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The Great Dictator

The Great Dictator is a film directed by and starring Charlie Chaplin. The film, first released in October 15, 1940, is a satire on fascism and in particular Adolf Hitler and Nazism.


Warning: Wikipedia contains spoilers

It tells the story of a poor Jewish barber and World War I veteran (unnamed in the film) who looks surprisingly like Adenoid Hynkel, the dictator of his country, Tomania, and uses the similarity to help his people, his country, and the world. It stars Chaplin, Jack Oakie, Reginald Gardiner, Henry Daniell and Billy Gilbert. Chaplin stars in a double role as the Jewish barber (the Little Tramp in all but name) and the fascist dictator, clearly modeled on Adolf Hitler. The film contains several famous sequences; Chaplin, as the dictator, bouncing an inflatable earth dreamily about the room; Chaplin, as the barber, shaving a customer in time to a radio broadcast of Franz Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody - recorded in one continuous take. The dictator's famous line `first we get the Jews, and then the brunettes' is typical of the film's satirical take on Hitler's anti-Semitic policies.

The film ends with the barber, having been mistaken for the dictator, delivering a radio address to the nation following the Tomanian take-over of Osterlich (an obvious reference to the German Anschluss of Austria on March 12, 1938). The address is widely interpreted (see e.g. [1] below) as a personal plea from Chaplin. In it the barber asks for tolerance and world peace. The overtly political speech may be part of the reason Chaplin was expelled from the United States during the McCarthy era. (See Chaplin's article for further detail).

In a more subtle political statement, the signs in the shop windows of the ghettoized Jewish population in the film are written in Esperanto. Esperanto was invented by Dr L.L. Zamenhof, a Polish Jew.

Making of the film

The film was written and directed by Chaplin. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Chaplin also received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor, and Oakie for Best Supporting Actor; the film has been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry. The film was Chaplin's first true talking picture and helped shake off accusations of Luddism following his previous release (Modern Times) released in 1936 when the silent era had all but ended in the late 1920s. Several similarities between Hitler and Chaplin have been noted and may have been a pivotal factor in Chaplin's decision to make The Great Dictator. Chaplin and Hitler had superficially similar looks, most famously their moustaches, and this similarity is most commented upon. (There was even a song about Hitler, entitled "Who is This Man who Looks like Charlie Chaplin?") Furthermore, the men were born four days apart in April, 1889, and grew up in relative poverty. The making of the film coincided with rising tensions throughout the world. Speculation grew that this and other anti-fascist films such as Mortal Storm and Four Sons would remain unreleased given the United States's neutral relationship with Germany. The project continued largely because failure would've bankrupted Chaplin who had invested $1.5m of his own money in the project. The film eventually opened in New York City in September, 1940, to a wider American audience in October and the United Kingdom in December. The film was released in France in April 1945, shortly after the liberation of Paris.

Chaplin originally intended to call the film The Dictator, but received notice from Paramount Pictures that they'd charge him $25,000 for use of the title--they owned the rights to an unrelated novel by Richard Harding Davis. Chaplin balked at the conditions and inserted "Great" into the title. (In France the film is known as Le Dictateur.)

Hitler, who was a great fan of movies, is known to have seen the film twice (records were kept of movies ordered for his personal theater). However the film was banned in all occupied countries. In 1968, following the uncovering of the holocaust, Chaplin stated that he would not have been able to make such jokes about the Nazi regime had he known about the actual extent of the pogrom.


  1. Chaplin and American Culture: The Evolution of a Star Image. Charles J. Maland. Princeton, 1989.
  2. National Film Theatre/British Film Institute Notes on The Great Dictator.