What better day to begin this series than the 77th anniversary of Kristallnacht?
The Great Dictator, released 15 October 1940, was Charles Chaplin’s long-awaited first talkie, after years of his resisting the new technology and feeling it was just a silly fad. It came out at a time when the U.S. had a policy of neutrality and isolationism, refusing to join in the war while Britain struggled alone. I really do feel like this is a black mark on American history, the refusal to do the right thing and join the war until it was forced upon us and we had no choice.
Prior to the U.S. joining the war, there were a number of films either promoting this policy of isolationism or making it seem like the Nazis weren’t that bad. Very few Hollywood films had the guts to be anti-Nazi, like The Mortal Storm, The Great Dictator, Confessions of a Nazi Spy, The Man I Married, You Nazty Spy!, and I’ll Never Heil Again. Some films didn’t even name the Nazis or Hitler. More information on Hollywood’s treatment of the Shoah can be found in the 2004 documentary Imaginary Witness.
As a huge Three Stooges fan, I’m also obliged to point out You Nazty Spy! was released 19 January 1940, beating The Great Dictator by nine months.
As a result of this refusal to treat Hitler and the Nazis like actual threats, Chaplin was moved to action. The story also goes that he found Triumph of the Will hilarious, and watched it many times to fine-tune his parodies and choose some of his film’s content. Whatever you might think about his personal life or politics, you have to give him credit for being a genius filmmaker and having the guts to take on the Nazi machine through humor.
It was very important to Chaplin to depict the growing anti-Jewish violence in Europe, which he found out about from other artists and European Jewish friends. Shamefully, the stories about atrocities were usually buried in tiny articles in the back pages of newspapers, and treated like Jewish or Polish propaganda trying to drum up sympathy among the Allies. Many of these stories came from the Polish government-in-exile in London.
Part of this refusal to believe the truth was a result of discovering the propaganda from World War I had been exaggerated. People had once believed all the Germans were marauding Huns bayoneting old ladies in Belgium and raping women all across France, and thought they “knew better” this time around. Sadly, this was a fatal mistake.
People knew the Nazis were militaristic and totalitarian, even if they refused to call them out on it more often. However, even people like Chaplin didn’t know the true extent of what was really going on. It’s kind of hard to watch certain scenes, knowing what was really happening was a lot worse and no laughing matter. To his great credit, Chaplin later said he never would’ve made The Great Dictator had he known the truth.
Many people had also commented on the similarities between Chaplin and Hitler, since they had similar moustaches. Chaplin was also haunted by their similar backgrounds, and felt it might very well have been the other way around if the twists of Fate had gone differently. The 2002 documentary The Tramp and the Dictator explores these parallel lives’ similarities.
There were also rumors about Chaplin being Jewish, rumors which persist to this day. It’s one of those old urban legends which dies hard, though no one has ever found any evidence to support the theory of Chaplin having Jewish ancestry. He himself once said he didn’t have the honor of belonging to the tribe, and asked to be buried in an Anglican cemetery.
Chaplin prepared the story in 1938–39, and began filming in September 1939, just one week after World War II erupted. Six months later, filming was wrapped, and the rest is history.