Call it coincidental, call it surprising, that Charlie Chaplin’s first full sound movie would be the boldest statement of his career. What was unsurprising from the start was that Chaplin’s first sound film would be risky for him. It is the amount of risk that has, over the years since its production, been uncovered as more and more significant, more and more great.
Chaplin began filming The Great Dictator in 1939 but had been turning the film’s idea in his head for a few years preceding that. He would play two roles, equally important. The first, with the help of sound newsreels from the war overseas and repeated viewings of Triumph of the Will, would be a satirised version of Adolf Hitler; the second would be a Jewish barber (whom many film historians believe to be a variation on Chaplin’s Little Tramp character), who had lost his memory during World War One and returns home without the slightest idea of Germany’s fascist regime and its persecution of the Jews.
As Hitler’s notoriety increased globally, Chaplin began having misgivings about making the film. Evil had been satirised before. Chaplin had already made a career out of satirising evil, though only the forms of evil that came as packaged ideas. He satirised the machine age in his previous film Modern Times. Before that, greed in The Gold Rush. His start in short films marked the beginnings of a career-long span satirising power, classism, and exceptionalism. The Great Dictator would be Chaplin’s greatest satire of all because Chaplin aimed to satirise all of those things all at once: the power and greed of the Nazi Party, along with its machine-like lack of humanity. And on top of all that, Chaplin aimed to satirise the most evil person in the world, Adolf Hitler.
Evil can be satirised, but perhaps atrocity cannot. Before the full extent of the Nazi atrocities were well known, Chaplin was concerned with being misinterpreted as, for lack of a better word, insensitive. (Years later, Chaplin wrote 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.’)
Despite everything, ‘going after Hitler’ wasn’t the popular thing to do in 1939, whether you were a film star or a first-world nation. The United Kingdom was still at that point adhering to an appeasement policy concerning Nazi Germany; the United States, who wouldn’t officially enter the war until December 1941, was technically at peace with Germany as a whole. Chaplin’s initial statements of intent were met with opposition from a large portion of the film community. Many felt uncomfortable with what they perceived as Chaplin’s frivolous insensitivity, while others were concerned about The Great Dictator‘s possible negative effect on American foreign policy.
Chaplin shared these concerns, but his initial uncertainty about whether to proceed brought upon many personal risks as well. The Great Dictator would be his first full sound picture; after gaining nearly worldwide acceptance as the silent Little Tramp, satirising Hitler wasn’t necessarily the most foolproof way of traversing his success across the bridge to sound film. Because in order to satirise Hitler, the Nazis, and Fascism, Chaplin knew that he also had to satirise, to an extent, the Jews. To make matters even more complicated, Chaplin himself was not Jewish (though the Nazi Party believed he was and wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer).
But that fact meant little to Chaplin in comparison to what he finally set forth in doing once filming actually started. A thread began appearing throughout many facets of the film’s making: in order to make the proper impact, Chaplin would have to play the duplicity angle, both in his roles and in his behaviour. He would play the good and the evil, but he would also connect them. In satirising the dictator, Adenoid Hynkel (whose surname purposely rings of Jewish origin), and bring out his more frail qualities, Chaplin employed some of the clumsy mannerisms that made the Little Tramp loveable. And in order to rally viewers behind an unnamed, good-natured yet altogether ordinary man like the Jewish barber, Chaplin infused the character’s last speech with the oratory rhythms of a fiery ruler, never mind the fact that everyone in the film at that point had already mistaken the barber for Hynkel.
If he took any longer to decide whether or not to make The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin would not have made it. But he seemed to have felt an urgency, something both in and against himself, that took the film through to completion. And now, watching the film, knowing what we know, it feels the furthest from frivolous; rather, it feels even weightier, even as we laugh.