The great irony is that Chaplin was known as a silent film star. He was the most famous silent film star in the world. The Great Dictator was his first “talking” film.
The film is a pointed ridicule of Hitler and fascism. Through mistaken identity, a Jewish barber is thrust into the position of Fuhrer of fictional Tomania. The monologue is his stirring speech against fascism & tyranny, urging humanity to rise up and make a better world.
This speech ties nicely into Lindsay’s recent newsletter on playing highly emotional scenes. It goes to a very impassioned place, to a high level of emotional intensity. Listen to how he plays with words, patterns, changing speed, intensity. Getting louder, then quieter. Getting faster, then slower. He earns every decibel of volume, to the stirring “Let us all unite!”
I love the “opposites” section toward the beginning (We have developed speed but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical; our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little.) It evokes A Tale of Two Cities (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”).
Film acting demands much more stillness than stage acting. Notice how little he moves. Go to the 2:40 mark in the video and put post-it notes on either side of his head. Notice how still his head stays through the intensity of the speech.
As a an exercise in understanding emotional builds, show the piece to the class. Then show it a second time, this time instructing the class to graph the speech on a scale of one to ten. The beginning of the piece is a 1, and the final “Let us all unite!” is a 10. Notice the gradual build, notice how to gets to a 7 then retreats, then builds to a 8, then down again, then finally hitting the 9 and 10
This speech was also famously recut a couple of years ago using music from the film Inception. I prefer the silence of the original, but it’s a fine example of the role of music in film: