One of world history's most bizarre coincidences was the uncanny similarities between Charlie Chaplin and Adolf Hitler. Both were born in 1889, just four days apart, Chaplin on April 16th, Hitler on the 20th. Both grew up in extreme poverty. Each man sported a similar toothbrush mustache. And, as we all know, both were to rise to unparalleled heights of world fame, one as a comedian and movie star, the other as a ruthless, tyrannical monster.
The genesis of Charlie Chaplin's 78th movie, a parody and satire of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, was a little booklet the Nazi party published in 1934 called The Jews Are Watching You. This anti-semitic propaganda booklet was filled with photographs of famous Jewish figures, each one accompanied by a hateful caption. Included in the book was a photo of Chaplin (an error, as Chaplin was not Jewish) along with the caption: "This little Jewish tumbler, as boring as he is monotonous..." Chaplin was shown the booklet by a friend who had procured a copy.
The film's other inspiration was a screening of Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi propaganda documentary Triumph of the Will (1936), which Chaplin viewed in New York with french filmmaker Rene Clair. After viewing the chilling movie, Clair was terrified and declared that it should never be shown. Chaplin, on the other hand, found the film hilarious and laughed uproariously throughout. (Chaplin was later to say that "If I'd ever known of Hitler's actual atrocities I could never have made the film.")
Chaplin prepared the script for The Great Dictator in 1937 and 1938. The film finally went before the cameras in September of 1939.
Film historians rightfully credit the Three Stooges with the first Hitler-Nazi cinematic parody. The Stooges short You Nazty Spy was released in January of 1940. But one must note that The Great Dictator was actually in production months before the Stooges' movie.
Originally, the film's title was simply The Dictator. But Paramount studios had the rights to an unrelated novel by that name written by Richard Harding Davis and demanded a $25,000 fee from Chaplin to use the title. To avoid this unnecessary expense, Chaplin, always a man tight with a dollar, simply added the extra adjective.
Many tried to dissuade Chaplin from filming The Great Dictator, as appeasement of Hitler was the game plan at the time. Chaplin heard from several studios trying to coax him from the project, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent his personal representative, Harry Hopkins, to pay Chaplin a visit and encourage him to proceed with his film.
The Great Dictator was to be the last time Chaplin portrayed his tramp character in a movie (although Chaplin always denied The Great Dictator was "a tramp film," Chaplin's Jewish barber character bears more than a passing resemblance). It was also to be his first full "talkie" film, Chaplin finally giving up the ghost of his beloved silent movies and joining the rest of the world film community.
In the film, Chaplin plays the dual roles of both the Jewish barber and his lookalike Adenoid Hynkel, the brutal dictator of Tomania. Chaplin was to study film of Hitler for hours to get the role just right. As he studied Hitler, Chaplin dubbed him "the greatest actor in Europe."
Chaplin deliberately filmed his scenes as the Jewish barber first, then filmed the scenes as Hynkel, because he wanted to keep the two characters separate. Chaplin also said that when he was in costume as Hynkel he felt more aggressive. Those close to him said he was more difficult to work with when he was garbed as Hynkel.
For his female co-star, Chaplin cast Paulette Goddard, his third wife. During the time of filming, the couple's marriage was deteriorating. Both reputedly were trying to keep the marriage together at this time.
During filming, Chaplin insisted Paulette, who played a cleaner, scrub the floor of the entire film set. She refused, but Chaplin shut down production until she complied. Paulette finally capitulated and did the onerous task, but one has to wonder at the effect this humiliating incident must have had on any chance of any possible reconciliation between the couple.
Jack Oakie took on the role of Benzino Napaloni (a satire of Mussolini), while Billy Gilbert played Herring (Hermann Goering) and Henry Saniel portrayed Garbitsch (Joseph Goebbels).
When Jack Oakie was called in to begin filming, he was in the middle of a diet, but when Chaplin got a look at him, he instructed the cook on the set to "fatten him up."
During filming, Chaplin pretty much followed his script, almost in rote fashion, the only exception being Hynkel's speeches, which Chaplin ad-libbed using a mixture of gobbledy-gook, gibberish, and a few interspersed German words:sauerkraut, weinerschnitzel, blitzkrieg, etc.
Chaplin's famous "dance with the globe" scene was originally supposed to be Hynkel cutting up a map of the world and rearranging it to his liking. It is reputed that Chaplin derived his "globe dance" from popular 1930's stripper Sally Rand, who did a "bubble dance" (Rand completely naked, but dancing behind a big balloon-like bubble, which she held in her hands) to entice her legions of male customers. Chaplin's "globe dance" took six days of filming, over a period of two months, with three more days of retakes. Interestingly, a rare 1928 home movie of Chaplin has a scene of him doing a similar dance with a globe- perhaps the idea had stuck in the back of Chaplin's mind all those dozen years.
Perhaps the most bittersweet part of filming for Chaplin was a visit to the set by his dearest friend, actor Douglas Fairbanks. Since their time together as stars in silent shorts, "Charlie and Doug" had been inseparable pals. Fairbanks came on the set, watched filming, and laughed uncontrollably. Then he was driven off, waving goodbye to his dear friend. This was the last time Chaplin was to see him, Fairbanks would die a week later, in December of 1939.
Without question, the most controversial part of The Great Dictator was Chaplin's final, almost five minute speech, which he recites at the film's conclusion. The famous (or infamous) speech, was originally supposed to be about appeasement, but as production progressed, more of the world became involved in World War II, and Chaplin amended the speech, which now was based on peace and harmony.
In the film, the speech is addressed in the end, directly to Hannah (Paulette Goddard). "Look up, Hannah, look up." Chaplin urges at the film's conclusion. It is no coincidence that Hannah was the name of Chaplin's beloved mother, who died in 1928. One wonders if Chaplin was speaking directly to his mother's spirit in this impassioned passage.
The Great Dictator premiered on October 15, 1940. It was to be a huge hit at the box office, earning $6 million dollars, making it the greatest money-maker of Chaplin's career. (Chaplin had invested $2 million dollars of his own money to finance the film.) It was the second most popular film of 1941 in America, behind only Gary Cooper's Sergeant York.
The Great Dictator was nominated for five Academy Awards, including a Best Actor nomination for Chaplin. The film was shut out at the Oscar ceremonies, going 0-for-5, which upset Chaplin.
The reviews for the film were generally good, although many critics bristled and took issue with the film's final speech, which several dubbed "communist" or "communist influenced." This was to be one of the earliest incidents while helped lead to Chaplin's "communist" accusations of the later '40's and 50's, accusations which would cause Chaplin to eventually flee America and take up residence in Switzerland, where he was to spend the final 25 years of his life.
Adolf Hitler loved the movies. The Great Dictator was banned from viewing by Hitler in Nazi Germany and all its conquered territories throughout World War II. Nonetheless, he viewed The Great Dictator all alone in his private screening room. In fact, he viewed the film twice- each time with no one else present.
Interestingly, Hitler never mentioned his opinion of the film to anyone. Upon hearing this, Chaplin mused, "You know, I'd give a million bucks to know what he thought of it."