The Great Scenes: “The Speech” from THE GREAT DICTATOR

Movie: The Great Dictator (1940)

Spoiler Level: Low

The Setup: Charlie Chaplin’s first true talking picture addresses the rising menace of fascism by making a complete mockery of the men who led the movement. Chaplin stars in a double performance as both a kindly Jewish barber and ruthless (and ridiculous) fascist dictator Adenoid Hynkel (an obvious parody of Adolf Hitler). In an unpredictable mix-up, the barber and Hynkel are confused for one another and Hynkel finds himself locked away in a concentration camp while the barber is mistaken for the dictator and immediately rushed to a crowded rally, where he is expected to make a rousing speech to the nation.

Why It’s Great: This week, the nation was buzzing about a certain world leader using his podium to plead for understanding, kindness and a show of humanity toward one another. My brain immediately jumped to this scene, one of the most moving monologues in moving history that is both highly universal and highly political in its message while still never coming off as preachy.

Chaplin’s character may be making the speech under a particular set of circumstances to the people of a fictional country but it’s clear that once we cut to the close-up of Chaplin at the microphone (0:58 second mark), Chaplin is essentially no longer in character. He has turned to us, the audience, or more specifically the world of 1940, to deliver a very real and very urgent message. Germany had just invaded Poland and France and it was clear to all that Hitler was hell-bent on bringing the world to war once again.

Chaplin had a good understanding of what war did to people and he spent the entire length of the First World War determined to make movies that gave people joy and hope in a dark time. Chaplin’s Little Tramp features were all designed to once again give hope to those who were suffering through the hard times of the Great Depression. With tyranny and evil appearing to creep toward world domination, never had the world needed hope more than in 1940 and Chaplin’s plea here feels more emphatic than his classic plea to “smile” at the end of Modern Times. This was no longer about being happy in the face of adversity. It was time to stand up to something that was threatening the chance of peace for anyone on the planet.

I think what strikes me the most about Chaplin’s intensely socially aware movie moment is that unlike so many attempts at socially aware screenwriting today, Chaplin never uses the moment to suggest that he is somehow morally superior to the average moviegoer. On the contrary, Chaplin argues here that intellectual superiority is perhaps a disadvantage when it comes to being a decent human being.

“Our knowledge has made us cynical, our cleverness hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little.”

Instead, Chaplin suggests that it’s within every man, woman and child on earth already to be a basically good person and that it’s only the greed and malice of a handful of people that drives any of us to be hateful to one another. Chaplin’s plea is not only way ahead of its time but would probably be considered ahead of its time were it delivered today. I suppose that makes it timeless.