Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > THE GREAT DICTATOR – Charles Chaplin and Meredith Willson

THE GREAT DICTATOR – Charles Chaplin and Meredith Willson


Original Review by Craig Lysy

The genesis of The Great Dictator film arose when renowned producer-director Alexander Korda pointed out to Charlie Chaplin that he bore a striking resemblance to Adolf Hitler. Chaplin’s research revealed that they were born withing a week of each other, were approximately the same height and weight, and both emerged from poverty during their early life to achieve success. An additional stimulus to make the film came from German director Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 film Triumph of Will, which made a comic impression on Chaplin. The film would be Chaplin’s first all-talking all-sound film and he decided to finance it with his own production company, allocating a $2 million budget. He would also direct, write the screenplay, jointly compose the score, and star in the film. For his cast, Chaplin would play the Jewish barber and Adenoid Hynkel – the Great Dictator. Joining him would be Paulette Goddard as Hannah, Jack Oakie as, Henry Daniell as Benzino Napolini, Reginald Gardiner as Commander Schultz, Billy Gilbert as Herring, and Maurice Moscovich as Mr. Jaeckel.

The film offers a deliciously funny satire with a clear narrative to condemn Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, fascism, anti-Semitism, and the Nazi movement. Using his comedic genius Chaplin succeeded in making one of the greatest comedy satires in cinematic history. The film was very popular and a stunning commercial success, earning a profit of $3 million. The film secured critical acclaim around the world – except of course in countries with strong Nazi sympathies. It earned five Academy Award nominations, including Outstanding Production, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor and Best Film Score.

Charlie Chaplin was again seeking a composer collaborator to translate his vision for the film score. He initially brought in Hanns Eisler as he felt it would be an exquisite irony to have a German composer whose music was banned by the Nazi party in 1933. But Eisler was not able to offer Chaplin’s melodies in a form that he desired. David Raksin was considered, but Chaplin still harbored a grudge for his insubordination while working on Modern Times, and so he sought new blood. He instead brought in Meredith Wilson after hearing his 1940 Symphony #2, Missions of California. Once again, Chaplin would once again dictate his melodies and concepts to Wilson and his team, who would then transcribe it into musical script. Wilson related his experience working with Chaplin;

“I have never met a man who devoted himself so completely to the idea of perfection as Charlie Chaplin. During the two months I was associated with him…I was constantly amazed at his attention to detail, his feeling for the exact musical phrase or tempo to express the mood he wanted, and his ability to inspire the same fanatical zeal in those who work with him”.

Chaplin decided to interpolate a number of classical pieces within the fabric of his score, including Hungarian Dance #5 by Johannes Brahms, the Prelude to Lohengrin Act I by Richard Wagner, the String Quartet in E, Opus 13 No. 5: Minuet by Luigi Boccherini, and the first movement of Wilson’s own Symphony No. 1 in F Minor. He also composed a number of exaggerated marcia militare to support the Tomanian (German) and Bacterian (Italian) fascists identities, unleashing the former with the invasion of Osterlich.

In terms of themes, he created six themes. The Main Theme espouses the dynamism of Wilson’s own Symphony No. 1 in F Minor resounding with heraldic fanfare, that unleash swirling ascending strings, which soars with a bold confidence, unstoppable. The theme permeates the film and supports Chaplin’s satire perfectly. Hynkel’s Theme offers a diabolical construct abounding with malevolence, emoting as an exaggerated marcia tedesca empowered by maniacal horns and tuba. Hannah’s Theme is bubbly, abounding with happiness and joie de vie. Led by a solo violin delicato, Chaplin infuses her musical narrative with a wondrous carefree happiness. Hannah and the Barber’s Love Theme offers a classic romance for strings, a beautiful respite from the overall martial and overbearing military identities. The Jewish Theme bathes us in Hebraic auras of sadness and suffering for a people long scourged throughout history. These emotions are poignant and aching within it notes and we share in the pain. In film context it truly achieved a heart wrenching pathos and profound cinematic confluence. In rare time of happiness, the theme emotes as a festive danza ebraica. The Lohengrin Theme offers a wondrous, and refulgent exposition emoted by tremolo ethereal strings, which provides a profound and serene tranquility. Chaplin purposely coopted Hitler’s favorite composer (Wagner) and used it as counterpoint against Hynkel’s fascist tyranny. Lastly, cues coded (*) contain music not found on the album.

