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Charlie Chaplin’s Speech in the Great Dictator: Who Initialized It and What Purpose Did Each Filmmaker Have in Mind?

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Sir Charles Spencer ‘Charlie’ Chaplin was born on April 16, 1889 in London

His childhood was fraught with hardship and poverty — an apathetic, alcoholic father who deserted his family, and an income-less mother who suffered from psychosis resulted in Chaplin being sent to a workhouse at the tender age of seven. After abandoning his education at a school for paupers at the age of 13, Chaplin began his slow and arduous climb through the world of entertainment. Having started out as a member of a dancing troupe, he progressed through minor roles in stage plays to the burlesque pieces which first gave an indication of his comedic prowess. Soon after, he was recruited by an American film studio and plunged into the world of silent films where he would soon reign supreme.

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Probably the most famous sequence of “The Great Dictator” is the five-minute speech that concludes the film. Here Chaplin drops his comic mask and speaks directly to the world, conveying his view that people must rise up against dictators and unite in peace. The most enduring aspects of the final speech are its aspirational quality and tone and its underlying faith in humanity. Chaplin sketches a hopeful future in broad strokes and leaves the implementation of his vision to others, despite the fact that the more unsavory aspects of human nature may prevent mankind ever reaching his promised utopia. Although some may find Chaplin’s message cliché, and even frustrating, one cannot help but be moved by the prescience of his words and the appeal of his powerful indictment of all who seek to take power unto themselves to the detriment of everyone else. The final speech of “The Great Dictator” remains relevant and valuable in the twenty-first century and likely will remain so as long as conflict corrupts human interaction and despots endure. With the exception of “Gone With the Wind” (1939), no other film of the period was met with such anticipation as “The Great Dictator.” The contemporary press was generally favorable toward the film following the world premiere in New York City at two Broadway theaters—the Capitol Theatre and Astor Theatre—simultaneously on October 15, 1940. Although Bosley Crowther, film critic for the ”New York Times,” thought the film too long and somewhat repetitious, he nevertheless wrote a very strong review noting it to be “…a truly superb accomplishment by a truly great artist—and, from one point of view, perhaps the most significant film ever produced.” “The Great Dictator” cost $1,403,526 making it one of Chaplin’s most expensive films. It was an enormous gamble, as the film did not have the international distribution his silent films had enjoyed

The film was banned throughout occupied Europe, in parts of South America, and in the Irish Free State.

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Then he ignites the rage inside of the audience by listing the ways that the “brutes” and “machine men” of the world have wronged them, including how they “despise you — enslave you — who regiment your lives — tell you what to do — what to think and what to feel! Who drill you — diet you — treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder” (Chaplin). Americans know that these dictators are creating hellish conditions for everyone, and this allows them to sympathize with the soldiers that are being taken advantage of. By bringing up all these past injustices, he turns the sympathy he had just created into pure anger among the American people. Meanwhile, the camera zooms in closer to his face that is now full of rage, his voice becomes much louder, and his speech becomes much quicker. All of these factors culminate together to produce dramatic/emotional appeal (pathos), which brings out more of the fury inside the viewer. This anger is what allows him to drive the speech home and inspires America to fight against any and all injustice, whatever and wherever it may be. In the final 30 seconds of the video, he motivates the audience to fight by literally shouting “Let us fight…” (Chaplin) repeatedly. He implements this anaphora to now direct the anger towards a meaningful purpose, effectively persuading everyone to fight for his version of “…a decent world” (Chaplin). In a time of such high anxiety over the unknown, Charlie Chaplin assuages the fear of the American public through a reassertion of core American values. He does this by creating a general theme of the differences between machinery and humanity

He makes the argument that pure logic and reasoning is a cold way to look at the world, and that it takes feelings and emotion (the one thing that separates man from machines) to combat our naturally evil tendencies. This argument resonates incredibly well with a people that have recently witnessed the birth of several evil, fascist movements. He didn’t say anything that Americans didn’t already know to be true, but this reassurance that they must fight for what they’ve always fought for — liberty, equality, and overall happiness — gives the American people confidence to stick up for these ideas. The confidence and anger he creates using ethos and pathos makes people want to fight for what is right, and that was the whole purpose of Chaplin’s speech in the first place: to ignite the fight in all Americans against injustice.

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Ordinarily, “providence was in an ironical mood when, fifty years ago this week, it was ordained that Charles Chaplin and Adolf Hitler should make their entry into the world within four days of each other….Each in his own way has expressed the ideas, sentiments, aspirations of the millions of struggling citizens ground between the upper and the lower millstone of society. (…) Each has mirrored the same reality – the predicament of the “little man” in modern society

Each is a distorting mirror, the one for good, the other for untold evil.” Chaplin spent many months drafting and re-writing the speech for the end of the film, a call for peace from the barber who has been mistaken for Hynkel. Many people criticized the speech, and thought it was superfluous to the film. Others found it uplifting. Regrettably Chaplin’s words are as relevant today as they were in 1940.

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TheChaplinFilms. “Charlie Chaplin — Final Speech from The Great Dictator.” YouTube

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