WWII. Chaplin used whatever knowledge he had to make his case and a brilliant movie. Limited as it was, he did everything in his power to fight the Nazis through The Great Dictator.
The powerful speech that closes the movie is not so much a speech to the Nazis of the world though the context of the movie places it there. It is a speech to Americans and to others who at least had the pretense of desire to help others. He called for people to embrace humanity and to fight for what is right in a way that breaks through past the brainwashing and demoralization of both tyrants and of the inner tyranny of fear that he thought was keeping Americans inactive. In hindsight, I think Chaplin would say that had America intervened earlier than they did, the results of WWII would have been more like those in the movie. Whether or not there is any truth to that, watching The Great Dictator is much more than watching a great movie. It is watching the passion of a man using everything he has to make the world he knows a better place.