“Main Title” offers a score highlight, which offers inspired contrapuntal writing, and supports the roll of the opening credits. It opens dramatically with resounding heraldic fanfare, which unleash swirling ascending strings that is taken from the first movement of Wilson’s Symphony No. 1. It launches the rousing Main Theme, which soars with a bold confidence, unstoppable. At 0:47 sumptuous strings romantico sweep us away and usher in the roll of the cast credits. At 1:23 trumpets militare declarations support script which dissociates any resemblance between the Dictator and Jewish barber. We return to close on a descending statement of the Main Theme as script establishes the setting as 1918, the closing year of the WWI, which would usher in an interlude between two great world wars. “Plane Crash” (*) as the barber and commander Schultz run out of gas, their plane heads down to crash. Chaplin supports with strings d’Amore as the captain reminisces about his girlfriend Hilda and spring daffodils.

“Montage No. 1, The Old Order Changeth” reveals Schultz being informed that Tomania had lost the war. We surge upwards on the Main Theme as we see newspaper presses spinning out the day’s newspapers. Fanfare declarations at 0:05 supports the headline of “Armistice!”, joined in counterpoint by a celebratory statement of the Main Theme with a quote of the Confederate anthem “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” as the amnesiac barber is taken from the crash site to hospital. We close with a rousing exposition of the Main Theme, which ends darkly as headlines read in succession; “Peace”, “Dempsey Beats Willard!!”, “Lindbergh Flies the Atlantic”, “Depression”, “Riots in Tomania!” and “Hynkel Party Takes Power!” “Horses A-Manship” offers a robust and pompous marcia militare, which caps Dictator Hynkel’s rousing oratory to a sea of cheering Tomanian soldiers. The album presentation is significantly truncated from the actual film version, which plays for more almost three minutes as Hynkel is adored by throngs of adoring citizens. “Ghetto Sign” reveals the sign marking the enclosed Jewish ghetto, which Chaplin supports with a festive danza ebraica as we see the bustling ghetto main street.

“Entrance Of Hannah” reveals Mr. Jaeckel calling for Hannah to bring him his tobacco pouch. Her arrival is carried by her violin carried theme draped with Jewish auras. At 0:09 her theme shifts to spritely strings animato as she departs to deliver Mrs. Shoemaker’s laundry. “Hannah At The Doorstep” reveals Hannah standing up to a pack of storm troopers who robbed a local produce merchant. They respond to her taunts with a barrage of tomatoes. Chaplin supports with an anguished rendering of her theme. At 0:19 the melody is transferred to a solo violin delicato as she sadly realizes that the laundry will have to be redone. “Barber Shop Opening” reveals the Barber returning home to his barbershop, still not fully recovered from his amnesia and believing he has been gone only three days, not years. Chaplin is in his iconic “Tramp” persona with spritely strings animato carrying his distinctive waddling. We flow atop an accelerando into a comedic musical narrative joined by playful bubbling woodwinds as a pack of cats exit the shop and he takes the shutters of the storefront windows. At 0:53 the musical energy dissipates and darkens with a misterioso unfolding as he sees the shop dusty and full of cobwebs. At 1:25 beleaguered woodwinds support his discovery that storm troopers have painted on his store front windows “Jew”. We close on aggrieved woodwinds as the barber is arrested for trying to remove the “Jew” label and for resisting arrest.

In “Stagger Dance” the Barber is resisting his arrest under Hannah’s window. She uses a frying pan to bop the two storm troopers on their heads, but also mistakenly bops the Barber. Music enters as a metallic bong, followed by a twinkling music box like rendering of a danza vertiginosa, which interpolates the melody of the 19th century German folk song “Du, du liegst mir im Herzen”, as he dances up and down the street. The album version significantly truncates the music as presented in the film. “Charlie’s Last Capture” reveals him coming to his senses only to be grabbed again by one of the storm troopers. The slapstick comedic narrative resumes, punctuated by a frying pan bong as once more Hannah saves the day. At 0:12 a police whistle sounds the alarm of an approaching storm trooper vehicle and the musical narrative becomes manic as Hannah runs down and pulls him to safety inside. “Aftermath” (*) “reveals Hannah congratulating the Barber for fighting back. Chaplin introduces his Love Theme on warm strings tenero as Hannah goes in to do laundry and the Barber returns to his shop.

“Rearrested” (*) reveals the return of the storm troopers who again arrest the Barber. When they order him to repaint his windows, he throws the paint in their face and tries to flee. Manic comedic flight music supports his dash with dire horns of the Main Theme and whistles empowering the ever-swelling number of storm troopers closing in. The storm trooper horns become ascendent as he is captured as he is led to be hanged on a lamp post. Luckily his friend Schultz arrives and spares his life. In “Hynkel’s Palace” (*) we see the Dictator sitting at his desk, which Chaplin supports with Hynkel’s Theme, a pompous danza tadesca emblematic of the imperious supreme leader. “Hynkel’s Piano Improvisation” reveals the Dictator Hynkel’s performing a fluttering piano improvisation. “The Secretary” (*) reveals Hynkel ordering his adjutant to summon his secretary, which he does with a trumpet militare. After she arrives an alluring flute seducente enters as he is overcome with lust and takes her into his arms.

“Hannah and the Barber” (*) offers a gorgeous score highlight where we see the two alone in the barber shop as he prepares to beautify her. A gorgeous solo violin d’Amore dances over kindred strings with harp arpeggio adornment. When finished we see her with a beautiful hair styling, draped by ethereal strings full of wonderment of the Lohengrin melody. The radiant melody is sustained outside Hannah trips and drops her potatoes, which are picked up politely by storm troopers, who then wish the Barber a good day. A soliloquy by Hannah follows as she speaks of brighter days ahead, again supported by the ethereal radiance of the Lonhengrin Theme. In “Dictator of the World” (*) minister Garbitsch stokes Hynkel’s vanity asserting that after they wipe out the Jews and then brunettes, he will not only be Dictator of the world, but also, a god. This causes Hynkel to prance across the room and climb the curtains supported by a truly silly, farcical musical narrative.

Hynkel orders Garbitsch to leave as he wishes to be alone, and we flow into “Globe Dance (Vorspiel Lohengrin)” a score highlight, atop the radiant ethereal strings of the Lohengrin Theme. He grabs the air-filled globe and begins to caress it, and then repeatedly tosses, kicks and butts it in the air with balletic flare as we are enveloped by the radiant wonderment of the violins brillante of the Lohengren Theme. At 2:23 the globe explodes atop an orchestral pop and we end grimly atop horns tragico. “Barber Shop Scene” returns us to the barbershop supported by a “Happy Hour” radio program, which features an exposition of Brahms’ festive Hungarian Dance #5. It supports a hysterically funny scene of the Barber shaving a customer with his motions comically synchronized with the dance’s musical rhythm. It results in an outstanding cinematic confluence! In “Ze Boulevardier” reveals the Barber and Hannah preparing for their date. As Hannah and he stroll the ghetto streets, Chaplin supports a promenade alight with joie de vie, which bathes us with romantic Parisian auras.

“Storm Trooper Raid” (*) reveals a brutal raid on the ghetto ordered by Hynkel. Hannah and the Barber find refuge on a roof top where they watch the barbershop engulfed in flames. Chaplin supports with the ethereal strings of the Lohengren Theme, now offered with a molto tragico iteration. A scene shift to the palace reveals Hynkel playing his piano a la Nero with nonchalance as the ghetto burns. Returning to the rooftop, a wistful mandolin supports Hannah and the Barber’s respite from the violence around them. In “Pudding Mysterioso” Schultz exhorts the gathering of five Jews to come to Tomania’s aid by assassinating the tyrant Hynkel. One of the five puddings has a coin baked within, and whoever finds it, accepts the task of martyrdom. Music enters as the men begin choosing their puddings. Chaplin offers a playful, silly, and comedic musical narrative empowered by plucky woodwinds, pizzicato strings and strings animato, with shifting rhythms, which bounce to and fro. Musical spikes support the Barber eating first his coin, and then the coins that each man have secretly placed on his plate. The synergy achieved as the Barber attempts to conceal the ingestion of these coins and subsequent burping is delicious. In the end Hannah reveals that she placed a coin in each muffin and that they should not support this madness.

“Escape” (*) reveals Schultz and the Barber escaping to the roof as storm troopers arrive. Chaplin supports his baboonery and classic slapstick humor with a delightful scherzo. Schultz and the Barber are captured and we flow into “Concentration Camp” atop dire strings of doom as the headline reads; “Schultz and Jewish Barber Captured on Ghetto Roof”. An ominous musical narrative unfolds as the next headline reads; “Prison Camp For Schultz”. At 0:09 the rhythmic comic tune of the “Pudding Mysterioso” cue supports their walk to the concentration camp, and then goose-stepping march within the camp. At 0:31 the march shifts to playful pizzicato strings as they enter their barracks, and all turn in for the night as the military Retreat bugle sounds the close of day.“Osterlich Bridge” offers a beautiful score highlight, and I believe its finest cue, where we are graced by one of the finest compositions Chaplin’s canon. We see Hannah and the Jaeckels crossing a bridge into Osterlich to escape Hynkel’s persecution of the Jews. Chaplin creates an idyllic ambiance borne by sumptuous strings and crowned by warm French horns as we see them all tending to their vineyards, harvesting the grapes and later setting a bountiful dinner table. At 1:12 the music softens on solo violin d’Amore and kindred strings, becoming tender as Hannah writes a letter to the Barber, where she says that they are awaiting his release and hope that he can soon join them. The Love Theme’s romance for strings supports scene shifts from the vineyard to the prison where we see the Barber reading the letter.

“Pretzelberger March” reveals Hynkel and his honor guard preparing to meet fellow dictator Benzino Napolini of Bacteria at the railroad station. Chaplin supports with a Germanic marcia pomposa. In “Napoli March” Hynkel and Napolini review the troops supported by an Italian marcia festivamente. In “Valse Triste Theme” Chaplin achieves a beautiful confluence using a free-flowing, graceful valzer triste to perfectly support the many guests dancing in the grand ballroom. We flow seamlessly into “Ball Room Appassionato, which sustains the waltz aesthetic by providing excellent counterpoint to the hilarious dance between the diminutive Dictator Hynkel and rotund Madame Napolini. “Invasion Of Osterlich Theme” reveals the Barber, dressed as Dictator Hynkel, arriving to witness the invasion of Osterlich. Drums of war thunder, joined by trumpets militare as Chaplin unleashes the dogs of war with the Main Theme swelling as a maelstrom of orchestral violence. At 0:45 newspaper headlines read; “Ghettos Raided!” and “Jewish Property Confiscated.” An anguished rendering of the Jewish Theme supports the raids and the murder of a young man who resists. The relentless drum beats of war resume and at 1:16 as an anguished Jewish Theme returns as storm troopers raid the Jaeckel farm and brutalize him and Hannah. At 1:45 a crescendo surges as headlines read; “Osterlich Crowds Await Conqueror.” We close with a triumphant rendering of the Main Theme as the Barber (Hynkel imposter) arrives with Schultz.

