Judge Clark Douglas once dressed as Charlie Chaplin for Halloween; easily the most misinterpreted costume at the party.
Chaplin talks…while you laugh!
"We've just discovered the most wonderful, the most marvelous poisonous gas. It will kill everybody."
Facts of the Case
In the distinctively German-like fictional nation of Tomania, a distinctively Hitler-like dictator named Adenoid Hynkel (Charlie Chaplin, City Lights) has risen to power. Ruling his country with an iron fist and encouraging the oppression of the Jewish people, Hynkel has become one of the most feared men in the world despite his cartoonish persona. Most Tomanian Jews are living in constant fear, but a Jewish barber (also played by Chaplin) has been in the hospital since WWI and is oblivious to the horrors that his people are now forced to deal with. Slowly but surely, the barber begins to discover the terrible ways in which his country has changed. Coincidentally, the barber happens to look almost exactly like Hynkel, leading to a comic mix-up of epic proportions.
If you've seen much of Charlie Chaplin's silent work, you'll understand why the notion of Chaplin doing a "talkie" was a very peculiar one indeed. Chaplin wasn't merely an artist who made the most of working without sound; he was an artist whose talents were amplified by the lack of sound. As such, Chaplin insisted on continuing to work in silent film even when almost everyone else had abandoned that realm of cinema. His masterful Modern Times does include some sound effects, singing and even dialogue, but it remains a silent film in spirit. Still, something had to give eventually if the beloved comedian wanted to continue working in his chosen field.
Enter 1940's The Great Dictator, Chaplin's first honest-to-goodness talking picture. That would be the lead story if the film had been a traditional Chaplin comedy, but the sound factor was only one of the ways in which the picture was a change-of-pace for Chaplin. The film is undoubtedly best-known as one of the earliest mainstream motion pictures to launch an unreserved comic attack on Adolf Hitler. While doing such satirical attacks became commonplace during the later years of WWII (I've heard countless radio shows from the early-to-mid-'40s offering cheerfully silly portraits of the German dictator), Chaplin's film was being made at a time when attacking Hitler was regarded as making a very risky, controversial political statement.
Despite early warnings that his film would not receive support or distribution in many parts of the world, Chaplin was determined to expose the popular dictator as both a villain and a joke. His cheerfully silly portrait of Hitler…er, Hynkel…achieves the tricky task of humiliating the man without ignoring or dismissing his capability for evil and destruction. Hitler the political leader must be battled with unrelenting vigor, but that doesn't mean we can't laugh at the over-the-top ridiculousness of Hitler the man. The approach proved more striking and effective than a traditional propaganda film would have been. It is one thing to say that a man is a monster, for even monsters can be effective and efficient. It is another thing entirely to say that a man is an incompetent, impotent, bumbling clown.
It's fascinating to observe the manner in which Chaplin tweaks his comedic sensibilities in his performance as Hynkel. Chaplin endured many humiliations as The Little Tramp (and endures a few more as the Jewish barber, who may or may not actually be the Tramp), but the humor in those situations was immensely empathetic and tender. The physical humiliations Chaplin puts Hynkel through (such as when the dictator trips and falls down a flight of stairs) are similar in technicality but vastly different in tone; there's a gleeful and entirely justifiable mean streak in these moments. The early public perception of Hitler was that he was a strong, commanding figure; Chaplin takes all of Hitler's distinctive physical traits and transforms him into an amusingly pompous ass. Surprisingly, Chaplin's verbal comedy is nearly as strong as his physical comedy at times, particularly when he launches into his faux-German tirades (casually slipping phrases like "der sauerkraut" and "cheese und crackers!" into his harsh, sputtering gibberish before transforming his verbal spewings into a series of glorified coughs).
