The Great Dictator (15 October 1940)

Great 00

Release Date: 15 October 1940

Written & Directed by Charlie Chaplin

Duration: 124 minutes

With: Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie, Henry Daniell, Reginald Gardiner, Billy Gilbert, Maurice Moscovich

Story: A meek Jewish barber and dictator Adenoid Hinkel look so alike, they are able to unwittingly trade places…

Production: For a long time, Charlie Chaplin had avoided engaging directly with contemporary politics in his work. He had his views, and made them known to many of the great and the good he met during his world travels in the 1930s. His work had, inevitably, been influenced by issues of the day—poverty, homelessness, war, and violence—but he rarely took what might be considered sides or a party political viewpoint. All that changed with The Great Dictator—if nothing else, the resulting film tackling the rise of Adolph Hitler, proved Chaplin’s humanist credentials.

Great 02The odd similarity between the appearances of Chaplin and of Hitler was hard to ignore in the later 1930s. It had inspired a comic song by British performer Tommy Handley entitled ‘Who is That Man Who Looks Like Charlie Chaplin?’ and was often used by newspaper cartoonist to make satirical political points. The similarity was not simply in their appearance—Chaplin and Hitler had been born in the same April week in 1889. This was something Chaplin could not ignore, especially when in the wake of Modern Times the German authorities at the direction of Hitler began to ban his films.

In fact, director and producer Alexander Korda had suggested that Chaplin should make a film based around his similarity to Hitler as early as 1937. By the beginning of 1939, Chaplin had begun work on a screenplay simply titled The Dictator that aimed to satirize Hitler, a ‘story of a little fish in a shark-infested ocean’. This proved worrying to United Artists, who in keeping with most Hollywood studios (and, indeed, most international politicians at the time) was keen to appease Hitler rather than rile him. Hollywood, worried about losing the German market, bent over backwards not to make films that could be regarded as controversial by the new German Chancellor. Studios even went so far as to have their scripts approved by German authorities, notably German Consul to the US Georg Gyssling (who was conveniently based in Los Angeles), before entering production. Any criticism of Germany or of the Nazi party and Hitler in particular were verboten. Chaplin even received death threats during the making of The Great Dictator.

Much of this collaboration between Hollywood and the Nazis did not come to light until much later, but it was no doubt known to those involved or otherwise connected to filmmaking. It seems unlikely that Chaplin was unaware of this, and probably disapproving. This disapproval no doubt drove him forward in the face of the objections raised by United Artists and others in the industry to The Great Dictator.

Great 16Direct inspiration came from a viewing of the Leni Rienfenstahl German propaganda film The Triumph of the Will (1935). Chaplin saw the film with fellow director Rene Clair, who found it horrifying while Chaplin thought it a hilarious production, so ridiculously over-the-top was the propaganda element. Watching Hitler giving speeches, Chaplin began to see how he could imitate and so satirise Hitler’s mannerisms and movements, even his vocal inflections. He followed a viewing of the Rienfenstahl film with careful study of newsreels of Hitler’s speeches, and slowly developed his caricature of the dictator’s oratory. The core of The Great Dictator lay in this simple conceit.

By July 1939, Picturegoer magazine was reporting that Chaplin had begun work on his next film, set to co-star Paulette Goddard (Modern Times) once more, with the construction of a large European-influenced street set at the Chaplin studio. With a full script in hand (an unusual step for the filmmaker), Chaplin was arguably better prepared for making The Great Dictator than he ever had been for any of his films up to that point. Shop fronts on the set had signs written in the ‘international’ language of Esperanto, developed in the late-19th Century (used, perhaps, as Hitler had decried the language in Mein Kampf as a ‘plot to break down national difference’).

Set building was finished by mid-August, just one month before the outbreak of the Second World War. In October, Picturegoer was able to confirm the rumours that Chaplin was ‘frankly and unequivocally’ playing Hitler as well as ‘an unknown Jewish tailor in Berlin’. By the time the film was complete, the tailor had become a barber. Rather optimistically, Picturegoer concluded its reporting by speculating that ‘There is always the danger that by the time the picture is eventually completed and shown, we may all have forgotten who Hitler was.’ This, of course, may have been a dig at Chaplin’s tardy production habits where in the past it had taken him literally years to produce a finished film.

