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.

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

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