Even if The Great Dictator isn't as consistently funny as Chaplin's best efforts (stretches of the film are curiously middling when you consider what a perfectionist Chaplin was), the film is indeed an entertaining effort. Still, it is not admired and talked about because it's one of the funniest comedies of all time, but simply for the fact that The Great Chaplin was actually willing to apply wild slapstick comedy to a cinematic takedown of Adolf Hitler. Any doubts that the film is first and foremost a message movie are put to rest by the conclusion, in which Chaplin takes a few minutes to speechify in front of the camera. It's easily the most hotly-debated portion of the film, with some finding it a surprisingly moving finish (director Sidney Lumet claimed it brought him to tears) and others finding it a tacky addition (critic David Thompson has described it as, "embarrassing," a notion quite a few other critics have echoed). While I don't exactly feel the speech is an embarrassment, I do think it's unnecessary. The film has made such statements already in more effective ways; having Chaplin spell things out for us dampens the overall effect. Still, the speech was immensely important to Chaplin, who defended it vigorously and eloquently in a New York Times editorial included with this set.
The Great Dictator marches onto Blu-ray sporting a very respectable 1080p/Full Frame transfer. The level of detail is pristine throughout, allowing the viewer to fully appreciate Chaplin's eye for clever visual design and sight gags. Black levels are impressively deep and the film's natural grain structure is left intact. There's little evidence of any significant tampering and very few scratches or flecks are present. Audio is also sturdy, with rather clean, crisp dialogue and a melancholic musical score (by Chaplin and Meridith Wilson) which comes through smoothly even if it's slightly lacking in strength at times. The sound design of the film isn't very complex, but everything is sturdy.
The history, context and making of The Great Dictator are as fascinating as the film itself, and thankfully Criterion has included some high-quality supplements for viewers to dig through. First up is an engaging, informative audio commentary by author Dan Kamin and film historian Hooman Mehran, both of whom have all sorts of fascinating tidbits to offer. For a leaner but equally compelling overview of the film's creation, check out the 55-minute 2001 documentary "The Tramp and the Dictator." Narrated by Kenneth Branagh and featuring comments from a host of historians, critics and filmmakers, it's a compelling (if faintly hyperbolic) watch. Next up are two visual essays: "Chaplin's Napoleon" (20 minutes) from archivist Cecelia Cenciarelli and "The Clown Turns Prophet" (21 minutes) from biographer Jeffrey Vance. You also get 27 minutes of footage from the set of The Great Dictator shot by Charlie's brother Sydney Chaplin, a short film by Sydney entitled "King, Queen, Joker" (5 minutes), some deleted scenes from the Chaplin film Sunnyside (in which Chaplin plays a barber), the film's re-release trailer and a booklet featuring an essay by Michael Wood, the aforementioned Chaplin article, an article by Jean Narboni on the film's concluding speech and the original press book illustrations by Al Hirschfeld.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While Chaplin does have some fun verbal moments in his performance as Hynkel, there are a number of times in which the addition of sound works against him. This is largely due to the fact that Chaplin was not as skilled in terms of writing clever dialogue as he was in staging clever set pieces, so there are moments when his verbal jokes feel a little obvious. Consider a scene in which Chaplin and his pal are flying upside down in a WWI fighter plane. There's some great physical comedy in this scene that's a lot of fun to observe, but Chaplin robs the sequence of some of its humor by having the characters comment on the action and describe what is happening onscreen.
In addition, the comic set pieces tend to be shorter and further between this time around. The sequence involving Hynkel and an inflatable globe is definitely a classic, but in general the moments of physical comedy aren't quite as ambitious as Chaplin's best work.
Finally, the romantic subplot between Chaplin and his spouse Paulette Goddard proves disappointingly bland. The two had such fantastic chemistry together in Modern Times; seeing them interact onscreen was one of that film's many pleasures. Whether for personal or artistic reasons (the couple split shortly after the film was completed), Chaplin and Goddard simply weren't able to generate the same spark together in The Great Dictator.
The Great Dictator may not be one of Charlie Chaplin's best films, but it's arguably his most important and certainly one of his most ambitious. Criterion's excellent Blu-ray release makes it easy to recommend a purchase of this impassioned, funny, bold Chaplin comedy.
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