Charles Chaplin made the movie while the U.S. was still technically at peace with Nazi Germany, and many were still pushing to keep Americans out of the “European war.” The full horrors of the Holocaust hadn’t yet come to light, but Chaplin’s film was a prescient assault on Hitler and National Socialism.
While defending his shop from storm troopers, the barber meets the beautiful Hannah (Paulette Goddard -- near the end of her long romantic relationship with Chaplin,) and becomes an unwitting hero to the nascent resistance movement developing in the ghetto.
Meanwhile, Hynkle plots to conquer the neighboring nation of Osterlich and become Emperor of the World (a scheme commemorated in Chaplin’s delicate, fiendish dance with an inflatable globe.)
In a classic mistaken identity ruse, the poor Jewish barber is taken for merciless Hynkle, leading to a heartfelt plea from Chaplin himself for humanity and justice -- surely one of the greatest speeches ever captured on film.
The Cast of 'The Great Dictator'
But The Great Dictator absolutely belongs to Chaplin. He wrote, directed, produced, starred in, and even helped to score the film. But perhaps most surprising -- he speaks! Anyone used to seeing Chaplin in silent roles will be thrilled by the way he matches his famous physicality with a deft touch for the spoken word (check out his hilarious glottal mockery of Hitler’s German.)
As for Chaplin himself, he said in later years that had he known the full extent of the Nazi atrocities, he could not have made a comedy about it, a thought which makes the film's prescience all the more remarkable.
'The Great Dictator' - The Bottom LineAlmost every scene in The Great Dictator is perfect: the iconic globe dance, Hynkle’s poorly-translated address to the Tomanian people, the musical shaving scene, an upside-down airplane, all capped by Chaplin’s heartrending final soliloquy.
But the film is still more that the sum of its parts (no matter how glorious those parts may be.) See it when you want to believe that there’s still good in the world -- and watch Charlie Chaplin get hit with a frying pan while you’re at it.
Recommended for YouIf you liked The Great Dictator, you may like other Chaplin films, such as The Gold Rush, Modern Times or City Lights. You may also like such anti-war satires as Dr. Strangelove or MASH.
Just the Facts:Year: 1940, Black and white
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Running Time: 124 minutes
Studio: United Artists