A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
In 1938, the world's most famous movie star began to prepare a film about the monster of the 20th century. Charlie Chaplin looked a little like Adolf Hitler, in part because Hitler had chosen the same toothbrush moustache as the Little Tramp. Exploiting that resemblance, Chaplin devised a satire in which the dictator and a Jewish barber from the ghetto would be mistaken for each other. The result, released in 1940, was "The Great Dictator," Chaplin's first talking picture and the highest-grossing of his career, although it would cause him great difficulties and indirectly lead to his long exile from the United States.
In 1938, Hitler was not yet recognized in all quarters as the embodiment of evil. Powerful isolationist forces in America preached a policy of nonintervention in the troubles of Europe, and rumors of Hitler's policy to exterminate the Jews were welcomed by anti-Semitic groups. Some of Hitler's earliest opponents, including anti-Franco American volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, were later seen as "premature antifascists"; by fighting against fascism when Hitler was still considered an ally, they raised suspicion that they might be communists. "The Great Dictator" ended with a long speech denouncing dictatorships, and extolling democracy and individual freedoms. This sounded to the left like bedrock American values, but to some on the right, it sounded pinko.
If Chaplin had not been "premature," however, it is unlikely he would have made the film at all. Once the horrors of the Holocaust began to be known, Hitler was no longer funny, not at all. The Marx Brothers, ahead of the curve, made "Duck Soup" in 1933, with Groucho playing the dictator Rufus T. Firefly in a comedy that had ominous undertones about what was already under way in Europe. And as late as 1942, the German exile Ernst Lubitsch made "To Be or Not to Be," with Jack Benny as an actor who becomes embroiled in the Nazi occupation of Poland.
Chaplin's film, aimed obviously and scornfully at Hitler himself, could only have been funny, he says in his autobiography, if he had not yet known the full extent of the Nazi evil. As it was, the film's mockery of Hitler got it banned in Spain, Italy and neutral Ireland. But in America and elsewhere, it played with an impact that, today, may be hard to imagine. There had never been any fictional character as universally beloved as the Little Tramp, and although Chaplin was technically not playing the Tramp in "The Great Dictator," he looked just like him, this time not in a comic fable but a political satire.