Chaplin's film advanced a stirring, controversial condemnation of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, fascism, antisemitism and the Nazis. At the time of its first release, the United States was still formally at peace with Nazi Germany. Chaplin plays both leading roles: a ruthless fascist dictator and a persecuted Jewish barber.
In his 1964 autobiography, Chaplin stated that he would not have made the film if he had known about the true extent of the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps at the time.
The action starts in 1918, with the defeat of the Tomainian army. A Jewish barber saves the life of a wounded pilot, Schultz (Reginald Gardiner), but loses his own memory through concussion.
Twenty years later, still suffering from amnesia and not having aged a single day, the barber escapes from his care-home to return to the ghetto. The ghetto is now governed by Schultz, who has been promoted in the Tomainian regime under the ruthless dictator Adenoid Hynkel, who looks like an identical twin of the barber (both played by Chaplin).
The barber falls in love with a neighbor, Hannah (Paulette Goddard), and together they try to resist persecution by storm troopers. The storm troopers capture the barber and are about to hang him, but Schultz remembers that the barber had saved his life during the war, and restrains them.
Hynkel tries to finance his military forces by borrowing money from a Jewish banker called Hermann Epstein, but the banker obviously refuses to lend him the money. Furious, Hynkel orders a purge of the Jews. Schultz protests this inhumane policy, and is removed from office and sent to a concentration camp. He escapes and hides in the ghetto with the barber. Schultz tries to persuade the Jewish family to mount an assassination attempt against Hynkel, but they decline to participate in his plan. Storm troopers search the ghetto, arresting Schultz and the barber. They are sent to a concentration camp. Hannah and her family flee to freedom in the neighboring country of Osterlich. Hynkel has a dispute with the dictator of the nation of Bacteria, a man named Napaloni (a spoof of Mussolini played by Jack Oakie), over which country should invade Osterlich. After signing a treaty with Napaloni, Hynkel invades Osterlich. The Jewish family is trapped by the invading force.
Escaping from the camp in stolen uniforms, Schultz and the barber, dressed as Hynkel, arrive at the Osterlich frontier, where a huge victory-parade is waiting to be addressed by Hynkel. The real Hynkel is mistaken for the barber while out duck-shooting in civilian clothes, is knocked out and is taken to a concentration camp. Schultz tells the barber to go up to the platform and impersonate Hynkel, as the only way to save their lives once they reach Osterlich's capital. The barber has never given a public speech in his life, but he has no other choice.
The terrified barber mounts the steps, but is inspired to seize the initiative. Announcing that he (apparently Hynkel) has had a change of heart, he makes an impassioned plea for brotherhood and goodwill.
You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.
Then – in the name of democracy – let us use that power – let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world – a decent world that will give men a chance to work – that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill that promise. They never will!
Finally, he addresses a message of hope to Hannah, in case she can hear him.
Look up, Hannah. The soul of man has been given wings, and at last he is beginning to fly. He is flying into the rainbow — into the light of hope, into the future, the glorious future that belongs to you, to me, and to all of us.
Hannah hears the barber's voice on the radio. She turns her face, radiant with joy and hope, toward the sunlight, and says to her fellows, "Listen."Charlie Chaplin as a Jewish barber in the ghetto, the protagonist. The Barber was a soldier during World War I and loses his memory for about 20 years. After having rescued Schultz during the war, he meets his friend again under radically changed circumstances.
Paulette Goddard as Hannah, the Barber's neighbour. She lives in the ghetto next to the barber shop. She supports the Barber against the Tomanian Storm troopers.
Maurice Moscovich as Mr. Jaeckel, an elderly Jew who befriends Hannah. Mr. Jaeckel is the renter of the barber salon.
Emma Dunn as Mrs. Jaeckel
Bernard Gorcey as Mr. Mann
Paul Weigel as Mr. Agar
Chester Conklin as Barber's customer
Charlie Chaplin as Adenoid Hynkel, the main antagonist. Hynkel is the Dictator of Tomania (a parody of Germany and Adolf Hitler) and attacks the Jews with his storm troopers. He has Schultz arrested and has his storm troopers hunt down the Jewish Barber. Hynkel is later arrested by his own soldiers, who mistake him for the Jewish Barber.
Jack Oakie as Benzino Napaloni, Dictator of Bacteria, a parody of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
Reginald Gardiner as Commander Schultz, a Tomanian who fought in World War I, who commands soldiers in the 1930s. He has his troops abstain from attacking Jews, but is arrested by Hynkel, after which he becomes a loyal ally to the Barber. He later leads the invasion of Osterlich and helps the Barber to become Fuhrer.
Henry Daniell as Garbitsch, a parody of Joseph Goebbels, and Hynkel's loyal Secretary of the Interior and Minister of Propaganda.
