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.
Adolf Hitler banned the film in Germany and in all countries occupied by the Nazis. Curiosity got the best of him, and he had a print brought in through Portugal. History records that he screened it twice, in private, but history did not record his reaction to the film. Charles Chaplin said, "I'd give anything to know what he thought of it." For political reasons in Germany, the ban stayed after the end of WWII until 1958.
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.
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 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 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.
When Charles Chapin had heard that studios were trying to discourage him from making the film, President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent a representative, Harry Hopkins, to Chaplin to encourage him to make the film.
At the 1940 Academy Awards, the film received five nominations. However, 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.
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.
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 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.)
Some of Charles Chaplin's associates tried to talk him out of the final speech about peace. One film salesman said the speech would cost him a million dollars at the box office. Chaplin replied, "Well, I don't care if it's five million."
Hynkel's storm troopers are wearing WWI-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.
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! (1940), which was released nine months earlier.
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, it is "Diktaattori").
Charles Chaplin spent hours studying films of Adolf Hitler to perfect an imitation of his speaking style. He would eventually do this with a combination of nonsense syllables and isolated German words.
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 (1936). Chaplin was said not to consider this movie a "Tramp" film.
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.
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.
As the premiere approached, Charles Chaplin had good reason to be concerned about his gamble on political commentary. Gallup polls revealed that 96% of Americans opposed U.S. involvement in the war in Europe, and threatening letters from Nazi sympathizers poured into the studio. At one point, he even asked a friend with the Longshoreman's Union in New York if they could have some union members present at the opening, to prevent a pro-Nazi demonstration.
Charles Chaplin planned shots of people all over the world accepting the message of peace, as goose-stepping German soldiers broke in a waltz and Japanese bombers dropped toys on Chinese children. He actually started shooting some of these scenes before abandoning the idea. They survive in home movies shot by his son.
The barber's scenes were mostly shot in the slower speed used for silent films (16 frames per second), made possible by the fact that Charles Chaplin gave the character less dialogue than Hynkel, who was shot in the standard speed for sound film.
For the first time in years, Charles Chaplin brought in a new director of photography, Karl Struss, to work with his usual cameraman, Roland Totheroh. He did so at the urging of his brother, Syd, who felt that Totheroh's techniques were behind the times. Struss quickly learned that the director preferred to shoot scenes as though they were being performed on stage. He finally convinced Chaplin to let him shoot the scenes from two cameras at once, placed at different angles, to make it easier to edit the film.
Charles Chaplin maintained a closed set throughout production, partly out of fear that other filmmakers would steal his idea. When Life magazine printed an unauthorized photo of him as dictator Adenoid Hynkel, Chaplin sued and won. Half the issues printed for that week were recalled before they could hit news stands.
This is the first Charles Chaplin film since The Pilgrim (1923) 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 Tomainian dictator Adenoid Hynkel is referred to by name throughout the film.
As originally written, Charles Chaplin's final speech, in which the barber is still masquerading as Hynkel, was a call for peace through appeasement. As news reports came in from Europe, however, he re-wrote it as a call for peace and liberty for all. Some critics, most notably columnist Ed Sullivan, claimed that the speech was pure Communist propaganda.
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."
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.
Initially, Hynkel's big speech was shot on location in the San Fernando Valley in front of an audience of extras. Despite the extreme heat, Charles Chaplin entertained the extras between shots with scenes from Sherlock Holmes and a variety of pratfalls. In the end, he could not use any of the footage. The scene required retakes, and Struss could not match the lighting from the location.
Hynkel's dance with the globe was originally written as a scene in which he cuts up a map of the world to rearrange the countries the way he wants. When this evolved into the globe dance, Charles Chaplin spent six days over a two month period filming the sequence, plus three days of retakes.
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 Emma Dunn, who often played Irish mothers and landladies.
The bubble dance was a popular burlesque dance form, dating back to the early 1920s and most likely even earlier. By the 1930s, Sally Rand's bubble dance routine was quite famous. Many members of the movie audience would have recognized Charles Chaplin's globe dance, laughing all the louder.