Great Dictator, The (1940): Chaplin Directs and Stars in Dual Role

In 1940, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, in which he plays a dual role, Adenoid Hynkel, the dictator of Tomania (standing in for Hitler) and the little Jewish ghetto barber, won recognition as an original hybrid of old-fashioned slapstick comedy, timely political satire, and blatant message movie.

Chaplin began writing the script in 1939, and never shared the fears of other filmmakers when taking political stance was concerned. Predictably, the movie was blacklisted in countries that were sympathetic to Nazi Germany.

At heart, Chaplin’s saga recalls Frank Capra’s morality tales of the Depression, such as “Mr. Deeds Goes To Town” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” At the end of the film, though, Chaplin stepped out of character to make an impassioned speech about freedom and peace, an element that was controversial then and became even more so during the McCarthy era.

Today, however, what most people remember is Chaplin’s image as the lovable little tramp with a bizarre moustache and baggy pants and his ranting, roaring Fuhrer with an identical moustache and a mania of grandeur. Among the film’s highlights is a scene that depicts Fuhrer Hynkel’s dance with the balloon on which the whole globe is painted.

The reviews of the critics when the movie came out ran the gamut from unqualified praise to regrets that Chaplin had left his specialty, the realm of pure comedy, for what they considered an agit-prop film

Paulette Goddard (Chaplin’s wife between 1936 and 1942) plays opposite him as Hannah, a young Jewish girl. The character actor Jack Oakie was Oscar-nominated for his satirical portraiture of Hitler’s ally Mussolini in a character named Napaloni, the dictator of Bacteria.


Hynkel, Dictator of Tomania/Jewish Barber (Charlie Chaplin) Hannah (Paulette Goddard) Napaloni (Jack Oakie) Schultz (Reginald Gardiner) Garbitsch (Henry Daniell) Herring (Billy Gilbert) Mr. Jaeckel (Maurice Moscovich) Mrs. Jaeckel (Emma Dunn) Madame Napaloni (Grace Hayle) Bacterian Ambassador (Carter De Haven)

Oscar Nominations: 5

Picture, produced by Charles Chaplin Screenplay (Original): Charles Chaplin Actor: Chaplin Supporting Actor: Jack Oakie Original Score: Meredith Wilson

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

In 1940, Hitchcock’s Oscar winning thriller “Rebecca” competed for the top award with nine other films: Hitchcock’s own “Foreign Correspondent” (on of his lesser movies), “All This and Heaven Too,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Great Dictator,” “Kitty Foyle,” “The Letter,” “The Long Voyage Home,” “Our Town,” and “The Philadelphia Story.”

Like Hitchcock, John Ford had two movies in contention: “The Grapes of Wrath,” starring Henry Fonda, and “The Long Voyage Home,” with John Wayne. The most nominated pictures were: Hitchcock’s “Rebecca,” with 10, John Ford’s socially-aware class drama “The Grapes of Wrath,” and William Wyler’s Bette David melodrama, “The Letter,” each with 7.

Chaplin’s timely political satire emerged as one of the biggest losers in 1940. The winner of Best Actor was Jimmy Stewart for George Cukor’s serio comedy “The Philadelphia Story.” Preston Sturges won the Original Screenplay Oscar for “The Great McGinty,” and Walter Brennan won his third Supporting Oscar in five years (a record) for Wyler’s “The Westerner.” The Original Score award went to Disney’s animated “Pinocchio.”

United Artists (Charles Chaplin Productions)