The Great Dictator Review
As one of the first American films to address a second world war flaring up in Europe, Chaplin's The Great Dictator can too easily be taken for granted after roughly seventy years of hindsight. Its points may now seem obvious and preachy, wrapped in a running time that goes beyond two hours without really needing to, but the mighty strengths of an icon speaking intelligibly and audibly for the first time on film - and doing so with previously unseen conviction - have hardly faded. Even if The Great Dictator can be self-indulgent to a fault, the message Chaplin made sure to relay, in a spectrum ranging from broad comedy to the eloquence of hope amid fearing the worst, could only have been done with that degree of force. Production began in 1939, just a week after the Nazi invasion of Poland and at a time when Americans were overwhelmingly in favor of isolationism. Chaplin couldn't afford to sell his opinion softly. He surely realized that a picture arguing against fascism and Hitler's Nazi regime needed to do so with such forcefulness as to persuade audiences that what was going on in Europe was very much of concern to everyone across the globe.
In all of the features he both directed and starred in, Chaplin seized the very sentimentality cited unfavorably by his critics (or whatever those who enjoy dismissing him call themselves) as a means of gently manipulating the viewer into an emotional response rarely felt before or since to such a consistent degree. Earlier silents like The Circus and The Kid are usually more entertaining than thoughtful but by City Lights and Modern Times, the Little Tramp character had burrowed his way a bit deeper into our collective consciousness. The ending to City Lights still registers as one of the most affecting moments ever committed to film, and the influence of Modern Times is difficult to overstate. Having Chaplin mix some desperately serious ideas into The Great Dictator was both a risk and a continuation of his ability to control viewer emotion in his films. He'd proven capable of making audiences laugh and cry on cue so why not attempt something a little deeper by asking them to now think as well. Whatever the trappings of making a comedy about someone responsible for more death and pain than perhaps anyone who's ever lived, and doing so while the threat became increasingly more serious, it was clearly a bold move to actively taunt Hitler in the guise of mainstream entertainment.
Chaplin names his Hitler-like character Adenoid Hynkel and is careful to make him both ridiculous and terrifying. If this seems somehow contradictory, think of how the combination of Hitler's appearance, oratorical impact, and vast power now lend him some degree of anachronistic unbelievability. Mocking him in 1940 was something new, though, and it's to Chaplin's credit that he could present the seriousness of Hitler's threat while still pointing out his absurdity. The most poignant scene in the film, and also its most famous, is of Hynkel gracefully dancing around his palace office with a globe of the world. He bounces the round planet off his head and foot before squeezing the balloon until it pops. Whether spouting Germanic gibberish or engaging in one dictatorial pissing contest after another with Jack Oakie's Mussolini stand-in Napaloni, Chaplin as Hynkel is as mesmerizing to watch as any time the actor appeared on film. Even more than in the darkly comic Bluebeard story of Monsieur Verdoux, here Chaplin is the most removed from his Little Tramp and all the more unsettling because of it. The humor in his portrayal of Hynkel, given what we know of Hitler, may inspire a touch of conflict but it comes off primarily as so barbed and sharp as to be more troubling from an historical perspective than a creative one. This is not, as with some of the political impersonations in the Saturday Night Live vein, a humanizing portrayal where the mocking grounds the venality of the figure. Chaplin never allows that to happen.
In contrast, the parallel plot where his Little Tramp persona is seen as a Jewish barber who experiences everything from accidental heroism to memory loss to love with Paulette Goddard may have been a slight misstep. The opportunity to let this beloved character who shared a noted physical similarity (and several other incidental ones) to Hitler appear as an eventual doppelganger to the Phooey of the film was probably irresistible. But Chaplin honed his portrayal in silent cinema, largely on physicality. The Tramp's appeal doesn't come from his words and his best moments in The Great Dictator derive from the same well of wordless comedy that had worked in the past. He's of another era. It's quickly understandable why Chaplin's famous alter ego was never again trotted out on the screen. He was most likely needed here, for plot purposes and to soften the overall blow of making a satire about a dictator who was intent on doing the unthinkable, but Chaplin had outgrown his Little Tramp.
Even with that in mind, the picture's strengths so far exceed its lesser moments that the feeling taken away after viewing is of utter admiration for Chaplin's brilliance and audacity. Once again he makes us feel. It's not the bittersweet sadness or contented warmth of the earlier works but there was more at stake this time. Chaplin instills hope but also conviction. His final speech, done in the character of the barber who's now stumbled into impersonating Hynkel, is as stirring as any monologue ever given on film. It plays as sincere and important. To denigrate it as mere propaganda is to do the scene a disservice and to mistake an impassioned plea against fascism for a clumsy screed of provocation. For a director that is sometimes accused of lacking in formal strength, Chaplin's decision to look directly at the camera as he begs for little else than freedom and equality could not have been more effectively filmed. It never fails to be moving, striking a chord for patriotism and activism and, most importantly, humanism.
The films of Charlie Chaplin, previously available in both the UK and North America through Warner Bros., are now gradually being brought back in print by new licensees. In R1, the Criterion Collection will be handling the Chaplin catalog while Park Circus has the rights in the UK. The Great Dictator and The Kid were the first titles tackled by Park Circus, with The Gold Rush and Modern Times scheduled to be next in line. Though not originally announced as such, this first wave of Park Circus releases is apparently using the Dual Format type of edition, with both Blu-ray and DVD copies in the same package, that the BFI has also adopted. Without a full retail copy at my disposal I can't confirm specifics of the release, but it seems that the extra features are limited to just the DVD edition. I have no idea why online retailers still list separate Blu-ray and DVD editions for purchase, nor am I certain as to exactly what you'd receive upon ordering either item.
The 1080p high definition transfer on this region-locked disc looks stunning, far superior to the previous DVD editions of the film. From the early war scenes, the detail and clarity already exceed expectations and that level of sharpness mostly remains throughout the film. I couldn't get over how clear the sequences inside Hynkel's palace look when compared against standard definition releases. Contrast too is mighty impressive here. Some grain is left in but damage has virtually vanished. Even the included DVD transfer doesn't have as clean of a presentation. Stability issues also greatly favor the Blu-ray in comparison. The dual-layered Blu-ray, which, again, is locked for Region B, conserves the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
Home theater junkies get a DTS-HD 5.1 mix that sounds quite full and nice, without any major instances of hiss or popping. My preference was for the more faithful PCM mono track. The two-channel option is crisp and consistent. It's a rather sophisticated listen given the audio limitations in place at the time. The initial battle scenes leave an effective jolt. Dialogue whizzes by at perfectly understandable volume and clarity - which is a good thing since Park Circus inexcusably neglected to provide subtitles.
A couple of the extra features are carryovers from the earlier MK2 editions put out by Warner Bros. but there's also something gained and something lost. Again, they only appear on the DVD of this release. A short, completely silent sequence (7:31) known simply as "Charlie the Barber" that was done for (though not included in) the 1919 effort "Sunnyside" is here. There's also the color behind-the-scenes footage (25:46) shot by Chaplin's brother Sydney. Finally seeing the "Chaplin Today: The Great Dictator" (26:15) featurette (it was omitted for some reason from the Warner releases) made for quite an enjoyable experience. Filmmaker Costa-Gavras shares his appreciation in the piece. Gone is Kevin Brownlow's The Tramp and the Dictator documentary, a major absence that should prevent many from throwing out their WB sets. I'm now especially anxious to see what supplements Criterion includes and/or adds to its eventual release.