Chaplin, Charlie, and Fascism

It is perhaps not surprising, states historian Charles Maland, that Chaplin should have chosen to make a film -- 1940's The Great Dictator -- in which his icon appeared as a rebellious Jewish ghetto resident under the regime of Adenoid Hynkel (Hitler). Maland points out how Charles and Adolf were born not far apart in time, but more importantly he also notes how the two bore some resemblance as adults. The two shared not merely the famous mustache which suggested the tack Chaplin's parody could take, but also their demand for "strict control over their subordinates when, as adults, they achieved positions of power." (Maland 1983: 164) In 1936, the New York Times referred to Chaplin as "parsimonious, contradictory, egotistic, difficult -- even unreasonable to work with," and Dan James said that Chaplin "had in himself some of the qualities that Hitler had. He dominated his world. He created his world. And Chaplin's world was not a democracy either . . ." (Robinson 1985: 493).

Chaplin the artist was, remarkably close to how artists are stereotypically portrayed, obsessive in a frequently negative light. And both Chaplin and Hitler had gone through hard times which they then recalled in their work to build their iconic images: "each has mirrored . . . the predicament of the 'little man' in modern society," the Spectator noted in 1939, although of course as it pointed out, the two used their images to vastly different ends. Charlie the icon had been of use earlier, to present his creator positively after potentially messy divorce news and other social problems came to light in the public eye. Now Charlie would come in handy again to keep anyone from associating his creator with the kind of egotistic, malicious rule that the Nazis represented.

Actually, Chaplin (shown, at about this time, at left) had good reason to dislike the Nazis aside from embarrassment over his image onscreen or off. He had a strong hatred for authoritarian government in general -- particularly its dehumanizing aspects, which ran parallel to those of the machines of Modern Times and were exemplified in a 1937 short story Chaplin wrote, Rhythm: A Story of Men in Macabre Movement. Chaplin's memoirs and public statements make it clear that, not simply as a PR move, he felt great disgust with anti-Semitism (such as the Nazis exemplified) and had spoken out about it many times, this in an era when such pro-Jewish feelings were not so often spoken openly. David Robinson recounts how Chaplin met a young girl aboard ship during a 1921 tour, then complimented Jews as being geniuses upon learning she was Jewish. He recollected, "'No, I am not Jewish,' [I said] as she was about to put that question, 'but I am sure there must be some somewhere in me. I hope so.'" (1984: 290) He remained somewhat ambivalent about the issue, however; in one home movie, in which others were seen drawing caricatures of him, he objected to one which resembled a stereotypical Jew (with oversized nose). Perhaps he objected to the stereotype; given how he later showed Charlie as Jewish in The Great Dictator, it seems unlikely that he resented being identified with Jews. The Nazis, for some reason -- perhaps Charlie's sympathy for the underdog, and Chaplin's on-again, off-again similar values (which I discussed here) -- objected to Chaplin from the ground up, however, and from early on in their days of influence, strove to cast a dim light on both Charlie and his creator. Robinson has emphasized "a repellent anti-semitic paperback" published in Nazi Germany, which insulted Jewish intellectuals and included Chaplin among them, as "a little Jewish acrobat, as disgusting as he is tedious." Peter Haining discusses the propaganda work, called Judisches Lexikon ("Dictionary of Jews") more completely, pointing out its citation of Chaplin's supposed real last name of Thonstein. Despite extensive research, Haining found no evidence that would support the Nazis' statements (Haining 1989: 21). Chaplin had good reason to hold many grudges against the German regime, and so it comes as no surprise to the modern historian that he decided to throw his icon into the storm: Charlie appeared, most critics have it, in The Great Dictator. Why "most critics?" Basically because Charles Chaplin subtly changed the icon. Charlie was no longer "the Tramp" in the film; the dreams of gentility, and the out-of-station genteel mannerisms Charlie had used had been replaced by a real job and social standing for the character. Critics seem divided over whether "the Jewish Barber," as he is described in the film's credits, is the same as the character who has come before. Being of the same ilk who would cast aside comments that the similarly upscale Charlie of A Day's Pleasure is a different character (see my comments on social class), I find that Charlie is still quintessentially the same, if less impulsive and more gentrified than earlier on. The change is specially indicated by his possession of a voice, one important constraining impulse which, for Peter Cotes and Thelma Niklaus, is enough reason to refer to "nostalgia keen as pain" (Cotes and Niklaus 1965: 124) for the earlier Charlie). Parker Tyler points out that Charlie's gaining of stature and loss of upward impulses matches Adenoid Hynkel's achievement of them (Tyler 1948: 141). Tyler shows how by denuding the icon of its aims to achievement, Chaplin leaves the theme of social climbing to an evil "alter ego" for the (former) Tramp.

