When Charlie Chaplin announced in 1938 that he was going to make a movie parodying Adolf Hitler, not everyone thought it was a great idea, especially studio heads. For one, many of them still distributed films in Germany, and for two, many of them were Jewish with family members in Europe. They didn’t want to poke the hornet’s nest and put their businesses or their families in danger. Just like today, mainstream Hollywood was not keen on getting directly involved in politics. America’s involvement in the war was, at that point, far from a foregone conclusion and many Americans were pushing isolationism. Luckily, Chaplin had his own production company and was his own studio head, so he could do whatever the fuck he wanted to. Of course, it was that hubris-inducing freedom paired with extreme outspokenness that eventually got him exiled from the United States in all but name, but that’s a different story.
Chaplin felt an urgency, a responsibility to do something about Hitler long before most others in America felt it. I can’t help but wonder if Chaplin was paying more attention to Hitler because the two bear a striking physical resemblance. It has been theorized, in fact, that one of the reasons that Americans were so slow to take Hitler seriously was because of his resemblance to Chaplin’s “The Little Tramp” character. If a dangerous person so closely resembles a funny person, how dangerous can that person be? Chaplin took that very idea, however, and used it as a rallying cry for unity. A rallying cry which many interpreted as a plea for the US to get involved in the war.
Of course, there were censorship and distribution concerns. Chaplin writes in his 1964 autobiography, “Half-way through making The Great Dictator I began receiving alarming messages from United Artists. They had been advised by the Hays Office that I would run into censorship trouble. Also the English office was very concerned about an anti-Hitler picture and doubted whether it could be shown in Britain. But I was determined to go ahead, for Hitler must be laughed at…” Chaplin used his skill for comedy and his popularity with American audiences to do what he did best: he made a serious situation absurd to make people pay attention.
And make no mistake, The Great Dictator is absurd. He takes cheap shots, like making fun of the German language [Hynkel’s speeches are punctuated with words like ‘sauerkraut,’ exaggerated guttural noises and frequently end in coughing fits] but the larger picture, the overall arc of the comedic narrative is sophisticated. There are parallels throughout the movie, the obvious one being the Jewish Barber and Hynkel [both played by Chaplin], but Chaplin plays out the parallel/juxtaposition in other ways. Frequently Hynkel’s intense hatred is layered over classic Chaplin slapstick, like the Barber evading Nazi stormtroopers with the aid of frying-pan wielding Hannah [played by Chaplin’s then-wife, Paulette Goddard] while a rage-filled Hynkel speech is funneled into the town via loudspeakers.
But it is the way Chaplin lampoons Hitler by giving Hynkel ridiculous mannerisms, such as the effeminate wave in response to “Heil Hynkel” salutes, the dance with the globe balloon, his preposterous pissing contests with the Mussolini-inspired Napaloni, his climbing up curtains—these are the things which stick out to me the most, I think because they are the most blatantly insulting. It also seems modern, because that’s the way we tend to make fun of world leaders today, albeit usually with less absurdity. We take their behavior and we exaggerate it, putting it in front of a funhouse mirror to show exactly how ridiculous it is.
Chaplin wasn’t the first to make fun of powerful world leaders, and he certainly wasn’t the last. So why, then, does The Great Dictator stand out as the prime example for political satire? The simple answer is because it’s brilliant. Chaplin’s resemblance to Hitler certainly doesn’t hurt, and the fact that it’s an overall great film helps, too. But there’s something else: the inherent risk in making this film is just as striking now as it was then. But the danger is what makes it important.
Readers will probably remember the 2014 satire film The Interview, which was pulled from distribution by Sony after Internet hackers threatened terrorist action against theaters that showed the film. The Interview was about an attempt to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, and the hackers were later found to, of course, have ties to North Korea. As Chaplin noted in his autobiography, he came close to similar issues with distribution, but by the time The Great Dictator was released in October 1940, the nation and the world were ready for it. Hitler had proven himself to be definitely a bad guy and while the US wouldn’t officially enter into the war for another year, there were many more Americans who thought the US should intervene. The world in 1940 didn’t have quite the same terrorist concerns that the world does now, but the release of The Great Dictator was still cause for some serious nail-biting.
And now we have a President who really doesn’t like to be made fun of. Being the butt of jokes has been a part of the Commander in Chief’s lot for basically as long as the office has existed, but it gets to this one. That is exactly why we cannot stop doing it and, in fact, should put even more oomph into it. Saturday Night Live has probably been the most direct in lampooning Trump, and look what happens. Trump is easily provoked, he responds, and he looks ridiculous doing so. That is why comedy as protest is so important, especially today. It’s hard for someone to point at comedy as a Great Evil and not look like an idiot; it’s hard to paint it as something violent or destructive as can easily be done with marches. And it’s hard for a world leader to get pissed off in response to being made fun of without looking thin-skinned and weak, which undermines his power. Comedy is significant because it’s appealing. People like to laugh; if they can be made to laugh and gain some socio-political awareness at the same time, that’s a powerful thing.
I’m not saying that Trump is Hitler or even Kim Jong-Un. Frankly, I think a direct comparison between Trump and Hitler is a little disrespectful to what Jews and other non-Aryans went through in the Holocaust—at least at this point. But it is true that Trump is a powerful world leader who seems bent on grabbing even more power. He has a blatant disregard for racial and religious minorities, except now we demand a little bit more from our leaders and—hopefully—no one will get away with a second Holocaust.
What I am saying is that comedy has always been an important means of protest. Political comedy/satire is not easy to do well, and most of them fall flat because they’re either too self-serious to be funny or because they don’t take the subject matter seriously enough. It’s a very delicate line, and part of what makes The Great Dictator memorable and effective as a protest film is that it toes that line perfectly. It’s laugh-out-loud funny for the dialogue as much as the physical humor, it’s got a cohesive narrative, and Chaplin’s speech at the end, during which he quite obviously breaks character[s] and pleads for humanity and unity fits perfectly within it. The speech could easily have felt shoehorned in but, somehow, it didn’t. It tied the film together into a powerful bundle of comedy and political-social protest.
It’s required viewing for anyone who wants to use comedy to take a stand and, right now, I think that’s exactly what we need.