The Great Dictator
by James L. Neibaur
Released in 1940, a good dozen years after the talking-picture revolution, The Great Dictator shows silent-screen icon Charlie Chaplin finally conceding to the new format by confronting it head-on with a film that was both topical and challenging. Unlike Buster Keaton, Chaplin was not as interested in the technology of cinema as he was with character and narrative. While a fascinated Keaton wanted to experiment with talking pictures, Chaplin continued to release movies that were largely silent well after sound film had become the norm. Chaplin claimed, in interviews, that if his beloved Little Tramp character were allowed to have a specific language, he would no longer be a universal Everyman. Thus, his only releases during the 1930s—City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936)—were largely silent, save for music Chaplin himself composed, as well as carefully orchestrated sound effects. His choice to allow us to hear the Little Tramp’s voice in the latter film was via a musical number done in gibberish.
Chaplin’s success releasing silent films during the talking-picture era shows how much power the comedian had by that point in his career. Reports in movie-trade magazines as early as 1929 stated how theaters that were not yet equipped to show sound movies were losing business. Mediocre early talkies were drawing several times more than some of the best silent films. By the time Chaplin was filming Modern Times, studios were cutting up their dramatic silent features, which had been box-office successes only five years earlier, overdubbing silly music and wisecracking narration, and releasing them as sarcastic short comedies. Exhibitor H.E. Hoag stated in 1930: “A silent comedy is very flat now. In fact, for the past two years, my audiences seldom laughed out loud at a silent.”
The bigger studios hastily transformed recently shot silent features into talkies by dubbing in voices and sound effects. The smaller studios did not have the funds to accomplish this, and thus their silents of late 1929 and early 1930 received very little distribution, save for small-town theaters that were not yet equipped for sound. But by the 1930’s sound was so firmly established in the cinema that only someone with the status of Charlie Chaplin was able to pull off making a silent picture and enjoying a lofty level of success. One theater in Wisconsin reported record attendance for City Lights, despite snowstorms that closed roads. People were said to have walked through blizzard conditions to see the film.
Evidence has recently surfaced that Chaplin had considered making a talkie about colonialism in 1932, even to the point of having a manuscript prepared. But, for reasons we may never know, this film was not produced. By 1940, however, Chaplin decided it was time.
As the Third Reich came to power in Germany and began characterizing Jewish people negatively, word got back to Chaplin that a 1934 booklet entitled The Jews Are Watching You had been published, claiming that he was of Jewish heritage. A caricature of Chaplin, lengthening his nose and emphasizing his dark curly hair, referred to the comedian as a “little Jewish tumbler,” who was “as disgusting as he is boring.” Chaplin was not Jewish, but refused to deny it, believing such a denial would be “playing into the hands of the anti-Semites.” Friends had already been commenting on the fact that Hitler wore a mustache similar to Chaplin’s, and a rumor persisted that the dictator chose his facial hair specifically to resemble the beloved comedian. More intrigued than insulted, Chaplin chose to fight back using comedy.
As he composed the script, Chaplin arranged to play two roles in The Great Dictator, using his noted resemblance to Hitler as the axis of his film. The humble Jewish barber appears to be an extension of his classic Little Tramp (even to the point of being clad in similar dress). The barber’s lookalike is dictator Adenoid Hynkel. It would seem that the heartless persecution of Jewish people by Nazi storm-troopers would hardly lend itself to comedy, and Chaplin later admitted that, had he known more about the atrocities, he would not likely have made the film. But somehow Chaplin effectively balances the humor with the underlying message.
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