In 1938, Charles Chaplin deposited with the Library of Congress a script for a film to be called The Dictator, and told the press it was a project in which he would play a double role. He clearly had Hitler in mind, and a headline in the English newspaper the Daily Mail read, “Chaplin (and Moustache) to Satirise Dictators”—presumably, Mussolini was in the larger plan somewhere. Chaplin shot the movie during 1939 and showed an almost final version to friends in March 1940. The Great Dictator, as it was now called, opened in New York in October 1940 and ran for fifteen weeks, in spite of a great deal of Hollywood worry about offending the European dictators, with whom the U.S. was not yet at war. The London premiere took place in December 1940, in the midst of heavy German air raids over the city. It was banned in occupied Europe and in Latin America.
Much had happened in the world while the film was being made. Hitler and Mussolini had formed the Axis, and Hitler had signed a nonaggression pact with Stalin, invaded Poland, Denmark, Holland, and Belgium, and occupied Paris and much of the rest of France. Was this a time to be funny about dictators? Even Chaplin, well into production, had his doubts—ultimately assuaged, we are told, by an encouraging message from President Roosevelt. Still, it must have been hard for Chaplin fans around the world to imagine how his style of comedy could tackle so ugly and resistant a subject. His most recent work, Modern Times (1936), widely thought to be both a masterpiece and an anachronism—an all but silent film in the age of sound—didn’t seem to give any indication of what Chaplin was about to do with the medium or with international politics.
Chaplin knew he was taking a double risk: of betraying the artistic persona he had built up over years as actor and director, and of trying (and failing) to laugh at what simply wasn’t funny. His solution was to keep his old screen self and line it up with another—to twin the Little Tramp with Hitler. It was an audacious move, and it works magnificently precisely because we are aware that it could misfire at any minute. The film’s final speech, for example, is peculiarly perched on the edge of bathos. Chaplin pulls it off, though, not so much because of what he says as because of his careful staging of the saying. The Jewish barber, mistaken for Adenoid Hynkel, the dictator, apprehensively approaches the microphones, hesitates, and then begins to speak, not as either of them but as the actor-director Charles Chaplin, miraculously smuggled into his own film. He says some admirable things, but he doesn’t talk well, the voice is too high and thin, and we may think for a moment that sound itself in film is apt to favor the wrong political side. If Chaplin talked for longer, or talked better, perhaps he would become a dictator.
Indeed, even as Chaplin accepts and exploits the possibilities of sound in The Great Dictator, he may in part be using speech to remind us of the beauties of silence. There is a gag in the film that points wittily in this direction. At one point, we see Hynkel dictating, in the modest, office-bound sense. He is speaking aloud, and a typist is taking down his words. Or is she? He spouts a long sentence, and she knocks out a couple of letters. He offers a monosyllabic exclamation, and she types for several lines, clanging the carriage return as she goes. There is certainly more than meets the ear in this scene, and not just because the long-silent Chaplin has become verbose on film, only to be betrayed, it seems, by another technology. He is speaking a mock German that he has made up for the movie, a matter of fits and starts, of coughs, splutters,and sibilants, with occasional identifiable words like Wiener schnitzel and sauerkraut—more like a disease than a language. When the pen on his desk won’t leave its holder, the dictator loses patience with the whole enterprise and reverts to alliterative, offensive English, saying he is “surrounded by nothing but incompetent, stupid, sterile stenographers.” The joke, obviously, involves the Great Dictator’s not being such a great dictator, but it also makes sound itself helpless, a form of impotent fury.
There are other German words the dictator is fond of and that recur amid the gibberish: straf, as in the propaganda saying Gott strafe England (May God punish England), and Juden. He is especially fond of saying, or yelling, these words together, and when he does, his face fills the screen like a blown-up mask of hatred. The Jews are to be punished, or destroyed as punishment for being Jewish. It’s true that the dictator doesn’t like brunettes either, but his adviser recommends going after the Jews first. Then he can deal with the brunettes and rule happily over a purely blond world, himself the only dark-haired person in existence. He is so thrilled by the image of this blond universe that he climbs up a curtain and says he wants to be alone, like Greta Garbo. He then treats us to the famous scene of his semi-dance with the world as a balloon, to the strains of Lohengrin. The sequence is Chaplin at his best, graceful and foolish at the same time, but it’s still startling to think of the historical figure of Hitler shadowing it. The casual mixing of horror and humor here and elsewhere in the film is very unsettling.
There is a continuing mystery about why The Great Dictator is so funny, about why it rocks us with laughter even if we’ve seen it often and think we know all its tricks. It’s not funny all the time, and wasn’t supposed to be, of course. But the great routines here—the balloon ballet, the man being shaved to the strains of Brahms’s Hungarian Dance no. 5, the arrival of Napaloni/Mussolini’s train to greet (or fail to greet) Hynkel/Hitler’s welcome party, the two dictators in the barbershop—and the tiny touches, the skids around corners on one leg, the double takes, the collapsing chair, the crushed hat, the perfectly flung pie, the microphone that cringes on its stem when the dictator shouts, are all immortal, a conversion of the world itself into vaudeville, sheer knockabout comedy.
It’s always slightly dizzying to watch Chaplin’s brilliant imitations of lack of physical control, because he seems to be really falling over or colliding with inconvenient pieces of the world while acrobatically demonstrating how to escape doing so, or how to do so with consummate grace. But what is this vaudeville in the context of The Great Dictator? It’s not satire or critical comment, and it’s not sentiment, sympathy for the little guy, although critics have thought that Chaplin was aiming for both, and missing. It’s not simple mockery either, the suggestion that dictatorships may be toppled by laughter. No, it’s the sense that anyone can be a clown. The difference between Chaplin and the rest of us is that he makes a career out of looking ridiculous, and he’s good at it, even stylish. And the distinctly troubling effect of Chaplin’s becoming Hynkel is that he actually lends him some of his own allure.
Chaplin’s nonsatirical point is that Hynkel doesn’t really dictate, either to typists or to anyone else. He occasionally gives orders, but mainly he takes advice, cringes, daydreams, admires himself, loses his temper. He is too timid to talk to Napaloni on the telephone and constantly sheepish in his presence. There is a moment when the visitor is supposed to come through a door facing Hynkel and have to walk the humiliating length of a ballroom to reach his host. “Applied psychology” is what Hynkel’s adviser Garbitsch calls this arrangement. Hynkel is delighted with the idea, strikes a pose, and waits. Napaloni enters through a door immediately behind him and slaps him cheerfully on the back, almost knocking him to the floor. This is not plotting or skill on Napaloni’s part, just a well set-up joke masquerading as a bit of bad luck. But this is how the ridiculous works: it undoes our plans in whatever way seems most absurd at the time.
A bit of inspired casting placed Jack Oakie in the Napaloni role, since it’s hard to imagine anyone more capable of unsettling a nervous despot than this broad, beaming fellow (whom audiences would have seen alongside W. C. Fields in the 1932 Million Dollar Legs, among a lot of other very funny movies), himself as despotic as could be. Henry Daniell was a great choice for Garbitsch/Goebbels too. By 1940, he had been grandly sneering in Hollywood movies for more than ten years, notably in Camille (1936). He makes us see the master of German propaganda as if he were a champion of mere sarcasm.
We can find answers here to a pair of questions so often raised about The Great Dictator. Didn’t Chaplin fail to be serious enough, even for a comedian? Worse, didn’t he perhaps mistake laughter and the movies for actual weapons, as distinct from domestic or commercial toys? In part, he did. He tried to reduce world history to a series of film characters and gestures, mostly borrowed from his own works. The storm troopers, for example, are versions of the big bully who had been pursuing Chaplin in films since his earliest days, since Easy Street (1917) and before. The Jews in The Great Dictator collectively become a form of the Little Tramp, touching, wily, and sane in a world of madness. Paulette Goddard repeats her role from Modern Times as the charming waif, this time Jewish. All this is entertaining but not much of an answer to the rise of Nazism, the invention of the Axis, and the event of the Anschluss. But Chaplin was up to something else, as the Goebbels depiction illustrates. The Nazis are not finally reduced to comic figures; they are promoted into representatives of a far wider human folly.
The greatness of the film lies in the bridge Chaplin builds between the little guy and the bully, so that in an amazing spiral, the thugs who pursue Chaplin as victim are under the orders of Chaplin the boss. He is his own persecutor, and at the end, he is the voice of resistance to his own mania. The effect is not to humanize Hitler but, in part—and this is an aspect of the film’s courage—to Hitlerize Chaplin. This strategy is wittily announced on a title card right at the beginning: “Any resemblance between Hynkel the dictator and the Jewish barber is purely coincidental.” This is true, in a way, since Chaplin plays both roles, which is not exactly a question of resemblance. The joke, though, if we linger over it, suggests very clearly what the film is after: its casting keeps connecting what its plot insistently separates. There are plenty of other instances of this kind of crossover. Chaplin as the barber waving a razor over the bare throat of a customer briefly looks more murderous than Hynkel ever does. Hynkel in his coy moments actually behaves like the barber. There is even a point in the final speech when Chaplin starts to rant like Hynkel, reminding us that rage in a good cause is still rage. And if we want some evidence from outside the film, we can listen to Charles Chaplin Jr.: “Dad could never think of Hitler without a shudder, half of horror, half of fascination. ‘Just think,’ he would say uneasily, ‘he’s the madman, I’m the comic. But it could have been the other way around.’” Not so simply, perhaps, and Hitler wasn’t only a madman, but the power of the identification within the film is extraordinary.
There has been much debate over whether the Jewish barber is a late incarnation of the Little Tramp or a related but different Chaplin figure. The film itself carries a brilliant visual response to this question. When the barber gets ready to go out on a date with Paulette Goddard, he dresses up as the Little Tramp—hat, jacket, baggy pants, big shoes, the lot. Their outing is interrupted by a storm trooper raid on the ghetto, so that Chaplin is persecuted both as the Jewish barber and as his old iconic screen self—by a maniac Chaplin in a position of alarming power.
There is a complex bit of history behind this setup. The Gold Rush had been banned by Goebbels in 1935 because it did not “coincide with the world philosophy of the present day in Germany,” and Chaplin had been caricatured in various anti-Semitic publications as the archetypical Jew, in spite of the fact that he wasn’t Jewish. “Jewish,” for the propagandists, meant crafty and inventive and possessed of all the unheroic advantages of the underdog, just the resources that Chaplin’s screen character had so often availed himself of. In The Great Dictator, he chose both to repeat his old act and to repeal it. His antifascist argument pursues the fascist in all of us, and the implication of his equation of the victim with the dictator is not only that the comic could have been the madman but that even the good guys and the persecuted, represented by the world’s best-loved clown, are not to be trusted with absolute power. Chaplin’s finest further touch, having made his dictator ridiculous, is to remind us of how much harm even ridiculous people can do. Nothing in the film is quite as frightening as the sight and sound of the ludicrous Hynkel casually ordering the execution of three thousand striking workers. We should know better, but we easily forget how lethal the ludicrous can be.
Michael Wood is the Charles Barnwell Straut Professor of English and a professor of comparative literature at Princeton University. His books include America in the Movies, a study of Luis Buñuel’s Belle de jour, and Literature and the Taste of Knowledge.