In “The Great Dictator”, Charlie Chaplin broke his silence

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The SILENT-FILM era ended in 1927, when Al Jolson asked in “The Jazz Singer” that the audience “haven’t heard anything yet”. Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, veterans of the silent film, had moved to “talkies” in 1929 with “Unaccustomed As We Are”. But Charlie Chaplin, one of the biggest stars of the time, kept his silence through “The Circus” (1928), “City Lights” (1931) and “Modern Times” (1936). It soon became clear that, even as the viewers were delighted with the new audio-visual techniques, he would only speak if he had something to say. That moment came with “The Great Dictator”, which was released in America 80 years ago on October 15, 1940. “No event in the history of the screen was ever anticipated with more positive excitement,” the New York Times write

Chaplin plays the two main characters of the film. The main character, known only as the “Jewish barber”, is wounded in the first war and hospitalized for several years. When he is released he still suffers from amnesia—he has no idea that his country, Tomainia, is now ruled by an autocrat—but he returns home to take over his father’s barbershop in ‘ghetto. He soon falls in love with Hannah, a local girl, and falls apart with the thugs of the regime. In this role, Chaplin largely sticks to the pantomime and slapstick of which he was a known master, shaking a customer to the tune of Hungarian Dance No. 5 by Johannes Brahms. .

Instead, it is Chaplin’s portrayal of Adenoid Hynkel, the notorious, cunning dictator of the title, that provides the most memorable scenes. The food fight with fellow dictator Benzino Napaloni (brilliantly played by Jack Oakie), the dance sequence with a globe and the gobbledygook speech to the masses – “Shtunk Democracy!” – are excellent examples of bitter parody. As one reviewer said at the time: “Whatever fate it was that Adolf Hitler should look like Charles would have dictated this opportunity, for the final picture is utterly devastating.” ”

The film declared with a wink that “any resemblance between Hynkel the Dictator and the Jewish barber is purely coincidental”: the resemblance between Adolf Hitler and the Little Tramp was obvious (some commentators at the time maintained that -turned out that Hitler had copied Chaplin’s facial hair). The two men had more in common beyond the toothbrush mustache. They were the same age, born within days of each other. Both grew up in poverty and, although Hitler was ten centimeters taller, both were seen as small people. Perhaps he assumes the same, and despite the fact that Chaplin was not Jewish, he had long been targeted by the Nazi regime as a “disgraceful Jewish acrobat”, who ‘ banned all his films from “The Gold Rush” (1925) onwards and shows him in opposition. – Semitic propaganda.

“The Great Dictator” was a huge hit when it was released, and was the second highest grossing film at the American box office in 1940. The British government took it as a propaganda piece. But when Chaplin started making his film criticism of Hitler’s regime it was far from universal. When the project was announced, Britain was not yet at war with Germany and said that it would ban any screening as part of its policy of appeasement. The United States maintained neutrality and the Hays Code, which regulated Hollywood productions, prohibited criticism of foreign directors. In 1935 the Marx Brothers were forced to quote the line “you Mussolini can’t ignore us all” from “Night at the Opera”. Almost a year before Chaplin’s film came out, the Three Stooges released “You Nazty Spy!”, which passed the censors because it was short. But Chaplin was internationally famous, and his film was a major political statement.

His message is clearer in a scene near the end. Beguiled by the dictator, the barber was put on the stage to deliver a speech to his great soldiers. Looking into the camera, Chaplin seems to break character – his voice is no longer soft and fake – to speak directly to the audience, encouraging them to “fight to to liberate the world, to abolish national barriers, to banish greed, hatred and intolerance.” In 1964, he would write in his autobiography: “If only I knew true horrors German concentration camps, I could not have done ‘The Great Dictator’, I could not have mocked the murderous insanity of the Nazis.” But watching the film today sees satire achieving its own limits, and surpassing them.

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