In the last scene of The Great Dictator, Commander Shutz leans over to the Barber, now in disguise as murderous dictator Adenoid Hynkel, and insists that he speak to the gathered crowd.
The Barber’s eyes widen. He looks forward, nearly at the camera, as he admits simply: “I can’t.”
And indeed, for Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp character, a comic archetype born in the silent age of vaudeville pantomime and thrust into the limelight of talking pictures, he truly could not. At least, not for many years.
Charles Chaplin’s first fully talking picture was released in 1940—thirteen years after “talkies” burst onto into movie theaters and changed the industry forever. Chaplin was famously hesitant to make the transition from silent film to talkies, explaining that silent films, especially the pantomime inherent in silent comedy, had a universal expression.
To turn silence into language, pantomime into burlesque, would diminish Chaplin’s intended comedic effect. As he stated in a piece written for The Times in 1931, “Pantomime serves well where languages are in the conflict of a common ignorance.” In his view, talkies were therefore limited by the barriers of language and human expression.
Ironically, it is the depiction of these barriers that makes The Great Dictator such a resounding success as Chaplin’s first film of the talking variety.
The problem with talkies for Chaplin lay in his portrayal of the iconic “Little Tramp” character that served as a symbol of the everyday underdog of his times. In his autobiography, Chaplin explains that speaking would have taken away the universal magic of the Tramp, and would have turned Chaplin into just another comedian. In Modern Times, which incorporated the use of sound effects, Chaplin’s Tramp did at least sing—but only in an unintelligible gibberish.
Chaplin, especially as the Tramp, simply couldn’t speak….until Hitler, that is.
The rise of Adolf Hitler would change Chaplin’s position on speaking, as it provided Chaplin with the opportunity to portray two different characters—one that could remain more or less silent and transition away from the Tramp, and one that could satirize Hitler while also lampooning language for comedic effect by employing a ridiculous mix of jargon and verbal wordplay.
This play on language is front and center during Hynkel’s first speech, where he turns Hitler’s acidic German grandstanding into a new language entirely. English words are thrown into the gibberish, the guttural sounds become coughing fits, and the long tirades get mistranslated into trite pieces of propaganda by the international press reporter.
When Hynkel speaks of the “Juden,” the language breaks down entirely into a boarish snarl; he barks at the microphones, threatens strangulation, and gesticulates wildly. Language is used for comedy, but the interpretation of language is used to strike a satirical point about how the world has allowed this language to be unleashed; the long bout of hateful animosity spewed out during the speech is translated simply into one sterile sentence:
“His Excellency has just referred to the Jewish people.”
The audience both has no idea what Hynkel is actually saying, while also knowing exactly what he means. Chaplin plays language here for an entirely comedic effect while also taking the intensity of Hitler’s real speeches, known to audiences from newsreels shown in cinemas all over the world, and diminishing their rhetoric into the realm of the ridiculous.
Hynkel is foiled by language again when he is dictating a letter in nonsensical German only to have it typed out with four key strokes from his secretary on the typewriter. When Hynkel decides to write a letter instead, he can find no working pen. And when his rant in gibberish German fails him altogether, he reverts to perfect English, exclaiming that he is surrounding by “sterile stenographers.”
Language is confounding and played with in ironic ways throughout the movie, almost as though Chaplin is making fun of the very idea of language itself. But in doing so, he is also showing us his mastery over it. His trip-ups and snarls are almost as balletic as his dance with the globe—he always looks as though he will stumble and fall, but he somehow always manages to avoid the danger and waltz his way through. With his silent movies, he did this in his movement, and with his talking pictures, he does it with words.
But The Great Dictator is not without silence as well. Just as Hynkel is able to silence the entire crowd immediately with a raise of his hand, Chaplin’s portrayal of the barber embraces the delicacy and drama of the pantomime that made his comedy universal. Chaplin’s use of quiet moments, whether it be Hynkel’s dance with the world, or the barber’s dance down a sidewalk, takes away language to show us the universal language of movement and gesture.
It is this balance—of the silent pantomime and the verbal burlesque—which makes the comedy of Chaplin’s first foray into language so absolute. When Shutz tells the barber that he must speak, and that it’s their only hope, the barber repeats the word—“hope”—almost as though he is beginning to remember why he bothered to make a talking picture at all.
In his final speech, Chaplin finally speaks as Chaplin, imploring the soldiers gathered around him, and the movie audiences beyond that, to believe in the notion that hope must prevail over brutality and darkness.
Many critics of the film have said that this speech is out of place in the film, and nearly makes it a piece of propaganda designed to bring America’s name into the war. Chaplin did not agree with this idea, but he did not mind the idea that people thought it was out of place. As he indicated, if he wanted to spend two minutes at the end of his comedy to speak the truth of what he was feeling, what of it? Chaplin, after all, had always been a political filmmaker, whether he was talking or remaining silent.
His short film on World War I, “Shoulder Arms,” was a statement against the concept of sending men to die in war, while “The Immigrant” showcased the difficulties of coming to America in the early 20th century. Films such as The Kid and Modern Times would delve into the problems affecting every “little tramp” in America suffering from the modern problems of poverty, dehumanizing industry, and violence against the working classes.
For his first talking picture, it becomes clear that Chaplin wasn’t hesitant because of a fear of speaking on camera and breaking the magic; he was just waiting for the right moment to use his voice as resistance.
As both the barber and Hynkel, Chaplin found that he knew exactly when that moment was. With The Great Dictator, Chaplin found a way to extend his comedic mastery straight into the barrier of language, break it apart, and mold it into something dynamic.
It was not that Chaplin couldn’t speak at all—he just knew when it was finally needed.
Richard Brody, "Charlie Chaplin's Talking Pictures," The New Yorker, January 3, 2014
Charles Chaplin, "Pantomime and Comedy; Action vs. Words. The Main Qualifications," The New York Times, January 25, 1931