Having presented this contrast with his previous work, Chaplin went further through the controversial conclusion of his anti-Nazi opus. Charlie the barber, mistaken for his dictatorial double (seen at left), marches to the podium and rallies himself to deliver a remarkable speech against the evils of fascism and dictatorship, hopeful in its suggestion that brotherhood might somehow be attainable. Since the political situation was only darkening at the time, Chaplin's hopefulness might be posited as a wish, the creation of a myth that might become reality. And myth, Roland Barthes explains, "is not defined by the object of its message, but by the way in which it utters this message" (Barthes 1972: 109). In The Great Dictator, Chaplin brings home the myth he'd like to enact by the bold step of fusing, if however, briefly, his icon and himself: the character who earlier engaged in a dizzy ballet across the streets of Tomania (originally Ptomania, explaining the allusion more clearly) now comes across as immediate and real in a mixture of enunciated lament and hope. "Chaplin pours all his humanist faith" into the peal (Robinson 1985: 123). Such a contrast many found inappropriate for a film that had, up to this point, contained so much comedy. "Satire, ridicule, comedy, pathos, the dualism and opposition of the main characters all forgotten, Chaplin the crusader speaks to mankind," as Cotes and Niklaus have it. For Barthes, the definition, the way in which Chaplin "utters" the myth would thus be subterfuge; Charlie under the dictator's coat turns out to be Chaplin under Charlie, and the plan, while certainly presenting Chaplin's hopeful myth in a remarkably surprising way, left critics only suspicious of the artist's motives, not more accepting of them due to their presentation through the icon.

While some may quibble about whether a more respectable Charlie is really Charlie, here the question was whether Chaplin and Charlie were close enough for the views of one to be used in the mouth of the other, to make the views more acceptable. Perhaps they were. But the final result, the fact that the ending has been called inappropriate or misguided, shows that the icon was powerful enough that its creator, fighting for a noble cause, may not have always been perceived as knowing "what was right" for the icon more intimately than did the public.

Pressbooks for Hynkel's odyssey tried to prepare the throngs. They celebrated the icon, pointing out that "admiration for the little tramp . . . . is confined to no race, class, or creed. Essentially, Charlie Chaplin [note spelling of name] belongs to the little guy" (Maland 1989: 169). But they also pointed out that "Chaplin [now, note absence of 'Charlie' monicker] would talk . . . also that he would have a powerful message to convey" (ibid). The exhibit of Nazi soldiers, within the film, becoming reformed and cheering at Charlie's/Chaplin's speech, made it plain that Chaplin "met the challenge of progressive politics" (1989: 177).

Unfortunately, the progressivism inherent in the speech was one of several factors which tied into the subsequent decay of Chaplin's celebrity image. Rob Wagner, who wrote on Chaplin shortly before a trial the actor had several years later, put it this way. "In making The Great Dictator. . . Chaplin made himself a threat to the Fascists, even those in America who have leanings toward Fascism, under no matter what name. And in [post-1940 events], these domestic fascists . . . found a convenient situation that enabled them to discredit Chaplin's name" (1989: 219). Similarly, Mike Gold stated that "as soon as [Chaplin] made The Great Dictator, he alienated the right wing in America" (ibid). Most telling, however, was Gold's additional statement that "Chaplin as the lovable tramp had alienated no one" (ibid). By dropping the Tramp -- his safety net earlier on -- the iconless celebrity fell victim to Hollywood and Madison Avenue. The flap over alienating the American right would bring sympathy from the Left, but enhance attacks on Chaplin for leftism; Chaplin's love life was also no longer protected by the Tramp. The way Chaplin uttereted his Tomanian myth, by fusing himself with his icon, unsuccessfully trying to gain sympathy through the fusion, then dropping Charlie altogether -- ended up, as Barthes would have it, defining how audiences interpreted (or misinterpreted) that myth, and Chaplin stood to lose. Perhaps Charles Chaplin himself was Adenoid Hynkel's sorriest victim.

-- David Gerstein

(For the anti-Chaplin entry in Judisches Lexikon, click here.)

(For text excerpts of Chaplin's speech as Charlie the Barber, click here.)

(To read Chaplin's 1937 Rhythm: A Story of Men, click here.)

Text (C) 1995 David A. Gerstein