The Great Dictator (1940), Charlie Chaplin’s satirical comedy film, came at the right time and to the right place. Nominated for best picture, the film’s success proved that Chaplin could transfer his silent film slapstick skills to the talkie world. More important, however, is the context of the film. Chaplin’s film, a satirization of Nazi ideology, anti-semitismantisemitism, and Adolf Hitler himself, was released just before America entered the Second World War. Questions of national agitation and appeasement created issues for Chaplin before and during production.
Through this paper, I will argue why Chaplin should be considered a quintessential mid-century auteur in film history studies.
In the film, Chaplin plays both the despot Adenoid Hynkel and a Jewish barber. Hynkel rules the fictional country of Romania and believes in a pure Aryan state and wishes to rule the world. He blames the Jews for his country’s misfortunes and invades neighboring countries, similar to his real-life counterpart Adolf Hitler. Indeed the film is a caricature of the reality of Europe in the late 1930s.
Tomania is Nazi Germany; Hynkel is Hitler; and Benzino Napoloni is Benito Mussolini. The humor of the film comes when the barber is mixed up with Hynkel. The climax of the film comes when the barber is allowed to deliver a war speech to his people. Suddenly, Chaplin drops his comedic persona and emplores the audience and the world to rise against the dictators of the world. The climactic speech of the film reads more like a subtle break of the fourth wall, as Chaplin implores the viewer to take a stance against the policies of Axis countries.
Chaplin’s speech seamlessly mocks Hitler using Hitler’s speech pattern, yet the call to humanity juxtaposes the content of Hitler’s actual speeches.
In 1938, Adolf Hitler had not been fully recognized as a threat to the world. The United States, still recovering from the Great Depression and in a decidedly isolationist mood, still eyed the looming war in Europe as a European matter. Many anti-semitic groups in America openly welcomed Hitler’s policy of Jewish subjugation. At this time, Chaplin was putting the final touches on his Great Dictator script. If Chaplin had made his film at a later date, it is not likely that he would have made it at all. Once the true nature of the Holocaust was revealed, Hitler no longer became a laughing matter. Ahead of the curve as well, the Marx Brothers produced Duck Soup (1933), a film that also foresaw a looming conflict on the European mainland.
No stranger to courting controversy, Chaplin lampooned other figures leading up to The Great Dictator. In World War One short Shoulder Arms (1918), Chaplin’s little tramp character kicks Kaiser Wilhelm in the rear. In Modern Times (1936), the factory director looks suspiciously like Henry Ford. However, by 138, Hollywood only tentatively supported Chaplin’s film. Even before filming could begin, the idea of The Great Dictator enraged many British and German diplomats. Studios tended to keep a neutral tone regarding the war in Europe, so as not to aggravate tensions. A large part of this was due to the financial connection the American film industry had with markets in Germany. A part of it was US studio heads who believed they would become the victims of anti-semitic attacks (Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, Mark Harris).
To mitigate the interference of outside studios, Chaplin involved his studio in the production, and due to his stardom, could afford to finance his own film. When Chaplin announced the film in 1938, however, backlash caused him to take pause. United Artists, the studio that Chaplin himself had co-founded, had worries that the film would not be shown in England due to fears of upsetting Germany. Chaplin persevered regardless. By attacking Hitler through cinema, Chaplin similarly used his star power as he had in Shoulder Arms.
Chaplin’s use of his own studio meant that he had total control over the production of the film. Chaplin took full advantage of his studio control and shaped The Great Dictator into the film he had originally envisioned in 1938. However, his forgotten status as a masterful comedy auteur can be traced back to when he constructed his own film studio in 1917. This total control over his medium allowed him to establish his ostarredtyle. His most commonly cited distinction as an auteur comes from his style of filmmaking, often integrating pathos into his otherwise run-of-the-mill slapstick comedy. Regardless of the film, the audience feels sympathy for his tramp character. Chaplin often wrote, directed, produced, edited, and started hisfilms, many of which featured his famous tramp persona. By doing this, Chaplin created his own brand of comedy in the age o silent and sound filmmaking. In addition, one can approach Chaplin’s entire body of work from a psychoanalytic point of view because there is no problem with attribution. His films are all his filming work. According to his biography, Chaplin was a workaholic perfectionist. His control over every aspect of the film’s production should be enough to cement him as one of Hollywood’s great auteurs.
Filming of The Great Dictator took an astonishing 600 days and the film was presented on October 15th, 1940. By that time, the world had significantly changed. Halfway through production, Chaplin had received troubling news about possible censorship of his film. Will Hays, the head of the Production Code Administration, had stated that anti-Nazi films violated the nation’s position of neutrality. To ease his fears, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent a representative to encourage Chaplin to continue making his film, mitigating the risks associated with the Hay’s Code (autobiautobiographygography). During the film’s production, the British government had announced that it would prohibit its exhibition in the United Kingdom, in keeping with its appeasement policy concerning Nazi Germany. But by the time the film was released, the UK was at war with Germany and the film was welcomed in part for its obvious propaganda value (https://books.google.com/books?id=0x8AFchW4JsC&lpg=PP1&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false). Although America’s entry into the war in 1941 made neutrality in Hollywood a thing of the past, Chaplin’s perseverance cannot be underestimated.
The reception to the film was generally positive in the US and abroad. Chaplin’s fears of the film doing poorly in the European market were also unfounded, as the film drew nine million to the cinemas. The Great Dictator cost 1.5 million USD making it Chaplin’s most expensive film. Interestingly, the film was banned in parts of South America, due to preexisting Nazi sympathies. In late 1941, Buenos Aires unbanned the film, pushing back against Fascist sympathies in Argentina. As a trend, most reviews of the film tend to mention the political nature of the film. In a 1940 review from the London magazine Sight and Sound, the film is called “great fun and first-class propaganda”. In another review from Variety, the film is “applauded for its devilish political critique”. Interestingly, the now icon now-iconiccallat the end of the film was not universally loved upon release. Variety calls the speech, “a peculiar and somewhat disappointing climax with the picture ending on a serious note rather than a comical one”. The British journal Sight and Sound calls the end monologue, “easy to attack”. The Daily Boston Globe review refuses to even discuss the ending. However, the film as a whole is seen as an artistic triumph by all major reviewers.