Charlie Chaplin and Adolf Hitler were born four days apart. They lived in a kind of parallel motion. As LIFE described in September 1940,
Both were poor and painfully obscure in youth. Both spent lonesome years of frustration, moving restlessly about, seeking bitterly to find themselves. For a time Hitler lived in a flophouse, Chaplin a poorhouse. Hitler painted postcards, beat carpets and shoveled snow. Chaplin did clog dances in cheap music halls, trouped with a dingy vaudeville crew. Each attained in his chosen realm success and acclaim beyond fabulous dreams. Each is today known in the remotest hamlet of the world.
And as for the so-called Hitler mustache, note: Chaplin had it first. In his twenties, Chaplin figured the inch of hair “would add age without hiding my expression.” Meanwhile, in homage to Kaiser Wilhelm, Hitler wore a squirrel’s worth of hair across his face.
Chaplin got famous first, too, starring in dozens of short films as the Little Tramp while Hitler was drawing cartoons for the Bavarian army newspaper. In July 1915, the New York World reported more than 30 local theaters holding Chaplin look-alike competitions. (The winner of one such competition in Cleveland: a 14-year old Bob Hope.) The first time Charlie Chaplin saw Adolf Hitler’s face was in 1933, on a postcard. What he saw, Chaplin later wrote in his autobiography, was “a bad imitation of me.”
Chaplin wasn’t the only one to notice the likeness. In 1937, a Hollywood producer pitched Chaplin on his first feature-length film, a double-role story based on mistaken identity between Hitler and the Tramp. Even for Chaplin, the role of Hitler was a challenge. So electrifying was the Führer’s routine that Germans had invented a word just for the psychoactive experience of being there: Führerkontakt.
But then, when it came to lighting up a room, who knew better than Charlie Chaplin? On October 15, 1940, The Great Dictator premiered in New York City, and for the first time, the actor’s fans heard him speak.
And speak he did, directly into the camera, for nearly four minutes.
The setup is quintessential Charlie Chaplin: By turns tragic and silly, an unnamed Jewish barber trades places with a Teutonic dictator named (cough) Adenoid Hynkel. Hynkel is mistaken for the barber and arrested, while the barber is whisked to the capital for a victory speech. As the film bumbles its way from satire to sincerity, it’s hard not to see a museum piece, but then something changes.
Even now, or especially now, this feels like the speech we’ve all been waiting for: in which the megalomaniac, in over his head, finally breaks character and tells you what’s in his heart: “I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor.”
Notice the sly dilation in the opening lines, from “I don’t want” to “we don’t want.” Along the way, Chaplin pulls together “Jew, Gentile, black man, white” — a rhetorical garland called asyndeton. In effect, what starts as one man’s apology is, by the end of the paragraph, a credo shared by all. It’s interesting that Hitler’s favorite slogan played the same trick in reverse: Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer (tr. one people, one empire, one leader) — another asyndeton, except it closes like a fist.
Notice, too, the prayerful cadence of “In this world there is room for everyone, and the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone.” By putting the predicate first (see Yoda), Chaplin sets a lovely balance between “this world” and “the good earth,” and the tolling refrain “for everyone.” Ending the second paragraph is the most popular convention in rhetoric, called a tricolon: one sentence with three ascending parts.
Paragraph three sounds like it was written by ear, with singsong antitheses like, “We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in…We think too much and feel too little.” Ditto the counterpoint of abundance and want, machinery and humanity. The paragraph even closes in waltz time: “Without these // qualities // life will be // violent and // all will be // lost.”
Six paragraphs in, Chaplin’s call to action starts with a bang: “Soldiers!” Breaking off mid-speech like this is called apostrophe (think “Alas, poor Yorick!,” or these days: “omg”). Then, as form follows function, Chaplin’s syntax acts out subjugation: a single subject (“brutes”) governs the next ten predicates. The repetition even sounds like brainwashing: “machine men with machine minds and machine hearts!”
On opening night and long after, Chaplin took flak for the speech. Even die-hard fans felt it was in poor taste, a lot of hot air while the real Hitler was dropping bombs over London. Sixty-seven years later, Roger Ebert wrote “It is fatal when Chaplin drops his comic persona…The movie plays like a comedy followed by an editorial.”
I disagree. The rhetoric, the rhythms, the moralizing — of course, it sounds like a political statement. That’s the point. If you ask me, Chaplin wasn’t trying to persuade his audience of anything. He was trying to inoculate us against people who fake their way to the top.
Better than most of us, Chaplin understood how to seduce an audience. What better way to remind us how easily we fall for the wrong man than by caricature? After all, if there ever was a heavyweight champion of persuasion, it wasn’t Charlie Chaplin. It was Adolf Hitler. (One delicious report, unproveable though it is, indicates that Hitler screened The Great Dictator in solitude, twice.) “The power which has always started the greatest religious and political avalanches in history,” he wrote in Mein Kampf, “has from time immemorial been the magic power of the spoken word.”
Chaplin can teach us what that magic sounds like in our own tongue, and how to break its spell by laughing.
In “Orations Worth Ovations,” professional speechwriters analyze great speeches (real or fictional, historic or personal) and explain what makes them so good.