Speaking Truth to Power

(Above: Charlie Chaplin in ‘The Great Dictator.’ Source: Wikimedia)

Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977), one of silent film’s greatest pantomimists and comedic geniuses, was also a leftist-leaning humanist.

To promote its special Italian coffee blends, Lavazza has created an uplifting commercial for a pandemic-weary world. The one-minute ad, “Good Morning Humanity,” weds unifying imagery and soaring music to a speech written and delivered by Chaplin in his satiric masterpiece, The Great Dictator (1940). “Good Morning Humanity” speaks to our time, although it was written 80 years ago.

Chaplin was a vocal critic of Adolph Hitler years before America’s entry into World War II. Yet, The Little Tramp and the monstrous autocrat shared something in common — comical postage-stamp-sized moustaches. The comparison proved irresistible to Chaplin, who was inspired to make his dark, anti-Hitler comedy

In The Great Dictator, Chaplin lampoons Hitler as Adenoid Hynkel, the maniacal, if buffoonish strong man of Tomania. Actor Henry Daniell is Garbitsch (a take-off on Joseph Goebbels), and comic Billy Gilbert parodies Hermann Goring as Field Marshal Herring.

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Jack Oakie received an Oscar nomination for his hilarious Benzino Napaloni, the ruler of Bacteria. One running gag has the two dictators trying to greet each other, but unable to coordinate their handshakes and fascist salutes.

As for those salutes, the swastika itself is ridiculed, having been replaced with a “double-cross.” The Venus di Milo even grew back an arm just to deliver this double-cross to “Hynkey.”

Chaplin also plays “A Jewish Barber,” a Hynkel doppelganger. After a long convalescence, the barber returns to his neighborhood only to find it’s being patrolled by Jew-hating storm troopers. Home is no longer home.

The Great Dictator was Chaplin’s first complete film with sound dialogue. The Barber was essentially the last time Chaplin channeled his beloved Tramp character. Indeed, The Tramp disappears before our eyes when the Barber summons his humanity and delivers his celebrated speech at film’s end.

Beginning production in 1938, Chaplin did not totally understand the depth of Nazi atrocities and Jewish genocide. He later expressed regrets about portraying the Nazis as clowns.

Still, in an era when big Hollywood studios censored their films lest they offend Nazi Germany, Chaplin’s The Great Dictator was, relatively speaking, bold political satire. Chaplin – and let’s not forget The Three Stooges – dared speak truth to cruel power. In more ways than one, his speech – as evidenced by the Lavazza commercial – resonates today.

Where to Stream The Great Dictator

You can stream The Great Dictator for free via Kanopy (available through participating local libraries) or with paid subscriptions to HBO Max or The Criterion Channel. You can also rent it for $3.99 from Amazon and other providers.

About Charlie Greenberg

Charlie Greenberg is a NY-based theater and instrumental composer.

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1 thought on “Speaking Truth to Power”

  1. Love the film. Hate the advertising.

    Just like Hitler’s “People’s Radio” was a machine used for fascist propaganda, so too is modern day advertising. A tool for creating profits for private tyrannies and undermining human rationalities.

    Modern economic theory makes the assumption that in a market economy, the humans that the economy is supposed to serve are “rational consumers”. Yet advertising, by its very nature is designed to play on “old brain” emotions and eliminate rationality, at least until the currency is long handed over and buyer’s remorse sets in! Either that or the seduction of the shiny new “thing” takes hold, until a new and seductive better model comes about. Either way, we consume further to fill our inner emptiness.

    With over-consumption killing the planet, depleting resources and forcing those “expendable humans” of the world to work in conditions resembling the satanic mills of the Victorian era, why do we continue to consume so voraciously? Do we have the same darkness in our hearts that Charlie Chaplan was talking about all those years ago?

    There is a dark irony that a coffee manufacturer is using Chaplan’s Great Dictator to sell their product, given the tragic social, political, environmental and human costs to coffee production. I wonder what the “little tramp” would make of that?

    Modern Times (another great film of his) on steroids!

    Advertisers, economists and governments of many persuasions often work to keep us in the dark on the costs of modern consumption and manipulate us in order to harden our hearts to those who suffer under these private tyrannies and indeed the biosphere itself. If that is not a form of neo-fascism, then what on Earth is?

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