Menu JTA Search

Film explores Chaplin’s parody of Hitler

LOS ANGELES, Sept. 24 (JTA) — In April 1889, two baby boys were born within four days of each other. One was Charles Chaplin, a Londoner. The other, a native of Braunau am Inn in Austria, was named Adolf Hitler. During manhood, both men sported funny little moustaches — Chaplin as the screen’s greatest comic actor, Hitler as the fuhrer of Nazi Germany. The lives of the ardent pacifist and the bloodthirsty tyrant intersected only once. In 1940, Chaplin directed and starred in the dual roles ( his first speaking ones) of a little Jewish barber and Adenoid Hynkel, leader of the feared Double Cross Party, in “The Great Dictator.” It may be hard to believe now, but at that time, with World War II raging in Europe, Hollywood’s predominantly Jewish establishment considered it foolhardy to lampoon the Nazi regime, since their first rule was to avoid making waves. The political and artistic pressures that surrounded the making of the film are probed in a one-hour documentary, “The Tramp and the Dictator,” which will have its premiere on Turner Classic Movies on Oct. 1. The screening will be followed by a festival of 28 wartime films and nine cartoons, celebrating the years when “Hollywood Takes on the Nazis.” The documentary by Kevin Brownlee, narrated by British actor Kenneth Branagh, includes recently discovered color footage taken on the set of “The Great Dictator” by Chaplin’s brother Sydney. With startling and frightening effect, the documentary intercuts scenes of Nazi bullying of the Jewish barber in “The Great Dictator” with newsreel shots of the actual pogroms in the streets of Berlin. Also rejoined is the apparently endless debate over whether or not Chaplin was a Jew. Director Sidney Lumet, one of the commentators, comes down on the pro-Semitic side by arguing that “Everyone funny was Jewish.” One of the great moments in “The Great Dictator” is a triumphal dance with an inflated global balloon by Hynkel, the world conqueror. In an eerie footnote, the documentary shows newsreel footage of Hitler’s bunker in Berlin, smashed into complete rubble, except for an untouched globe.

NEXT STORY