Billy Gilbert as Herring, a parody of Hermann Göring, and Hynkel's Minister of War. He supervises demonstrations of newly developed weapons, which tend to fail and annoy Hynkel.
Grace Hayle as Madame Napaloni, the wife of Benzino who later dances with Hynkel.
Carter De Haven as Bacterian ambassador
Stanley "Tiny" Sandford as a comrade soldier in 1918
Joe Bordeaux as ghetto extra
Hank Mann as storm trooper stealing fruit
Also featuring Chester Conklin, Esther Michelson, Florence Wright, Eddie Gribbon, Robert O. Davis, Eddie Dunn , Nita Pike and Peter Lynn.
According to Jürgen Trimborn's biography of Nazi propaganda film-maker Leni Riefenstahl, both Chaplin and French film-maker René Clair viewed Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will together at a showing at the New York Museum of Modern Art. Film maker Luis Buñuel reports that Clair was horrified by the power of the film, crying out that this should never be shown or the West was lost. Chaplin, on the other hand, laughed uproariously at the film. He used it to inspire many elements of The Great Dictator, and by repeatedly viewing this film, Chaplin could closely mimic Hitler's mannerisms.
Trimborn suggests that Chaplin decided to proceed with making The Great Dictator after viewing Riefenstahl's film. Hynkel's rally speech near the beginning of the film, delivered in German-sounding gibberish, is a caricature of Hitler's oratory style, which Chaplin also studied carefully in newsreels.
The film was directed by Chaplin (with his half-brother Wheeler Dryden as assistant director), and written and produced by Chaplin. The film was shot largely at the Charlie Chaplin Studios and other locations around Los Angeles. The elaborate World War I scenes were filmed in Laurel Canyon. Chaplin and Meredith Willson composed the music. Filming began in September 1939 (coincidentally soon after Germany invaded Poland, triggering World War II) and finished six months later.
Chaplin wanted to address the escalating violence and repression of Jews by the Nazis throughout the late 1930s, the magnitude of which was conveyed to him personally by his European Jewish friends and fellow artists. The Third Reich's repressive nature and militarist tendencies were well-known at the time. Ernst Lubitsch's 1942 To Be or Not To Be dealt with similar themes, and also used a mistaken-identity Hitler figure. But Chaplin later said that he would not have made the film had he known of the true extent of the Nazis' crimes. After the horror of the Holocaust became known, filmmakers struggled for nearly 20 years to find the right angle and tone to satirize the era.
In the period when Hitler and his Nazi Party rose to prominence, Chaplin was becoming internationally popular. He was mobbed by fans on a 1931 trip to Berlin, which annoyed the Nazis. Resenting his style of comedy, they published a book titled The Jews Are Looking at You (1934), describing the comedian as "a disgusting Jewish acrobat" (although Chaplin was not Jewish). Ivor Montagu, a close friend of Chaplin, relates that he sent the comedian a copy of the book and always believed that Chaplin decided to retaliate with making Dictator.
In the 1930s cartoonists and comedians often built on Hitler and Chaplin having similar mustaches. Chaplin also capitalized on this resemblance in order to give his Little Tramp character a "reprieve".
In his memoir My Father, Charlie Chaplin, Chaplin's son Charlie Jr. described his father as being haunted by the similarities in background between him and Hitler; they were born four days apart in April 1889, and both had risen to their present heights from poverty. He wrote:
Their destinies were poles apart. One was to make millions weep, while the other was to set the whole world laughing. 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."
Chaplin prepared the story throughout 1938 and 1939, and began filming in September 1939, one week after the beginning of World War II. He finished filming almost six months later. The 2002 TV documentary on the making of the film, The Tramp and the Dictator, presented newly discovered footage of the film production (shot by Chaplin's elder half-brother Sydney) which showed Chaplin's initial attempts at the film's ending, filmed before the fall of France.
According to The Tramp and the Dictator, Chaplin arranged to send the film to Hitler, and an eyewitness confirmed he saw it. Hitler's architect and friend Albert Speer denied that the leader had ever seen it. Hitler's response to the film is not recorded, but another account tells that he viewed the film twice.
Some of the signs in the shop windows of the ghetto in the film are written in Esperanto, a language which Hitler condemned as a Jewish plot to internationalize and destroy German culture, perhaps because its founder was a Polish Jew.
The film was Chaplin's first true talking picture and helped shake off criticism of Luddism following his previous release, the mostly dialogue-free Modern Times (1936), after the silent era had all but ended in the late 1920s. The Great Dictator does feature several scenes without dialogue more in keeping with Chaplin's earlier films.
The score was written and directed by Meredith Willson, later known as composer and librettist of the 1957 musical comedy The Music Man:
I've seen [Chaplin] take a sound track and cut it all up and paste it back together and come up with some of the dangdest effects you ever heard—effects a composer would never think of. Don't kid yourself about that one. He would have been great at anything — music, law, ballet dancing, or painting — house, sign, or portrait. I got the screen credit for The Great Dictator music score, but the best parts of it were all Chaplin's ideas, like using the Lohengrin "Prelude" in the famous balloon-dance scene.
According to Willson, the scene in which Chaplin shaves a customer to Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 5 had been filmed before he arrived, using a phonograph record for timing. Willson's task was to re-record it with the full studio orchestra, fitting the music to the action. They had planned to do it painstakingly, recording eight measures or less at a time, after running through the whole scene to get the overall idea. Chaplin decided to record the run-through in case anything was usable. Willson later wrote, "by dumb luck we had managed to catch every movement, and that was the first and only 'take' made of the scene, the one used in the finished picture".
James L. Neibaur has noted that among the many parallels that Chaplin noted between his own life and Hitler's was an affinity for Wagner's music. Chaplin's appreciation for Wagner has been noted in studies of the director's use of film music. Many commentators have noted Chaplin's use of Wagner's Lohengrin prelude when Hynckel dances with the globe-balloon. Chaplin repeated use of the Lohengrin prelude near the conclusion, when the exiled Hannah listens to the Jewish barber's speech celebrating democracy and freedom. The music is interrupted during the dictator's dance but it is heard to complete and climax in the barber's pro-democracy speech.
Commenting on this, Lutz Peter Koepnick writes in 2002,
How can Wagner at once help emphasize a progressivist vision of human individualism and a fascist preview of absolute domination? How can the master's music simultaneously signify a desire for lost emotional integrity and for authoritative grandeur?
Chaplin's dual use of Lohengrin points towards unsettling conjunctions of Nazi culture and Hollywood entertainment. Like Adorno, Chaplin understands Wagner as a signifier of both: the birth of fascism out of the spirit of the total work of art, and the origin of mass culture out of the spirit of the most arduous aesthetic program of the 19th century. Unlike Adorno [who identifies American mass culture and fascist spectacle], Chaplin wants his audience to make crucial distinctions between competing Wagnerianisms...Both...rely on the driving force of utopian desires, on...the promise of self-transcendence and authentic collectivity, but they channel these mythic longings in fundamentally different directions. Although [Chaplin] exposes the puzzling modernity of Nazi politics, Chaplin is unwilling to write off either Wagner or industrial culture. [Chaplin suggests] Hollywood needs Wagner as never before in order to at once condemn the use of fantasy in fascism and warrant the utopian possibilities in industrial culture.
Chaplin's film was released nine months after Hollywood's first parody of Hitler, the short subject You Nazty Spy! by the Three Stooges, which premiered in January 1940. Chaplin had been planning his feature-length work for years. Hitler had been previously allegorically pilloried in the German film by Fritz Lang, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.
The film was well received in the United States at the time of its release, and was popular with the American public. The film was also popular in the United Kingdom, drawing 9 million to the cinemas, despite Chaplin's fears that wartime audiences would dislike a comedy about a dictator. It was the second-most popular movie in the US in 1941.
The film was banned in several Latin American countries, where there were active movements of Nazi sympathizers.
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. In 1941, London's Prince of Wales Theatre screened its UK premiere. The film had been banned in many parts of Europe, and the theatre's owner, Alfred Esdaile, was apparently fined for showing it.
When the film was released in France in 1945, it became the most popular film of the year, with admissions of 8,280,553.
Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance concludes his lengthy examination of the film, in his book Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema, by asserting the film's importance among the great film satires. Vance writes, "Chaplin's The Great Dictator survives as a masterful integration of comedy, politics and satire. It stands as Chaplin's most self-consciously political work and the cinema's first important satire."
There is no critical consensus on the relationship between Chaplin's earlier Tramp character and the film's Jewish barber, but the trend is to view the barber as a variation on the theme. French film director François Truffaut later noted that early in the production, Chaplin said he would not play The Tramp in a sound film, and he considers the barber an entirely different character. Turner Classic Movies says that years later, Chaplin acknowledged a connection between The Tramp and the barber. Specifically, "There is some debate as to whether the unnamed Jewish barber is intended as the Tramp's final incarnation. Although his memoirs frequently refer to the barber as the Little Tramp, Chaplin said in 1937 that he would not play the Little Tramp in his sound pictures." In My Life, Chaplin would write, "Of course! As Hitler I could harangue the crowds all I wished. And as the tramp, I could remain silent." In his review of the film years after its release, Roger Ebert says, "Chaplin was technically not playing the Tramp." He also writes, "He [Chaplin] put the Little Tramp and $1.5 million of his own money on the line to ridicule Hitler."
