Signing a $150 a week contract, the Britain-born Charlie Chaplin (officially Sir Charlie Chaplin as of 1975) made his film debut at the age of 24 in 1914. After a handful of films, it became clear that Chaplin – especially as the self-created character, The Tramp – was well on the way to being the first movie star. Audiences the world over, still adapting to the new form of communication movies created, fell in love with the bumbling vagrant’s silly antics and kind heart.
Within two years, Chaplin became one of the highest paid individuals in the world when he signed an annual contract of $670,000. Chaplin not only starred, but also wrote, directed, produced and edited the majority of his films, as well as composed the music. In 1919, he co-founded the film distribution company United Artists (sound familiar?) and continued his silent-film career with great success…even into the 1930’s as talking pictures were standard, and he remained the sole individual producing silent movies.
However, the 1930’s were not only a decade of talking pictures, but also one where the climate of the world was changing. With Adolph Hitler having arisen to power, acquiring dictatorship over Germany in 1934, many claimed Chaplin was finding it difficult to separate his personal beliefs from his films. In his autobiography, Chaplin stated that in the mid-thirties, he believed “Hitler must be laughed at.” After two years of working on the script, in September of 1939 – within the same week of Germany’s invasion of Poland – Chaplin began filming his first talking picture.
Chaplin played two roles: that of The Barber, a Jewish man scraping by in the ghetto, whom is wanted by the “Fuhrer of Tomainia” and ruthless dictator, Adenoid Hynkel (a parody of Hitler) – the second role Chaplin portrays. The film poked fun at Hitler, Nazis and fascism and became one of the biggest moneymakers of the time, as well as Chaplin’s greatest financial success. It earned five Academy Award nominations (three for Chaplin) and a copy of it now resides in the United States National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”
In the years leading up to the film, many couldn’t help but draw parallels between Chaplin and Hitler – going beyond the identical mustaches. Both were born four days apart and arose from nothing to international acclaim. It was these parallels that set the plot for The Great Dictator, in which the kind-hearted Barber is identical in looks to the hateful tyrant.
Chaplin’s son stated of his father and Hitler: “Their destinies were poles apart. One was to make millions weep, while the other was to set the whole world laughing. [Chaplin would say] ‘just think, he’s the madman, I’m the comic…but it could have been the other way around.’”
Surly, America’s second-most financially successful film of 1940 must have propelled Chaplin’s stardom further! After all, the world LOVED watching him make fun of a man that was beginning to terrorize Europe. Unfortunately, life isn’t as simple as it was before the “talkies.” You see…at the end of the film, Chaplin decided to do more than speak – he conveyed a message. Not to the characters around him, but to all people of the world…then and possibly even now.
The message was not well received. Chaplin’s fame fell quickly as the American public turned on him. Boycotts were called for his next film, and the FBI wanted the actor out of the country. One critic stated Chaplin’s views were “dangerously progressive and amoral.” Mississippi’s congressional representative stated before Congress “[Chaplin’s] very life in Hollywood is detrimental to the moral fabric of America. [If he is deported]…his loathsome pictures can be kept from before the eyes of the American youth…he should be deported and gotten rid of at once.”
What did Chaplin say? America’s former beloved Little Tramp. What five-minute speech resulted in the eventual denial by the attorney general to reenter America, when Chaplin departed the country on a trip in 1952?
“You the people have the power. The power to create machines. The power to create happiness! YOU the people have the power to make this life free and beautiful. To make this life a wonderful adventure!”
During the last five minutes of The Great Dictator, mistaken by the enemy to be the Fuhrer (Hynkel), The Barber must address a crowd of enemy soldiers in an attempt to save his life. However, The Barber doesn’t appear to look at the crowd. He appears to be looking beyond the screen. To all those of the world, itself.
“I don’t want to be an emperor,” Chaplin (it’s safe to assume at this point that the words are his own and not that of The Barber) begins. Then, as his resolve strengthens…the moment is seized as Chaplin stares hard into the screen and discusses a world of peace. A world where we help each other, no matter how anyone looks or where they come from. One where “[human beings] want to live by each other’s happiness, not each other’s misery.”
As the speech becomes more impassioned, Chaplin expresses disgust at a system that imprisons innocent people – how the greed of a few results in the despair of many. He denounces a military that uses its soldiers as machines and cattle, stating angrily, “you are not machines. You are not cattle. You are men…you have the love of humanity in your heart.” He cried out for soldiers not to fight for slavery, but for liberty. For freedom!
Chaplin cried out for a world of true democracy, where “you the people have the power.” To do away with the damming hurdle that is national barriers. “to do away with greed, hate and intolerance. A world of reason…where life [is] a wonderful adventure.”
Words spoken in 1940 from The Silent Actor. Impassioned words that – to some – may still speak across the decades…leaving those people wondering if those words are as relevant today? Perhaps a few even wondering, what if those words of “unity” and disbanding a system that preys on the innocent and poor were to be echoed now? Would the speaker be met with praise…or condemnation as Chaplin was?
Is it scary that the last question is a valid one – even 75 years after those words of world peace, unity and progress were spoken?
In his autobiography, Chaplin states that “had I known the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator; I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis.”
He chose not to fight the denial of his reentry into America and instead settled down with his family in Switzerland. There, he continued with a successful career in film until the late 1960’s, when Chaplin’s health began to fade due to several small strokes. It was also in the 60’s, in the earlier decade, that America’s view of Chaplin began to shift once more. Chaplin was given many awards and honors, and after 20 years was invited to return to the states to accept an Honorary Academy Award…which he debated about doing. According to Chaplin and American Culture: The Evolution of a Star Image by Charles J. Maland, Chaplin received a twelve-minute standing ovation at the awards gala – to this day, the longest in the Academy’s history.
Emotional, Chaplin accepted the award, seen by many as Hollywood’s (perhaps America’s) way to make amends for his condemnation. The award was for “the incalculable effect he has had on making motion pictures the art form of this century.” The same year, he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
At the age of 88, asleep at home, Sir Charles “Charlie” Chaplin – our world’s beloved Little Tramp, died in 1977 on Christmas morning.
“In the name of Democracy – let us all unite!”
Click below to watch Chaplin’s ending speech in the film: