Arriving five years after his previous film, (Modern Times, 1935) to intense speculation and not a little controversy, The Great Dictator was Chaplin’s first all-talking film and the last appearance of his traditional tramp characterisation, here recast as a timid Jewish barber who just happens to be the exact double of fascist dictator Adenoid Hynkel.
The idea that Chaplin should play Hitler had been suggested many times, but the real impetus to make the film emerged after Chaplin’s first-hand experience of the craven atmosphere of appeasement, justification and even outright support that Nazism enjoyed in certain sections of the Hollywood community.
With America neutral and most Americans keen to stay that way, the idea of lampooning so volatile a world leader seemed to many an unconscionable act of provocation, and much effort was put into trying to close the production. But unconditional support from President Roosevelt ensured the project would go ahead, and Chaplin responded by abandoning all caution, playing Hynkel as a homicidal megalomaniac, ranting in pidgin German, dancing with an inflatable globe, and in one extraordinary moment ending a frenzied oration by pouring iced water down the front of his trousers, presumably to cool his erection.
Supporting his lead performance, Chaplin cleverly cast well-known comic and supporting actors as instantly recognisable caricatures of the key Axis players: Billy Gilbert as Herring (Goering), Henry Daniell as Garbitsch (Goebbels), and, most cleverly of all, Jack Oakie as Napaloni (Mussolini).
It was a difficult shoot: Chaplin’s notorious creative indecision resulted in scores of reshoots and last minute changes, some of them requiring the complete rebuilding of torn-down sets. Meanwhile the events of the war, worsening daily as they shot, threatened to overwhelm the production.
What finally emerged is an often strange and schizophrenic mix of impassioned polemic and broad clowning, even more disquieting in the moments when the two streams merge, such as when Chaplin and Paulette Goddard dodge murderous storm troopers on the ghetto streets with beautifully choreographed slapstick manoeuvres, and in the famous finale in which Chaplin steps out of both characters to deliver an impassioned pacifist monologue. Though he later claimed that he would have been entirely unable to make the film had he known the full extent and horror of “the homicidal insanity of the Nazis”, it proved a valued and successful gesture of comic defiance, provoking cheers and standing ovations when it was shown in Blitz-torn Britain.
Viewed today purely as a comedy and as a Chaplin film it perhaps does not rank among his best, but there are splendid moments, and the underlying sincerity of purpose is still thrilling.