What is remarkable about ‘The Great Dictator’ is that Chaplin’s speech about fascism nearly 75 years ago is as relevant today, if not more relevant, as it was back then. In addition, as Chaplin was demonized for telling the truth back then, administrations worldwide today, like Obama’s current White House administration, are relentlessly demonizing and persecuting Americans, after deceitfully pledging to protect them. It is for these reasons, in an Orwellian age when telling the truth is a revolutionary act, that we must spread “The Greatest Speech Ever” far and wide.
Charlie Chaplin chose to make The Great Dictator – a “satirical attack on fascism” and his “most overtly political film”. There were strong parallels between Chaplin and the German dictator, having been born four days apart and raised in similar circumstances. It was widely noted that Hitler wore the same toothbrush mustache as the Tramp, and it was this physical resemblance that formed the basis of Chaplin’s story. Chaplin spent two years developing the script and began filming in September 1939.
He had submitted to using spoken dialogue, partly out of acceptance that he had no other choice but also because he recognized it as a better method for delivering a political message. Making a comedy about Hitler was seen as highly controversial, but Chaplin’s financial independence allowed him to take the risk. “I was determined to go ahead,” he later wrote, “for Hitler must be laughed at.”
Chaplin replaced the Tramp (while wearing similar attire) with “A Jewish Barber”, a reference to the Nazi party’s belief that the star was a Jew. In a dual performance he also plays the dictator “Adenoid Hynkel”, a parody of Hitler which Maland sees as revealing the “megalomania, narcissism, compulsion to dominate, and disregard for human life” of the German dictator.
The Great Dictator spent a year in production, and was released in October 1940. There was a vast amount of publicity around the film, with a critic for the New York Times calling it “the most eagerly awaited picture of the year”, and it was one of the biggest money-makers of the era. The response from critics was less enthusiastic. Although most agreed that it was a brave and worthy film, many considered the ending inappropriate.
Chaplin concluded the film with a six-minute speech in which he looked straight at the camera and professed his personal beliefs. The monologue drew significant debate for its overt preaching and continues to attract attention to this day. Maland has identified it as triggering Chaplin’s decline in popularity, and writes, “Henceforth, no movie fan would ever be able to separate the dimension of politics from the star image of Charles Spencer Chaplin.” The Great Dictator received five Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor.