August 11, 2016

“We want to live by each other’s happiness, not each other’s misery.”


“Do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress, the hate of men who will pass….”

This clip from The Great Dictator, the 1940 classic by cinema legend and Melville House author Charlie Chaplin, seems to go viral every couple of years. Maybe that’s because it’s an eloquent, vital call to resist certain nefarious influences in our politics that remains all too relevant. It’s worth revisiting, whether you’ve never watched it before or know it line for line. Go make yourself enough popcorn to last the five minutes of the speech, and do yourself a favor:

An interesting note: in his autobiography, Chaplin writes about how, at the dusk of 1930s, he was warned that an anti-Hitler movie would likely be seen as too controversial, and thus heavily censored, by authorities in both the US and the UK. “But I was determined to go ahead, for Hitler must be laughed at. Had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator, I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis. However, I was determined to ridicule their mystic bilge about a pure-blooded race…”

In another fairly remarkable passage from the book, Chaplin writes about how his political stances led to harassment by authorities, including the FBI:

Friends have asked how I came to engender this American antagonism. My prodigious sin was, and still is, being a nonconformist. Although I am not a Communist I refused to fall in line by hating them. This, of course, has offended many, including the American Legion. I am not opposed to that organization in its true constructive sense; such measures as the G.I. Bill of Rights and other benefits for ex-soldiers and the needy children of veterans are excellent and humanitarian. But when the legionnaires go beyond their legitimate rights, and under the guise of patriotism use their power to encroach upon others, then they commit an offence against the fundamental structure of the American Government. Such super-patriots could be the cells to turn America into a fascist state.

Also recommended is Richard Brody’s short, interesting New Yorker piece about the scene (one of several addressing the movie that were published back in 2011), which considers the haunting, haunted expression that overtakes Chaplin’s face as the speech ends in a roar of applause, and connects it to a scene from Heinrich Böll’s story Murke’s Collected Silences.