On today’s episode, I am joined by Logan and Brayden from the Absolutely Gobsmacked Podcast who picked Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 satiric triumph, The Great Dictator.
From his loveable character of The Tramp to his themes of intertwining tragedy and humanist compassion in films like The Kid, Modern Times, City Lights, The Immigrant, and The Gold Rush, Charlie Chaplin is one of the most, if not the most recognizable, and most important comedians that has ever graced the silver screen. Chaplin is often thought of as the film world’s first auteur as almost all of his films were produced, written, composed, edited, and starred himself, all the while being independently created at his own studio at the beginning and height of the studio system.
Chaplin’s impact is still being felt by cinephiles today as you can both see and hear his musical compositions just as much as his style of slapstick in film and television like The Office and Joker. Frederico Fellini once said, “He was a sort of Adam from whom we all are descended.” This statement is certainly true, not just for comedy in general, but more specifically in mocking and satirizing dictators in feature length films, if you really want to know the impact, just ask Ernst Lubitsch, Mel Brooks, Sacha Baron Cohen, Armando Iannucci, and Taika Waititi with their own satires regarding dictators with, To Be or Not to Be, The Producers,The Dictator, The Death of Stalin, and most recently, Jojo Rabbit.
The Great Dictator follows the story of a Jewish barber who crash lands in his home nation of Tomania at the end of the First World War and develops a case of amnesia. After staying in a mental institution for twenty years, our barber is released back into the world and has to adapt to the new Tomainia ruled by an anti-Semitic fascist dictator Adenoid Hynkel who could be the barber’s doppelgänger. After being targeted by Hynkel’s henchmen, the memories of our barber’s life come flooding back and he begins to form a resistance against the evil rule.
During this episode, Logan, Brayden, and myself will be discussing how powerful it is to satirize totalitarian dictators, the seemingly simple, but complicated approach to such a heavy topic, and how the barber’s speech in the film became “The Greatest Speech Ever Made”, inspiring our generation to become more empathetic in order to bring down the same violent and hateful cycle Charlie Chaplin had seen 80 years ago.
By the late 1930s, Chaplin was no longer the man who caused sightings of himself all across the United States, or was The Tramp, he was starting to become old hat in Hollywood and was seen as anti-capitalist with his scathing criticism of American capitalism in his most recent film, Modern Times. As Hitler rose to power, comparisons and similarities were constantly made. From their toothbrush moustaches, poor childhoods, and their mercurial rise to fame, the few things that separated these men were their humors, political beliefs, and their use of sound and the lack thereof to rise to the zenith of fame. One rose with hate, the other, with laughter. Chaplin became increasingly aware of the terrible possibility of another of the world’s unmaking with the threat of a Second World War and felt that the world was calling out for his voice.
As Hitler was stirring up his plans of hate and violence against the Jews of Europe, Chaplin was named among them, despite not being Jewish as “a disgusting Jewish acrobat” in the infamous Nazi published book, “The Jews Are Looking at You.” After this inclusion, Chaplin became furious and felt that his voice must finally be unleashed.
Chaplin saw the humor and the overall ridiculousness of the Nazis with its pomp and circumstance in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will as he reportedly laughed his head off when seeing the film for the first time. Chaplin’s perspective and reactions to the film made him feel that he had to let the world into his own comedic sense of reality in order to destroy this evil rule. Chaplin also knew how through the strength of laughter; people can see the severity of an issue and be moved to act. Although we see Trampesque bits here and there throughout The Great Dictator, the true heart of the film is the level of empathy and love that Chaplin and his characters exude. Although many now know the film because of the speech at the end, the message of that speech is found not only within it, but throughout the entire film. Chaplin wants to show the absent-minded kind of love that Hannah and the Barber have not only for each other, but for the whole world around them as it is the purest form of love. It’s the love that exudes empathy, compassion, and consideration for others, the kind that produces triumphant laughter and hope even in the direst of situations. We all know that love and laughter, and how important that is now and that is why The Great Dictator and the speech that concludes the film is still popular today.
Although Chaplin would later regret making The Great Dictator, due to the later revealed context of the true level of horror of the Holocaust, his approach to what he knew of the Nazis led to the levity and the impact that artists have when criticizing dictators today. Famous author Ray Bradbury described the effect of the film in The Tramp and the Dictator stating; “When you are faced by the totalitarian regimes and the madness they inflicted on the world, courage isn’t enough. You have to be able to laugh in their face, throw back your head and say ‘you don’t count, I discount you this way, I give you the laugh of all time, the great laugh of acceptance, which melts you down.” As long as there will be evil men, they’ll be people like Charlie Chaplin to melt them down.