Charlie Chaplin gained artistic independence when he helped launch United Artists, and he began working at a far more deliberate pace than he had in the ’10s and early ’20s. Chaplin made only eight features for UA between 1923 and 1952, and spent so much time on each project that the films frequently changed dramatically during production. After making his first semi-talkie, 1936’s Modern Times, Chaplin began to develop a movie based on Napoleon’s life. But all the while, he heard from friends and advisors who said he needed to scale back his ambition and make a straightforward comedy, preferably one in which his “Little Tramp” character would speak for the first time.
All these ideas—make a comedy, make a sound film, make something politically relevant—coalesced into The Great Dictator, a satire starring Chaplin as both a Tramp-like Jewish barber and the Hitler-like ruler of a country called “Tomainia.” When Chaplin began production, Hollywood was largely following the lead of the U.S. government and taking a neutral stance toward Nazi Germany, but by the time the movie debuted in October 1940, the Nazis were occupying France, and public opinion had changed dramatically. (Some who knew about Chaplin’s plans for the movie, including President Roosevelt, urged him to finish and release it before Hitler’s empire grew even larger.) Nevertheless, few expected the kind of anti-Hitler movie that The Great Dictator turned out to be: one expressly critical of Nazi anti-Semitism, and one that called for all citizens to rise up against autocrats of every stripe.
The Great Dictator’s extended gestation period resulted in an occasionally choppy film, where the exaggerated comedy of the “Adenoid Hynkel” scenes don’t always mesh with the gentler drama of The Barber and his feisty love interest, Paulette Goddard. The parody is ham-fisted at times, relying mainly on giving famous world leaders silly names. (The Joseph Goebbels-esque character’s name is pronounced “garbage,” for example.) And Chaplin’s decision to end the film with an earnest plea for peace seems inadequate now, given the monstrosity of the Nazi regime. In fact, in later life, Chaplin said that if he’d known back then what was really going on in the concentration camps, he’d never have been able to make jokes about it.
But The Great Dictator’s comic inventiveness was so dazzling back in 1940 that other comedians and animators quickly copied Chaplin’s moves. The movie is teeming with funny moments, from the elaborate (like Hynkel giving a gibberish speech in front of flinching microphones, or dancing with a globe-shaped balloon) to the charmingly goofy (like The Barber shaving a customer in time with Brahms, or one of Hynkel’s advisors running in and gushing, “We’ve just discovered the most marvelous poison gas! It will kill everybody!”). The smartest touch in The Great Dictator, however, was having the hero be an amnesiac who wakes up two decades after World War I and doesn’t understand what’s become of his country. Living through the incremental changes that lead to fascism can make the awful more acceptable. That’s the advantage of Chaplin’s slow work-pace: It helped him take the long view.
Key features: Kevin Brownlow’s hourlong documentary The Tramp And The Dictator, tracking Chaplin and Hitler in the 1930s; a 20-minute video-essay by Cecilia Cenciarelli on Chaplin’s unrealized Napoleon project; another 20-minute video-essay by Jeffrey Vance on the long, complicated production of The Great Dictator; color footage from the set, shot by Chaplin’s half-brother Sydney; an excerpt from a 1921 silent comedy in which Sydney played a barber; and a tech-heavy commentary track by Chaplin historians Dan Kamin and Hooman Mehran.