Venice, CA, February 7, 1914: Filming a real crowd gathered to watch go-cart races, director Mack Sennet’s camera captures the world’s first glimpse of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp character. He would provide some fun bits of business for the otherwise forgettable one-reeler, but it was really a rather simple, quiet introduction to one of the new century’s most influential people.

Munich, August 1, 1914. A massive crowd celebrates the outbreak of war, and an anonymous photographer captures the scene. Among the jubilant throng is a twenty-five-year-old Adolf Hitler, whose smiling visage at a celebration of war presages the larger role he’ll one day play in a similar production.

Canton, OH, December, 2014: More than a century after the Führer and the Tramp were birthed upon an unsuspecting world, I get a call from my friend and collaborator Sean. He has an idea: join Seth Rogan’s burlesque of Kim Jong-un, The Interview, with Chaplin’s Dictator. Did I want in?

Well duh.

My enthusiasm stemmed entirely from 1) the story potential with which Sean’s premise was rife and 2) the opportunity to bend my knee before Charlie Chaplin. I wasn’t all fired up about the story’s political ramifications, about the statement we were making. What statement? We’d missed the time for that; there was nothing in our tale that was controversial in 21st century America.

It was 2014. America was a young, foolish nation, and we were (not-so) young foolish artists. We were just telling a fun story, not making a political statement. After all, this was America. It could never happen here.

Chaplin knew better, but we were laughing too hard to notice. He knew it could happen anywhere. He knew you have to stand up to bullies. Stand up to them and laugh in their faces. As we worked on this book, we began to get unfortunate reminders of the serious side of The Great Dictator. Children in cages. Politicians openly praising fascists. Political opponents receiving mail bombs. Innocent worshipers shot dead in synagogues. Innocent Americans of color shot dead everywhere.

Chaplin once said that if he’d have known the true depths of the evil of Hitler’s regime that he wouldn’t have made light of it. I’m glad, then, that he didn’t know. Glad that he armed us with the comfort of laughter in dark times. With the reminder that we’re not alone. That there have been dark times before, and the same lights that got us through those times could get us through these times. The lights of love. And laughter. And art.
Hollywood, Oscar night, 1972. Charlie Chaplin has won an honorary Academy Award for “the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century.” He is now speaking to a reporter at an after-party.

“I appreciate the honor, but I have to admit I went into the business for money and the art grew out of it,” he says. “If people are disillusioned by that remark, I can’t help it. It’s the truth.” I won’t call the man a liar, but methinks he doth protest too much.

Chaplin may have gone into movies for money and not art, but he ended up making plenty of both. He was also plenty generous with both. He left the world with a curriculum vitae that would continue to enrich the human experience even now, more than a century after he took his first screen bow, and in making The Great Dictator he risked the fortune he had earned in the creation of that CV.

In our humble homage, Chaplin is inspired to make Adolf Hitler his satirical target thanks to the prodding of President Roosevelt. As artists, we felt we needed a dramatic call-to-action more than we needed an historically-accurate accounting. In reality, Chaplin was eager to do his part. No, he never took up arms against the Kaiser, but his films were considered to be among the best of the cinematic morale boosters for Allied forces, and he raised immense amounts for the World War I effort through Liberty Bond drives. And the passing decades before beginning The Great Dictator had not diminished his patriotic impulses toward the country that he called home: the country of humanity.

An artist has more value painting a battlefield than occupying one, and Chaplin’s contribution to the Second World War effort struck an immense blow for democracy, a blow whose potency can still be felt. The world’s biggest monsters were laid bare, shown to be nothing more than bullies. Cartoon bullies at that.

It was not the U.S. government that inspired Chaplin’s The Great Dictator but the former who inspired the latter. Chaplin declared war in the form of beginning production on that film more than two years before the sleeping American giant awoke on one dreadful day of infamy.

No other studio in town was willing to invest in the picture, so as not to lose revenue in fascist states. Besides, the predominantly Jewish filmmakers said, the movie would just earn German Jews the wrath of Hitler. England announced sight unseen that they would ban the picture, so as to appease the Fuhrer. FDR surreptitiously voiced his support, but stopped short of publicly supporting Chaplin or the project, so as to protect himself politically. In the end, every last thin dime of the film’s financing came from Chaplin himself, and it’s no exaggeration to say he was risking the great fortune he’d gotten into films to make.

No, he never faced a German bullet, but no honest person can say Charlie Chaplin was not a brave man. Better than a brave man: He was a brave artist.
With fascism on the rise the world over, including right here at home, it can be so easy to get discouraged. Disillusioned. Indifferent. But Chaplin fired a shot against evil a century ago, and his aim remains true today, reminding us that our humblest efforts can have unpredictable results. We may not live to see the Promised Land, but we can at least tell each other stories about while we’re on our way there.

See that little tramp there? The one waving the red flag and inspiring a parade of protesters to follow him? He wasn’t trying to inspire a movement. He was just trying to do the right thing, and the movement followed. He has the right idea. Fall in behind him. The people you’re up against are innumerable, but so are we. And we’re better armed than they are. We’re armed with Chaplin’s reminders that 1) we need never fear that which can be deflated with just a joke, and 2) the only thing more innumerable than bullies is the jokes we can make at their expense.

Just in it for the money? Sorry, Charlie. I don’t believe you. As befits a personality forged on the silent screen, your actions spoke louder than your words.

Jon Judy, October 2018