In “The Great Dictator”, Charlie Chaplin broke his silence

THE SILENT-FILM era had ended in 1927, when Al Jolson quipped in “The Jazz Singer” that viewers “ain’t heard nothing yet”. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, veterans of the silent movie, had transitioned to “talkies” in 1929 with “Unaccustomed As We Are”. Yet Charlie Chaplin, one of the period’s greatest stars, maintained his silence through “The Circus” (1928), “City Lights” (1931) and “Modern Times” (1936). It soon became clear, even as viewers delighted in the new audiovisual techniques, that he would only speak if he had something to say. That moment came with “The Great Dictator”, released in America 80 years ago on October 15th 1940. “No event in the history of the screen has ever been anticipated with more hopeful excitement,” the New York Times wrote.

Chaplin plays the film’s two main characters. The protagonist, referred to only as the “Jewish barber”, is wounded in the first world war and hospitalised for many years. When he is released he still suffers from amnesia—he has no idea that his country, Tomainia, is now governed by an autocrat—but returns home to take over his father’s barber shop in the ghetto. He soon falls in love with Hannah, a local girl, and falls foul of the regime’s thugs. In this role, Chaplin largely sticks to the pantomime and slapstick of which he was an acknowledged master, shaving a customer to the tune of Johannes Brahms’s Hungarian Dance No. 5. He speaks little, and when he does his voice has a disappointingly twee quality.

Instead, it is Chaplin’s portrait of Adenoid Hynkel, the preening, callous dictator of the title, that provides the most memorable scenes. The food fight with fellow dictator Benzino Napaloni (played brilliantly by Jack Oakie), the dance sequence with a globe and the gobbledygook speech to the masses—“Democracy Shtunk!”—are masterpieces of bitter parody. As one reviewer noted at the time: “Whatever fate it was that decreed Adolf Hitler should look like Charlie must have ordained this opportunity, for the caricature of the former is devastating.”

The film declared with a wink that “any resemblance between Hynkel the Dictator and the Jewish barber is purely coincidental”: the likeness of Adolf Hitler and the Little Tramp was obvious (some commentators at the time speculated that Hitler had copied Chaplin’s facial hair). There were more similarities between the two men beyond the toothbrush mustache. They were the same age, born within days of each other. They both grew up in poverty and, although Hitler was ten centimetres taller, both were perceived as little men. Perhaps resenting this similarity, and despite the fact that Chaplin was not actually Jewish, the Nazi regime had long targeted him as “a disgusting Jewish acrobat”, banning all his films from “The Gold Rush” (1925) onwards and featuring him in anti-Semitic propaganda.


“The Great Dictator” was wildly popular upon its release, becoming the second-highest-grossing movie at the American box office in 1940. The British government embraced it as a work of propaganda. Yet when Chaplin had started to make his film criticism of the Hitler regime was far from universal. When the project was announced Britain was not yet at war with Germany and said that it would ban any screenings as part of its policy of appeasement. The United States was maintaining neutrality and the Hays Code, which governed Hollywood productions, forbade the criticism of foreign leaders. In 1935 the Marx Brothers had been forced to drop the line “you can’t Mussolini all of us” from “Night at the Opera”. Almost a year before Chaplin’s film came out, the Three Stooges released “You Nazty Spy!”, which slipped past the censors because it was a short. But Chaplin was internationally famous, and his film was a major political statement.

Its message is starkest in a scene towards the end. Mistaken for the dictator, the barber has been thrust on stage to deliver a speech to his massed troops. Staring into the camera, Chaplin seems to break character—his voice no longer meek and mousy—to speak directly to the audience, exhorting them to “fight to free the world, to do away with national barriers, to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance.” In 1964, he would write in his autobiography: “Had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made ‘The Great Dictator’, I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis.” Yet watching the film today is to see satire realise its own limits, and transcend them.

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