Chaplin’s Use of Photographs and the Press. The Great Dictator

7th September 2021

Still photographs to Chaplin, and his crew, were publicity vehicles only. Photos were taken almost every day during the production of all his films. Those considered acceptable were numbered and printed. For some productions, handwritten notes on the back of the original stills tell to which press agency particular photographs were assigned, or decree that an image is NG, no good. Many copies of the best images were printed for the press.

There were stills of actual film scenes, and of behind the scenes images, the latter labelled “Pub” for publicity – even though the film scene stills were also for publicity purposes. Chaplin never had photographs taken of the best scenes in his films – the feeding machine scene in Modern Times, the bread rolls dance in The Gold Rush, for example – as he did not want to reveal the best gags of a film before release.

In the case of The Great Dictator there are no official Studio stills of the famous barber shop shaving scene, of the final speech, nor of Hynkel’s sadistic dance with the globe, just a few snaps by Dan James and other studio photographers.

Although the press and the general public were aware of The Great Dictator in preparation, Chaplin was extremely careful to let nothing escape the walls of the Chaplin studios. In February 1940, photographs were taken and issued to the press of the wooden replica of Germany’s Big Bertha cannon (for the 1st World War scenes at the beginning of the film) leaving the Chaplin studios for the location in San Fernando Valley.

Big Bertha arrives on the set
credits Big Bertha arrives on the set
Big Bertha at studio entrance
credits Big Bertha at studio entrance

A second photograph was issued in of Chaplin in Hynkel uniform, with cameraman Rollie Totheroh far more visible than Chaplin.

Charles Chaplin behind the camera
credits Charles Chaplin behind the camera
Publicity photo released
credits Publicity photo released

Amazingly those were the only two pictures released to the press of the already infamous “Dictator” film, announced by United Artists as early as January 1939. So, unsurprisingly, newspapers resorted to creating their own images, as examples in the Chaplin press clipping archives show – the photograph montages of Hitler and Mussolini, with Chaplin and Jack Oakie’s heads, for example, are strikingly accurate. Photoshop before its time.

Main characters
credits Main characters

LIFE magazine dated June 17th 1940 published the first ever “paparazzi” photograph of Chaplin as Hynkel, and Chaplin immediately took out, and won, a suit for injunction.

The Great Dictator

Chaplin Ties Up Part Of Life Issue - ECCI00017623


The Great Dictator

Chaplin Sues Magazine for .000.000 - ECCI00017624


160 000 copies of the magazine already distributed could remain so, but a further 120 000 still with Life were to be revised.

Only in late August 1940 did the Chaplin Studios at last release tens of photographs from the film to the press and these were immediately reproduced around the world.

The Great Dictator

Hynkel's speech - ECCI00026310


The film finally premiered on October 15th 1940.