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Premiering 80 years ago, "The Great Dictator" was the first major Hollywood production to take a clear stance against the Nazis: With parody and satire.
When The Great Dictator premiered in New York on October 15, 1940, World War II was raging in Europe.
Charlie Chaplin was one of the biggest stars in American cinema at the time, and many were surprised that he would choose such a timely and political subject matter for his first talking picture.
The film's production history was exhaustively documented in Paul Duncan's 2015 book The Charlie Chaplin Archives, showing how the filmmaker's seemingly effortless artistry was based on painstaking work.
Both born in April 1889, Chaplin und Hitler did bear a physical resemblance — at least as concerns Chaplin's recurrent character, the Tramp. "In those days in Munich I lived in the Thiersh Strasse," recalled the author William Walter Crotch in the periodical New Statesman, "and I frequently noticed in the street a man who vaguely reminded me of a militant edition of Charles Chaplin, owing to his characteristic mustache and his bouncing way of walking."
His grocer later told Crotch that the person in question was a certain Herr Adolf Hitler, the leader of a tiny political fringe group.
The Hitler-Chaplin connection went back years before the film, when the filmmaker was denounced by nationalist forces in Germany. The propaganda paper Der Stürmer noted in 1926: "Charlie Chaplin is a Jew. His plots are those of a petty thief who repeatedly gets into conflict with the law."
In "The Great Dictator" Adolf Hitler is now Adenoid Hynkel
That statement itself was fiction; Chaplin was not Jewish, but he refused to make a public statement to that effect. "His stance was that anyone denying that would play into the hands of anti-Semites," said British politician and filmmaker Ivor Montagu. Solidarity with Jews is one of the central messages in Chaplin's film.
Parodying National Socialism with wit and depth, the movie's director and central character gives a devastatingly spot-on depiction of Hitler's mannerisms. Part of the effect, in Chaplin's first talkie, was a scathing parody of Hitler's rhetorical style and an over-the-top rendition of the German language itself, with exaggerated guttural sounds.
The funniest thing in the world, explained Charlie Chaplin, is to make self-important persons in high positions look ridiculous. And it would be difficult, to paraphrase the moviemaker, to find another such person of the caliber of Hitler. The Great Dictator melds wit, tragedy and humanity in a way that only Chaplin could.
In creating the film, Chaplin met with considerable resistance. It would be another year before the US would enter World War II, Hollywood still did business in Germany, and Jewish persons in the industry were concerned about reprisals. Under criticism from conservative US political circles, Chaplin considered canceling the project until President Franklin D. Roosevelt intervened, asking him to go ahead under any circumstance.
After the premiere, the New York Times praised the satirical comedy as a "truly superb accomplishment by a truly great artist — and, from one point of view, perhaps the most significant film ever produced."
Chaplin later said, "Had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator."
Although viewers reacted positively to test screenings in Germany organized right after the end of World War II, US authorities decided to wait a few years before releasing the film there. Der große Diktator didn't reach German theaters until 1958.