The narrow “toothbrush mustache” caught on in the late nineteenth century, first in the United States and soon thereafter across the Atlantic. When Charlie Chaplin put one on for a film in 1914, he became its most famous wearer — at least until Adolf Hitler rose to prominence a couple of decades later. By that point Chaplin had become the most famous comedy star in the world, which may have inspired the Nazi Party leader, a known fan of Chaplin’s work, to adopt the same mustache as a kind of tool of self-advancement. Chaplin himself could hardly have approved of his new doppelgänger, and it troubled him to discover their other shared qualities: their births in April of 1889, their poor childhoods, their love of Wagner.
Still, as an inveterate entertainer, Chaplin grasped the comedic potential of his and Hitler’s parallel iconic status. The result, released in 1940, was The Great Dictator, his first genuine sound film. Chaplin had continued making silent pictures, and refining his signature visual humor, well into the era of “talkies.”
But he could only have done so much to ridicule Hitler, who had come to power in large part through speeches broadcast over the radio, without being able to use his voice as well. Yet he delivers his most memorable lines not in the role of Hitler surrogate Adenoid Hynkel, but that of the unnamed Jewish barber who — through, of course, several absurd turns of events — ends up mistaken for Hynkel and made to address the nation.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor,” says Chaplin-as-the-Barber-as-Hynkel. “That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone — if possible — Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness, not by each other’s misery.” Throughout the three-and-a-half-minute monologue, he speaks against “greed,” “cleverness,” “national barriers,” and “the hate of men”; he advocates for “kindness and gentleness,” “universal brotherhood,” “a world of reason,” and “the love of humanity.” These may not be especially precise terms, but, knowing his public well — much better, indeed, than Hitler ever knew his — Chaplin also knew just when to go broad.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.