Charles Chaplin got the idea when a friend, Alexander Korda, noted that his screen persona and Adolf Hitler looked somewhat similar. Chaplin later learned they were both born within a week of each other (Chaplin 4/16/1889, Hitler 4/20/1889), were roughly the same height and weight and both struggled in poverty until they reached great success in their respective fields. When Chaplin learned of Hitler's policies of racial oppression and nationalist aggression, he used their similarities as an inspiration to attack Hitler on film.
Some reports refute Charles Chaplin's claims of ignorance as to the true extent of Nazi atrocities, stating that Chaplin was very much aware of the various goings-on, but decided to make the film anyway as an attack on Nazi ideology.
Production on the film started in 1937, when not nearly as many people believed Nazism was a menace as was the case when it was released in 1940. However, this film was ultimately upstaged as the first anti-Nazi film satire by The Three Stooges production You Nazty Spy! which was released nine months earlier.
The German spoken by the dictator is complete nonsense. The language in which the shop signs, posters, etc in the "Jewish" quarter are written is Esperanto, a language created in 1887 by Dr L.L. Zamenhof, a Polish Jew.
When this film was released, Adolf Hitler banned it in Germany and in all countries occupied by the Nazis. Curiosity eventually got the best of him and he had a print brought in through Portugal. He screened it not once but twice. Unfortunately, history did not record his reaction to the film. When told of this, Charles Chaplin said, "I'd give anything to know what he thought of it."
Although this movie was banned in all occupied countries by the Nazis, it was screened once to a German audience. In the occupied Balkans, members of a resistance group switched the reels in a military cinema and replaced a comedic opera with a copy of this film, which they had smuggled in from Greece. So a group of German soldiers enjoyed a screening of this film until they realized what it was. Some left the cinema and some were reported to have fired shots at the screen.
This was the last movie in which Charles Chaplin used the "Tramp" outfit - the bowler hat and the walking cane - but although he appears to be playing The Tramp once again, that character had actually been retired in his previous film, Modern Times. Chaplin was said not to consider this movie a "Tramp" film.
According to documentaries on the making of the film, Charles Chaplin began to feel more uncomfortable lampooning Adolf Hitler the more he heard of Hitler's actions in Europe. Ultimately, the invasion of France inspired Chaplin to change the ending of his film to include his famous speech.
The 'Big Bertha' artillery piece mentioned in the beginning of the film was not actually used to shell Paris, as stated in the film. In fact, the Big Bertha was simply a heavy artillery piece used by the Germans in the beginning of the war to smash Belgian forts during the invasion of Belgium. The large howitzer used to shell Paris by the Germans during WWI was simply called "The Paris Gun".
This is the first Charles Chaplin film since Behind the Screen in which Chaplin plays a character who is actually identified by name. His famous Tramp character was rarely given a name, though he was often referred to as Charlie. The tramp-like barber in this film remains unnamed, but the Dictator is clearly referred to by name.
Charles Chaplin spent some time attempting to simulate the sound of an airplane motor with various methods, only to be upstaged by one of his sound technicians who simply went to an airport for the appropriate sounds.
During Hynkel's speech, there are several recognizable German words used. Most popular are "Wienerschnitzel" (a Viennese style breaded veal cutlet), and "Sauerkraut" (a kind of sour preserved cabbage). Others are "Leberwurst" and "Blitzkrieg". Though some other utterances vaguely resemble words in German, the speech is actually gibberish. Several times in the film, Hynkel utters "cheese und cracken!" in the context of an obscenity.
When Charles Chaplin first announced that he was going to make this film, the British government - whose policy at the time was one of appeasement towards Nazi Germany - announced that they would ban it. By the time of the film's release, though, Britain was at war with Germany and in the midst of the blitz, so the government's attitude towards the film had completely changed toward a film with such obvious value as propaganda.
At the 1940 Academy Awards, the film got five nominations. It failed to win any Academy Awards, and Charles Chaplin was hurt by this. He already had spent twenty-seven years in Hollywood. James Stewart, the winner of the Best Actor Award (for which Chaplin was nominated), was not even planning on going to the ceremony until someone told him to go there hours before it began. Interestingly enough, this was the first year in which the winners remained secret until the moment they won their Awards.
Douglas Fairbanks visited the set of the film in 1939, and laughed almost uncontrollably at the scene that was being played. He waved goodbye to Charles Chaplin and left. He was dead within a week and it was the last time Chaplin would see him.
Charles Chaplin originally intended to call the film "The Dictator", but received notice from Paramount Pictures that they would charge him $25,000 for use of the title-they owned the rights to an unrelated novel by Richard Harding Davis. Chaplin balked at the conditions and inserted "Great" into the title. (In France the film is known as "Le Dictateur" and in Finland as "Diktaattori" .)
During filming, Charles Chaplin's relationship with Paulette Goddard began to deteriorate, but both tried very hard to save it. In 1942, Chaplin proudly introduced her as "my wife" (a position that was always considered sketchy) at a New York engagement, but within months they were amicably divorced, and the notoriously finicky Chaplin agreed to a generous divorce settlement. In the 1960s, both Chaplin and Goddard were living in Switzerland but having made no contact, they spotted each other at a café and had lunch together. It was their last meeting.
The part of the elderly Jewish shopkeeper, Mr. Jaeckel, is played in the film by Maurice Moscovitch, veteran of the Yiddish theater, but his wife, Mrs. Jaeckel, is played by the Emma Dunn, who often played Irish mothers and landladies.
Charles Chaplin cast his wife Paulette Goddard as the female lead, playing a cleaner. He insisted that she scrub the floor of the whole set only for her to refuse. Chaplin stopped filming until she agreed to do so. (Their relationship was on the rocks at this stage which could explain his treatment of her.)
Hynkel's storm troopers are wearing WW1-era, Imperial-German spiked helmets (Pickelhauben) with their top spikes removed. Furthermore, they are wearing them reversed, i.e. what is actually the neck guard became the front visor, and vice versa.