Great 17Shooting actually started just days after the war began and ran through until March 1940, a rather rapid production process in comparison to some of Chaplin’s past endeavours (but not as rapid as Hitler’s assault on the countries of Europe). His first drafts of the script are, at their core, remarkably similar to what was to finally end up onscreen, including a shorter version of the climatic speech. For the first time Chaplin deviated from his use of the regular supporting cast members he’d worked with over many years in favour of hiring several well-established acting names. Henry Daniell, with a reputation for playing villains, took on the Goebbels-like role of Garbitsch and played it rather straight in stark contrast to the comic acting going on around him, particularly from Chaplin as Adenoid Hynkel and Jack Oakie as the Mussolini-equivalent, Benzino Napaloni, dictator of Bacteria. Billy Gilbert, familiar from his work with Laurel and Hardy especially in 1932’s Oscar-winning The Music Box, partnered Daniell by playing the Goering inspired character of Herring.

Having been beaten to the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939), Paulette Goddard was prepared to take the co-starring role in The Great Dictator despite the growing personal estrangement between her and Chaplin. The director had been annoyed at Goddard’s decision to take on roles for other directors, yet he continually criticised her in front of others (including his children) by claiming that she needed extra acting ‘coaching’.

Great 18Chaplin cast Goddard as Hannah (presumably deliberated named for his mother), the waif-like companion to the little barber, a role not a million miles away from that she had on Modern Times (except here she gets to speak!). The big difference with The Great Dictator is that there would be no sunset for the pair to walk off into at the end; the real world situation was too grave for that, as was the breakdown in relations between Goddard and Chaplin. Chaplin noted: ‘Although we were somewhat estranged we were friends and still married.’ They remained living together in Chaplin’s home during production, but the strain between them became obvious to many working on The Great Dictator. Chaplin’s writing assistant Dan James recalled that in the studio ‘You belonged to the Paulette faction or to the Charlie faction. You couldn’t be both.’

Great 19Chaplin’s detailed attempts to guide his wife’s performance didn’t help matters. Dan James noted: ‘There was some anger on both sides, but he worked very hard with her. Sometimes he would make 25 or 30 takes. He would stand in her place on the set and try and give her the tone and the gestures. It was a method he had been able to use in silent films; it could not work so well on a talking picture.’ Part of the problem for Chaplin was that filmmaking had changed, as had screen acting, but his infrequent filmmaking endeavours had not allowed him to keep up with the trends or further develop his art. Essentially, he wasn’t keeping up with the times, and was at least a decade behind everyone else in sound filmmaking techniques. Just as the events between the wars had bypassed the Jewish barber, so developments in modern 1930s filmmaking had bypassed Chaplin who worked as though it were still 1918.

As Chaplin relates in his autobiography: ‘It was inevitable that Paulette and I should separate. We both knew it long before The [Great] Dictator started … Now that it was complete, we were confronted with making a decision. … She returned to the Beverly Hills house, she did not stay, but packed up her things and left. She had gone to Mexico to get a divorce. The wrench naturally hurt, for it was hard cleaving eight years’ association from one’s life.’

Never one to give up on any bit of comedy ‘business’ that he considered a good idea, Chaplin again made efforts to work his long-in-gestation flea circus bit into The Great Dictator, as he had done on The Circus. Returning from the First World War, the barber takes up temporary residence in a dosshouse where another resident allows his fleas to escape from his miniature circus. This was among several bits dropped from The Great Dictator, but a form of the flea circus scene would finally see the light of a cinema projector when Chaplin as at last able to incorporate it into Limelight (1952).

Great 08There is some debate about whether Chaplin’s Jewish barber is the same Tramp figure he’d been playing since 1914. In his autobiography, Chaplin himself refers to the character as ‘the tramp’, and while he speaks it is rather infrequent and not at any length (until the climatic speech, when he is dressed as Hynkel), suggesting that the Jewish barber is perhaps a development of the Tramp figure rather than a simple reproduction (as in Modern Times). There is an argument that Chaplin’s barber is a more subdued and gentle version of the Tramp, with Hynkel representing the anarchic and wild side of Chaplin’s original wild-and-crazy Keystone Tramp.

