The Tramp and the Dictator, the new Turner Classic Movies documentary, shows there's more than physical resemblance to the relationship between Charlie Chaplin and Adolph Hitler.
The film is mostly the story of Chaplin's quest to make The Great Dictator, his 1940 comedy feature about a dictator — Heidrich Hinkle — whose resemblance to the German führer
was more than coincidental. The centerpiece of the British Broadcasting Corp. co-production is a series of color home movies, shot during filming of the black-and-white feature by the legendary actor's brother, Sydney Chaplin.
But the film goes far beyond looks — and the fact that both men were born during the same week in 1899 — to draw parallels between the two titans of early 20th-century public consciousness. Director Kevin Brownlow parallels the two men's rise through the ranks of Hollywood and German politics, making note of where both stand as their lives progress. For instance, as Hitler is rejected by a Vienna art school and becomes a vagrant, Chaplin is signing his first film-studio contract.
The documentary also makes note of Hitler's use of the cinema in his own rise to power, and the threat the regime felt from Hollywood imagery — specifically Chaplin. The Nazis were confident that the British-born comedian was Jewish, and Chaplin bent over backwards not to refute the charge. In The Great Dictator, his "Little Tramp" character is actually a Jewish barber whose personal story is used to depict Nazi brutality.
Interviews include Chaplin's son, also named Sydney, telling of tremendous pressure his father faced not to make the movie — mostly from the predominantly Jewish heads of the major studios. (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. chief Louis B. Mayer even made major changes to his movies to please German censors). Ultimately, President Franklin D. Roosevelt got The Great Dictator
released, after aide Harry Hopkins was sent to personally urge Chaplin to press ahead, Sydney revealed.
"The president is all for this … he'll see that it's released," Sydney Chaplin said Hopkins told his father.
Overall, The Tramp and the Dictator
is an interesting take on a forgotten piece of Hollywood history.
The documentary bows Tuesday, Oct. 1 at 8 p.m. on TCM.
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Mike Demenchuk has served as content manager of Broadcasting+Cable and Multichannel News since 2016. After stints as reporter and editor at Adweek, The Bond Buyer and local papers in New Jersey, he joined the staff of Multichannel News in 1999 as assistant managing editor and has served as the cable trade publication's managing editor since 2005. He edits copy and writes headlines for both the print magazine and website, wrangles the occasional e-newsletter and reviews TV shows from time to time. He's also the guy to bother with your guest blog, Fates & Fortunes and Freeze Frame submissions.