“Drum Beats” offers a steady non-descript drum cadence, which carries the Hynkel imposter to the terrace to give a speech. In “Hope Springs Eternal” Minister Garbitsch declares the New Order and invites Barber/Hynkel to give a speech. Schultz whispers to the Barber that their only hope is for him to give a speech. As he rises and contemplates his speech, Chaplin supports with a resplendent rendering of the Lohengren Theme, which dissipates as he begins speaking – see Bonus cue 26 for the actual speech. At the conclusion of the speech, which repudiates Hynkel’s Party fascist and racist narrative, the crowd erupts in wild applause. We conclude with “Vorspiel Lohengrin / End Title” empowered by the resplendent Lohengrin Theme by violins brillante as Hannah lifts her head, unable to believe the speech she is hearing on the radio, which speaks of love, hope and brotherhood for all peoples. The film ends on a stirring crescendo magnifico, which concludes with a grand flourish.

While I appreciate Le Chant Du Monde’s effort to offer a remastered score to Charlie Chaplin’s masterwork “The Great Dictator”, the reader is advised that the music remains archival, monaural, and contains significant audio imperfections, sound effects and dialogue. We hope that someday a film score label will take on a new re-recording to do Chaplin’s marvelous creation justice. Chaplin’s musical instincts and aesthetics are legend, often achieving a masterful confluence with his comedic film narratives. Such is the case again with “The Great Dictator” where his satirical brilliance is fully matched by his score. In scene after scene his musical narrative spoke to the powerful emotions expressed on the screen, yet at other times he provides juxtaposition with masterful musical counterpoint, which elevates the scene with a compelling commentary. His use of exaggeration and pomposity empowered his satirical commentary with great and often damning effect. Folks, this score is a testament to Chaplin’s musical genius, offering a multiplicity of fine themes, marches and anthems. His use of exaggeration, pathos, humor and counterpoint is brilliant, with an affirmative demonstration of the indisputable power of music to elevate a film. I highly recommend you take in the film to experience his handiwork in context, and join me in calling for a re-recording. For Chaplin aficionados I also recommend the informative and celebratory “The Music of Charlie Chaplin” by Jim Lochner, McFarland and Company (2018).

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to the Main Title: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1t-m5qCAYTo

Buy the Great Dictator soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title (1:50)
  • Montage No. 1, The Old Order Changeth (0:53)
  • Horses A-Manship (0:22)
  • Ghetto Sign (0:21)
  • Entrance Of Hannah (0:19)
  • Hannah At The Doorstep (0:34)
  • Barber Shop Opening (1:48)
  • Stagger Dance (0:43)
  • Charlie’s Last Capture (0:42)
  • Hynkel’s Piano Improvisation (0:19)
  • Globe Dance (Vorspiel Lohengrin) (2:33)
  • Barber Shop Scene (Hungarian Dance No. 5) (1:59)
  • Ze Boulevardier (0:52)
  • Pudding Mysterioso (3:03)
  • Concentration Camp (0:56)
  • Osterlich Bridge (1:49)
  • Pretzelberger March (0:42)
  • Napoli March (0:29)
  • Valse Triste Theme (2:10)
  • Ball Room Appassionato (0:30)
  • Invasion Of Osterlich Theme (2:12)
  • Drum Beats (0:33)
  • Hope Springs Eternal (0:48)
  • Vorspiel Lohengrin / End Title (1:20)
  • Prelude to The Great Dictator (6:52) BONUS
  • Final Speech / Look Up, Hannah (4:55) BONUS
  • Hannah’s Soliloquy (1:34) BONUS
  • Hynkel’s Speech (5:15) BONUS
  • Sydney Chaplin’s Mock German (0:49) BONUS
  • Jaime Les Femmes, C’est Ma Folie (0:38) BONUS
  • Charlie Chaplin at Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Third Inaugural Gala (9:39) BONUS

Running Time: 55 minutes 30 seconds

Roy Export SAS (1940/2020)

Music composed by Charles Chaplin. Conducted by Meredith Willson. Orchestrations by Leo Arnaud and Max Terr. Recorded and mixed by XXXX. Score produced by Charles Chaplin and Meredith Willson. Album produced by Timothy Brock.

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