September 26, 2002
The Tramp Vs. The Dictator
In April 1889, two baby boys were born within four days of each other. One was Charles Chaplin, a Londoner. The other was a native of Braunau am Inn in Austria and was named Adolf Hitler.
Grown to manhood, both men were to sport funny little mustaches, Chaplin as the screen's greatest comic actor, Hitler as the führer of Nazi Germany.
The lives of the ardent pacifist and the bloodthirsty tyrant were to intersect only once. In 1940, Chaplin directed and starred in the dual role (and his first speaking one) of a little Jewish barber and as Adenoid Hynkel, leader of the feared Double Cross party, in "The Great Dictator."
It may be hard to believe now, but at the time, with the war already raging in Europe, to lampoon the Nazi regime was considered foolhardy by Hollywood's predominantly Jewish establishment, whose first rule was not to make 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 (TCM) on Oct. 1. The screening will be followed by a festival of 28 wartime films and nine cartoons celebrating the years when, finally, "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 the Jewish barber being bullied in "The Great Dictator" with newsreel shots of the actual pogroms in the streets of Berlin.
Also rejoined is the apparently endless debate whether Chaplin was Jewish.
One of the great moments in "The Great Dictator" is the 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.