“He’s the madman, I’m the comic. But it could have been the other way around.” – Charlie Chaplin
When I was younger, I always confused pictures of Charlie Chaplin with Hitler. I was not fortunate to grow up in a family that loved film history, but I did grow up with a father who loved World War II so when he would watch those five-hour long documentaries on Hitler on the History Channel (oh how you have fallen Mr. History Channel… American Pickers and aliens doesn’t really educate anyone does it?), I thought anyone with that weird mustache was Hitler. As I grew older, I learned that the man with the wobbly stick was in fact not Hitler but a great physical comic from the silent era. When I did research for this film I found out that I was kind of justified in my assumption that they were the same guy. They kind of are. Hitler and Charlie Chaplin were more similar than just the coal-black hair, distinct mustache and similar frame. They were born four days apart, shared tendencies that would seem tyrannical to an outsider, and wanted everything to be perfect but were convinced they never were. Maybe that is why Charlie thought to do such a hard-hitting satire on the Führer, he saw too much of himself in the dictator.
The film starts out in a general direction that is similar to his silents. He takes his famous character, the Tramp, and places him into yet another poor and desperate situation. Instead of the depression or a factory, this time the Tramp is a Jewish barber forced to live in ghetto after being in a coma for twenty years. He is not aware of the proper ways to act and therefore gets in trouble again and again with the forces that patrol his area. He also falls in love with a poor servant girl and they dream together about a time and a place where they can be free to live their lives.
In contrast is the dictator. Also played by Charlie Chaplin, the dictator wants nothing more than to take over the world and populate it with only the right people. His scheme is clear when you witness the famous scene where he plays with a blown up globe balloon. Of course this scheme has its hiccups. His staff seems to be incompetent and he needs more allies. So he decides to invite the Italian dictator, Napaloni, to his state to discuss a truce. This is where the best gags come in. When Charlie Chaplin has someone to play off of he can be brilliant and Napaloni is a great character to contrast against the dictator. The train scene in particular was a great piece of physical comedy.
The Tramp eventually gets into so much trouble that he gets sent to a concentration camp. However on his way there he is able to escape and dressed in an army outfit, he is mistaken for the dictator himself. He is brought to an assembly and told he was to make a speech. What ensues is the most famous scene out of the whole film. The Tramp pleads for mercy and love for each person living on Earth. Charlie Chaplin is never called subtle for a reason. This speech, though pretty well written, is as heavy-handed as it gets.
Chaplin decided to use comedy in order to advocate for more involvement from Britain and America in the strife happening in the Eastern part of Europe. He saw an injustice in the world and he sought to correct it. Comedy is most effective if it is saying something of the issues we surround ourselves with. I think Chaplin understood this and built a career around this concept. Everything he has ever done in silent and sound films could be considered political. Imagine if Hitler understood this concept as much as Chaplin did… I wonder what would have happened.