Charlie Chaplin, arguably one of the two greatest comedians of the silent film era [we rate Buster Keaton as #1], reached his apotheosis in a 1940 film, The Great Dictator, the first of his films shot entirely as a talkie.
Charles Silver, Curator of the Department of Film of the Museum of Modern Art, sums up the film’s importance:
The Great Dictator is the product of extraordinary synchronicity and an unprecedented convergence of historical and artistic forces. By this happy accident, we find the century’s most emblematic popular artist testing his gifts against the man who embodied the greatest threat to civilization, human freedom, and, in fact, art in recorded time. It is not an overstatement to refer to The Great Dictator, as David Robinson does, as “an epic incident in the history of mankind.” In its confrontation with the cosmos—and its deeply felt intent to alter the state of human affairs with a mere piece of art—the film stands alone on its very special pedestal of aspiration.
Chaplin plays two roles, one as Dictator of Tomania Adenoid Hynkel [note the initials], and the second as a nameless mustachioed Jewish barber rounded up for ethnic cleansing by the dictator.
The film pits the barber, his inamorata Hannah, and a renegade Tomanian pilot against Hynkel, his sidekicks Garbitsch [Goebbels] and Herring [Hermann Goering], and fellow tyrant Benzino Napaloni, Dictator of Bacteria.
Captured in a roundup of Jews, the barber is dispatched to a concentration camp, while simultaneously Hynkel suffers amnesia from a boating accident and the barber dons Hynkel’s distinctive garb [replete with the insignia of Double Cross, a comedic substitute for the swastika] to make good his escape, only to be mistaken for the Hynkel, who’s back in the camp and identified as the barber.
In the end, the barber, as Hynkel, finds himself taking to the microphone for the film’s concluding scene in which he delivers a passionate speech, an excerpt of which is our Quote of the Day:
I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone – if possible – Jew, Gentile – black man – white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness – not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.
Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.
Here’s a video of the full speech:
And if you’ve not seen Chaplin’s classic, here’s the film in its entirety in HD: