Remembering Charlie Chaplin

Chauncey K. Robinson
Saturday, April 16 this year marked the 133rd birthday of one of the most iconic entertainers in modern history, Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin’s career spanned more than 75 years, from his childhood in the Victorian era to the late 1970s.
From the silent era of cinema to the talkies (movies with spoken dialogue), Chaplin created memorable characters, such as the Tramp, that came to influence much of the film world today. It seems only fitting, in these current politically tumultuous times, to highlight Chaplin by revisiting perhaps one of his most influential works that eerily still holds heavy weight today. The Great Dictator, a film that satirized fascist Adolf Hitler, was a powerful piece when it came out 82 years ago. Unfortunately now, in the year 2022, society is still grappling with the lessons the movie tried to bestow upon the world.
The Great Dictator is a comedy-drama written, directed, produced, and starring Charlie Chaplin. The film also marks Chaplin’s first full sound “talkie” feature. The movie tells the story of a Jewish soldier who, while fighting for the Central Powers (German Empire, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and the Kingdom of Bulgaria) during World War I, becomes injured and ends up suffering from amnesia.
For twenty years he stays in the hospital having no idea that since the end of the war, a fascist regime had risen to power under the ruthless leadership of Adenoid Hynkel, (also played by Chaplin), in his country of Tomainia. The soldier attempts to reclaim his life as the residential barber in his former neighborhood but is violently informed that his people, and anyone else not considered Aryan (so-called pure white race), are secondary citizens with little to no rights under the new fascist regime.
This is a film that unabashedly took aim at Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party who were in power in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. There had been parodies of Hitler in previous works. Such as You Nazty Spy by the Three Stooges, and a German film called The Testament of Dr. Mabuse by Fritz Lang. Yet, Chaplin’s feature-length film would be the one to truly make a splash in American cinemas and the world over.
This was powerful given that at the time Chaplin was considered perhaps one of the biggest known stars in the world, and put up much of his own money in order to have the film produced. But to understand the significance of The Great Dictator, it is important to understand the work and politics surrounding the man who created it.
Chaplin was a man whose childhood was one filled with poverty and struggle. He was in and out of London workhouses as early as when he was only eight years old. Workhouses were places where those who could not provide for themselves financially were sent to work and live under often strict and repressive conditions. By the time he was a teenager, Chaplin worked his way to the stage entering show business. This would set his life on a trajectory of fame, fortune, and soon controversy.
Since the beginning of his film stardom, Chaplin crafted and evolved his famous Tramp character. This character would come to symbolize the everyday working man trying to achieve some semblance of the elusive “American Dream.” The Tramp was the underdog and the worker, who often found himself in clashes with those in authority who sought to repress and beat down those who were not wealthy and in power. This theme is perhaps the most prominent in his 1936 silent comedy film Modern Times.
In Modern Times Chaplin’s Tramp character is an assembly line factory worker who just can’t catch a break. Living during the Great Depression era he is run down by the constant stress of working in a factory with little to no rest. He eventually suffers a breakdown that lands him on unemployment. From there he tries to find his way through different jobs, worker demonstrations, and even a workers’ strike. This is all to no avail as he still finds himself struggling, but somehow continues onward to an uncertain but hopeful future. It was in this sort of slice of life type movie where Chaplin took on the larger plight of working people having their labour exploited under a growing industrialized capitalist system in the early 1900s.
It is then no wonder that his growing popularity and left-leaning politics would put him on the radar of those in the United States fueling the anti-communist and anti-leftist rhetoric. The Great Dictator would take Chaplin’s criticism of exploitation and oppression and place it on a world scale.
The character of Hynkel is overtly a parody of Adolf Hitler. Other characters in the film are parodies of leading officers in Hitler’s regime. The character of Benzino Napaloni is even a parody of Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. Yes, there are slapstick antics throughout the film of physical comedy and silliness, but the real humor is found in the film’s wit in taking on the ridiculousness of fascism and repression. The Great Dictator strikes a near perfect balance of providing humor without making light of the danger that men like Hynkel bring to the world.
The Jews in Tomainia serve as scapegoats for a leadership that cannot provide sustainable food and resources for its inhabitants. Hynkel is fueled by greed, ego, and hatred. Chaplin’s Barber (Tramp) character symbolizes the everyday man attempting to make some sense of this world he is thrust into. Along the way, he meets characters who attempt forms of resistance in their own ways.
This kind of inner strength is exemplified through the character of Hannah, played by Jewish actress Paulette Goddard. Hannah has a fiery spirit that has her physically taking on the fascist storm troopers who terrorize the Jewish ghetto where she lives alongside the Barber. On the surface, one could dismiss her character as simply a love interest of the Barber, but she is much more than that. She’s a woman down on her luck, living in near poverty except for the grace of her neighbors, who still finds the will to fight against the oppression and wrong she witnesses. One could see it as a nod to the pivotal role women often play in struggles against various forms of oppression, in particular their own.
It seems poignant that in the final scene where the Barber gives a speech that is now considered one of the most famous in cinematic history, its weight is shown to affect Hannah the most, as she looks towards the sky despite the war-torn world and sees hope of what could be.
And what a powerful final speech that it is. The Barber, in being mistaken for the Hynkel, is forced to make a speech. When he reaches the mic, the often soft-spoken character truly finds his voice and rallies the people. The whole speech is dynamic, but there are some memorable lines that specifically stand out, given the time in which they were delivered. Such as: “I should like to help everyone if possible; Jew, Gentile, black man, white, we all want to help one another.” Mind you, this is a major motion picture in the 1940s when anti-Semitism is running rampant and Jim Crow is alive and well in the United States of America.
It is no wonder that by the mid-1940s the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), J. Edgar Hoover, began an open pursuit to blacklist Chaplin. Reportedly the FBI referred to Chaplin as a “parlour Bolshevik,” and believed he was a communist sympathizer. Hoover used a paternity suit against Chaplin to mount a smear campaign to damage the comedian’s career and public image. Through trumped up charges Chaplin was banned from re-entering the U.S. He would go on to release a statement in which he condemned what he saw as reactionary groups for creating an “unhealthy atmosphere in which liberal-minded individuals” could be “singled out and persecuted.”
Chaplin would refuse to fight for re-entry to the U.S. for this very reason, and lived out the rest of his days in Switzerland. Although he would continue to make movies, it would take years, and a political shift, before Chaplin’s work would be able to be fully appreciated in the United States on a wide scale again. In the year 2022, our society is in great need to take heed to many of the lessons his work, in particular, The Great Dictator attempted to teach us.
In our current times, we have those in power promising a lot but giving too little. We have politicians vying for offices trying to distract working people from a system that offers more hardship and exploitation. Gains have been made, but there is plenty of progress left to achieve. The Great Dictator isn’t a relic of a forgotten time, but a piece of living history that still holds relevance today. We may not have a current Hynkel, but we do have powerful capitalists whose main priorities are profits and not people, and because of this, we and the planet are on a collision course to destruction.
As the Barber begins to close his speech he declares, “Let us fight to free the world to do away with national barriers, to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance‚Ķ Soldiers, in the name of democracy, let us all unite.”
It may be Chaplin’s birthday, but it is society that has a chance to acknowledge this gift of cinematic storytelling and place it in our arsenal of resources that remind us to keep fighting for a better world. (IPA)