Great 03

While reconciling himself to using sound—with The Great Dictator being his first true sound (all-talking) production, Chaplin does make at least once extremely clever joke that depends upon sound’s absence, when the ‘light infantry’ pass offscreen in complete silence. The most feted scene in the film is also mostly silent (only accompanied by some Wagner): Hynkel’s symbolic ballet with an inflated globe indicating his intended domination of the Earth, a scheme that is well-and-truly punctured by Chaplin.

Great 11Making a film with recorded sound was somewhat discomfiting to Chaplin, who had been used to the audible whirr of the camera equipment (Peter Ackroyd argues that Chaplin even used this audible rhythm to time some of his comedy) as well as the responsive laughter of the stagehands and others on the set. In fact, sound filmmaking required so many additional people that Chaplin was supposedly unsure of who some of them were and what they were doing (although this seems unlikely for a filmmaker who was at pains to control every aspect of his work, sound or no sound). According to some the always dictatorial Chaplin became even more so on set when dressed as and in character as Adenoid Hynkel. Wearing the costume and getting into character saw some of that fantasy dictator spill over into the real world of the filmmaking. According to his writing assistant Dan James, Chaplin had ‘in himself some of the qualities that Hitler had. He dominated his world. He created his world. And Chaplin’s world was not a democracy either. Charlie was the dictator of all those things.’

Great 14Following the release of The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin had to face yet another plagiarism claim. This time, a writer named Konrad Bercovici (a friend of Chaplin’s since 1915) claimed he had originated the ideas behind The Great Dictator and had, in fact, discussed them at great length with Chaplin. He wanted to be paid $6 million for not only originating the core idea of Chaplin as Hitler, but also as the originator of such specific scenes as the globe balloon ballet sequence (although this dated back to a 1920’s party piece Chaplin performed, as home movies later revealed). The matter finally came to trial, where Bercovici testified he had written a five page outline for the proposed film and that he and Chaplin had discussed it for several hours. Chaplin was, Bercovici claimed, concerned that ‘the State Department says we cannot ridicule the heads of two states with which we are at peace’. For his part, Chaplin testified he had never seen Bercovici’s outline, despite their lengthy friendship. Bercovici had form in Hollywood; he was regarded as a radical writer (dislike by left and right almost equally) and his ‘Red Revolution’ novel The Volga Boatman had been turned into a film in 1926 by United Artists’ co-founder, D. W Griffith.

However, concerned over the impact the negative publicity could have on Chaplin at a time when he was already under great public scrutiny, the writer-director of The Great Dictator agreed to settle up with Bercovici for $95,000 out of court. If Bercovici’s action was a shakedown operation, it was successful. Oddly, Chaplin did not point to a film made in 1921 that had been directed by and featured his half-brother Sydney—King, Queen, Joker—in which he had played both a lowly barber and a dictator, who resemble one another, in a country in which revolution was brewing. Was this family-connected film actually the true source of the ideas behind The Great Dictator?

Great 07Encompassing 559 days of production, only 168 of which were actual shooting days, and costing over $2 million, The Great Dictator proved to be the most expensive Chaplin film yet. It was also one of his most successful, taking more at the box office (taking about $5 million) than any previous Chaplin release. The Great Dictator premiered in two New York theatres on 15 October 1940, a time when America was still equivocating when it came to taking action in the war and at a time when there was still a degree of Nazi support in the country. Chaplin had not only gone against United Artists (whose executives had predicted the film would be a disastrous flop)and the general Hollywood establishment (which was busy appeasing the Nazi party at every opportunity), but he’d also produced a picture that would not gain complete support from the American public, many of whom still felt that they should simply ‘stay out’ of European affairs, as they viewed the war at that stage. ‘More than ever now,’ said Chaplin, ‘the world needs to laugh.’

Nonetheless, some critics saw the timely nature of Chaplin’s scathing satire of those in power in fascist Germany and Italy. In the New York Times, Bosley Crowther wrote: ‘[Chaplin directs] his superlative talent for ridicule against the most dangerously evil man alive.’ While he had some reservations, he called The Great Dictator ‘a truly superb accomplishment by a truly great artist, and—from one point of view—perhaps the most significant film ever produced.’

Great 09There was much concentration on the climatic speech, a clear call-to-action from Chaplin, that the UK’s The Daily Herald dubbed ‘electrifying’ while The Times saw the overall film as ‘a logical development of the mood of Modern Times’. The newspaper noted that the film included ‘a wealth of wit and invention … [and] brilliantly conceived and executed essays in caricature.’ While the film was being made, there had been a suggestion it might be banned in Britain, but that was before the country was at war with Germany. Released just as the Blitz kicked off, The Great Dictator was a very welcome fillip on the British home front (and a suggestion that there may be some support for the anti-Nazi cause in America after all).

As the German military advanced across Europe during the making of The Great Dictator, Chaplin was worried about his picture appearing out-of-date, but not quite in the way that Picturegoer had suggested. It was possible that with Hitler’s seemingly irresistible rise and his rapid military progress across the continent, there would be precious little to laugh about. He kept up with the news, through channels both official and unofficial, and worked in new developments into the film. A major deleted scene dealt with the touchy subject of concentration camps, which had by then become public knowledge, although the full extend of the horrors that transpired in those camps would not be widely known until towards the end of the conflict. The deleted scene features Chaplin and Reginald Gardiner as prisoners in just such a camp who attempt to escape by chewing their way through the barbed wire. This perhaps on-the-nose scene was dropped, and Chaplin admitted in retrospect that ‘had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator’.

Great 01According to Jerry Epstein, the main target of Chaplin’s caricature did see his film, with Hitler’s architect Albert Speer claiming that Chaplin’s Hynkel saw the comic come closer to impersonating Hitler than anyone else had managed. The story goes that despite his banning of Chaplin’s film, Hitler himself had a print of The Great Dictator smuggled into Germany from Portugal and watched it not once, but twice! He supposedly watched it alone, both times, so there is no eye-witness report of Der Fuhrer’s reaction to Chaplin’s ribbing of him and all he stood for. A defector from the Nazi Ministry of Culture apparently related the tale directly to Chaplin, with the filmmaker supposedly responding: ‘I’d give anything to know what he thought of it!’

Trivia: Charlie Chaplin was awarded the New York Film Critics Circle Best Actor award for 1940 for The Great Dictator, but he refused to accept it. It appears that Chaplin felt an award for simply acting (albeit in two contrasting comic roles) was to diminish his talents in other areas, such as writing and directing. He had his press agent Albert Margolies issue a churlish statement: ‘Many hurtful things have happened to Chaplin all through his life, many more than he deserved. But I doubt whether any caused him more pain than to be regarded as a mere actor.’

Charlie Says: ‘Another war was brewing and I was trying to write a story for Paulette; but I could make no progress. How could I throw myself into feminine whimsy or think of romance or the problems of love when madness was being stirred up by a hideous grotesque, Adolph Hitler? Alexander Korda in 1937 had suggested I should do a Hitler story based on mistaken identity, Hitler having the same moustache as the tramp: I could play both characters, he said. … As Hitler I could harangue the crowds in jargon and talk all I wanted to. And as the tramp I could remain more or less silent. A Hitler story was an opportunity for burlesque and pantomime.’—Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography, 1964

Verdict: Possibly slightly overlong at two hours, The Great Dictator was a much-needed film at the time, and the satire and polemic stand up surprisingly well, especially in the 21st Century when many of the same dark forces that the world faced in the 1930s and 1940s appear to be on the rise once more.

Brian J. Robb

Next: Monsieur Verdoux (11 April 1947)


An 80,000 word ebook chronicle of Chaplin’s early films from Keystone (1914) and Essanay (1915), based on the first year of blog postings at Chaplin: Film by Film with 20,000 words of supplemental biographical essays.

Amazon US | Amazon UK

Also available at Kobo, Nook, Apple, Scribd and other ebook outlets.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s