Critics who view the barber as different include Stephen Weissman, whose book Chaplin: A Life speaks of Chaplin "abandoning traditional pantomime technique and his little tramp character". DVD reviewer Mark Bourne asserts Chaplin's stated position: "Granted, the barber bears more than a passing resemblance to the Tramp, even affecting the familiar bowler hat and cane. But Chaplin was clear that the barber is not the Tramp and The Great Dictator is not a Tramp movie." The Scarecrow Movie Guide also views the barber as different.
Annette Insdorf, in her book Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust (2003), writes that "There was something curiously appropriate about the little tramp impersonating the dictator, for by 1939 Hitler and Chaplin were perhaps the two most famous men in the world. The tyrant and the tramp reverse roles in The Great Dictator, permitting the eternal outsider to address the masses". In The 50 Greatest Jewish Movies (1998), Kathryn Bernheimer writes, "What he chose to say in The Great Dictator, however, was just what one might expect from the Little Tramp. Film scholars have often noted that the Little Tramp resembles a Jewish stock figure, the ostracized outcast, an outsider."
Several reviewers of the late 20th century describe the Little Tramp as developing into the Jewish barber. In Boom and Bust: American Cinema in the 1940s, Thomas Schatz writes of "Chaplin's Little Tramp transposed into a meek Jewish barber", while, in Hollywood in Crisis: Cinema and American Society, 1929-1939, Colin Shindler writes, "The universal Little Tramp is transmuted into a specifically Jewish barber whose country is about to be absorbed into the totalitarian empire of Adenoid Hynkel." Finally, in A Distant Technology: Science Fiction Film and the Machine Age, J. P. Telotte writes that "The little tramp figure is here reincarnated as the Jewish barber".
A two-page discussion of the relationship between the barber and The Tramp appears in Eric L. Flom's book Chaplin in the Sound Era: An Analysis of the Seven Talkies. He concludes:
Perhaps the distinction between the two characters would be more clear if Chaplin hadn't relied on some element of confusion to attract audiences to the picture. With The Great Dictator's twist of mistaken identity, the similarity between the Barber and the Tramp allowed Chaplin break [sic] with his old persona in the sense of characterization, but to capitalize on him in a visual sense. The similar nature of the Tramp and Barber characterizations may have been an effort by Chaplin to maintain his popularity with filmgoers, many of whom by 1940 had never seen a silent picture during the silent era. Chaplin may have created a new character from the old, but he nonetheless counted on the Charlie person to bring audiences into the theaters for his first foray into sound, and his boldest political statement to date.
The film was nominated for five Academy Awards:Outstanding Production – United Artists (Charlie Chaplin, Producer)
Best Actor – Charlie Chaplin
Best Writing (Original Screenplay) – Charlie Chaplin
Best Supporting Actor – Jack Oakie
Best Music (Original Score) – Meredith Willson
Chaplin's half-brother Sydney directed and starred in a 1921 film called King, Queen, Joker in which, like Chaplin, he played the dual role of a barber and ruler of a country which is about to be overthrown. More than twenty years later, in 1947, Charles Chaplin was sued over alleged plagiarism with The Great Dictator. Yet, apparently, neither the suing party nor Chaplin himself brought up his own brother's King, Queen, Joker of the silent era. The case, Bercovici v. Chaplin, was settled, with Chaplin paying Konrad Bercovici $95,000. Bercovici claimed that he had created ideas such as Chaplin playing a dictator and a dance with a globe, and that Chaplin had discussed his five-page outline for a screenplay with him for several hours. But Chaplin insisted in his autobiography that he had been the sole writer of the movie's script. He agreed to a settlement, because of his "unpopularity in the States at that moment and being under such court pressure, [he] was terrified, not knowing what to expect next."
The Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in Beverly Hills, California, has a copy of The Great Dictator script. The library permits viewers of the script to read it and take notes, but prohibits photocopying of it.
In 1997, The Great Dictator was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant".
In 2000, the American Film Institute ranked the film No. 37 in its "100 Years... 100 Laughs" list.
The film holds a 92% "Fresh" rating on the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, based on 37 reviews, three of which are negative.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2000: AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs – #37
2007: AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) – Nominated
A digitally restored version of the film was released on DVD and Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection in May 2011. The extras feature color production footage shot by Chaplin's half-brother Sydney, deleted barbershop sequence from Chaplin's 1919 film Sunnyside, barbershop sequence from Sydney Chaplin's 1921 film King, Queen, Joker, a visual essay by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance titled "The Clown Turns Prophet", and The Tramp and the Dictator (2001), Kevin Brownlow and Michael Kloft's documentary exploring the lives of Chaplin and Hitler, including interviews with author Ray Bradbury, director Sidney Lumet, screenwriter Budd Schulberg, and others. It has a booklet featuring an essay by film critic Michael Wood, Chaplin's 1940 New York Times defense of his movie, a reprint from critic Jean Narboni on the film's final speech, and Al Hirschfeld's original press book illustrations.