By the time Charles Chaplin released his first all-talking picture, The Great Dictator, in 1940, he was a good 13 years behind the curve. The most popular of all silent comedians resisted the onset of sound, dismissing it as a fad; his first two post-Jazz Singer comedies, City Lights and Modern Times, only used the soundtrack for music, sound effects, and gibberish. But sound comedy clearly wasn't going anywhere, so Chaplin finally took the plunge--though he decided that if he was going to talk, he'd better have something to say. Did he ever.
Since Adolf Hitler had begun his rise to power, few had failed to notice that his small mustache caused a passing resemblance to a certain world-famous comedian. Editorial cartoonists had parodied the dictator's attempt to siphon some of the public's goodwill towards the comic, though Nazi propaganda attacked Chaplin as a "Jewish acrobat" (he was not, in fact, Jewish, but did not go out of his way to dismiss the charge). Now, it was Chaplin's turn. In The Great Dictator, he launched a full-on comedic assault on Hitler and the Third Reich, playing a thinly disguised Hitler as Adenoid Hynkel, dictator of Tomainia.
Chaplin also appears as an unnamed Jewish barber, played as a version (at the very least) of the Tramp or "Little Fellow" that had brought him worldwide fame. Chaplin begins his story at the end of World War I, with a dose of battlefield humor and chain-of-command satire that recalls his uproarious short Shoulder Arms. The narrative then leaps forward to the present day; the barber returns to his neighborhood, after a hospitalization and memory loss, while his lookalike Hynkel has come to power. One assumes that the film will be a mistaken identity tale, but it doesn't actually go down that road until the final 15 minutes; it mostly intercuts between the barber, persecuted in the ghetto, and the comically egomaniacal Hynkel.
Hynkel was the first entirely new character that Chaplin had played since 1914 (he adopted the Tramp character in only his second film), and one can feel his excitement at digging into this new challenge. It is an electrifying performance, and a wickedly funny spoof as well; spouting gibberish German (lots of "sauerkrauts" and "Weiner schnitzels") at top volume into microphones that shrink away from his voice ("His excellency has just referred to the Jewish people," notes the translator), Chaplin appears to revel in the opportunity to dip into a darkness that he would seldom explore (his next film, Monsieur Verdoux, would go even further in this direction). Self satisfied and smug, stalking into his portrait studio to glare at his artists before marching right back out, Chaplin first establishes Hynkel's power and bile, and then, masterfully, deflates him as an utter buffoon.
Nowhere is this more evident than in his dealings with the film's Mussolini figure, Napolini. He is first introduced in a hilarious phone call scene (if the writers of Strangelove didn't study that bit, I'll eat my hat), and then arrives in the personage of Jack Oakie, who gives the movie a jolt of rude, brash comic energy. Oakie (so funny in the W.C. Fields vehicle Million Dollar Legs) plays the role's broad physicality to the hilt and sports an Italian accent that makes Chico Marx's seem comparatively authentic and nuanced. Chaplin didn't often meet his comic match on screen, but you can see Oakie pushing the master to up his game, lest the picture get stolen right from under him.
One can feel Chaplin struggling a big with the transition to full-on sound; his narration often sounds like recited intertitles, while joke names like "General Smellawful" and "Herr Garbage," and cutesy dialogue exchanges (Schultz, asking about his plane: "How's the gas?" Chaplin: "Kept me up all night") confirm, lest we doubted, that verbal comedy was not the writer's forte. As was often the case (albeit more sporadically) with Buster Keaton's sound comedies, Chaplin's best comic sequences tend to be those that are a) barely related to the plot, and b) bereft of dialogue. The Great Dictator's most famous bit is Hynkel's little pas de deux with an inflatable globe, and it's wonderful, but the scene that follows--a hilarious syncopated shave--is far funnier.
Of course, it's not all light laughs; this is serious business, what Chaplin's doing, and there's dark stuff in the movie (a scene where the barber is nearly strung up on a lamppost; the demonstrations, for Hynkel's benefit, of a "bullet-proof uniform" and "compact parachute"). He plays the terrorizing of the Jewish ghettos straight (how could he not?), which is fine, and certainly commendable. Where he stumbles is in the film's lapses into wide-eyed idealism ("Wouldn't it be nice if they'd let us live and be happy again?" asks Paulette Goddard's Hannah), which come to a head in the film's still-controversial ending.
The big speech that Chaplin-as-the-Barber-as-Hynkel-but-really-just-as-Chaplin gives in the film's final sequence, mostly direct to camera, is certainly heartfelt and pointed. But it is just too on-the-nose. It's the filmmaker crossing the line from entertainer to polemicist; he stops telling a story--out of which powerful political and emotional points can made--and just preaches at us. It's as if he's stopped trusting the audience, and couldn't imagine that his pointed satire was a more effective weapon than sermonizing. The ending of The Great Dictator is less an echo of City Lights or Modern Times than of Sinclair's The Jungle. This is not intended as a compliment.
The crispness and clarity of the black and white 1080p MPEG-4 transfer is, in a word, stunning. Contrast is sharp, black levels are rich and full, and detail work is astonishing--at the conclusion of his impassioned closing speech, for example, the sweat on Chaplin's face and perspiration stains on his shirt are clearly visible. Not much to say, beyond rattling off kudos; it's a top-shelf transfer, and we'd expect nothing less from the folks at Criterion.
The English mono LPCM audio track is, likewise, clean as a whistle; there's not a crackle or peak in earshot. Dialogue is crystal clear, while music is audible but never overpowering. It's a simple mix, but it sounds outstanding.
Some, but not all, of the bonus features from Warner Brothers' excellent 2003 special edition DVD have been ported over, in addition to some new extras created by Criterion for this release. A new Audio Commentary track is provided by performer and author Dan Kamin and silent film historian Hooman Mehran. It's an outstanding commentary--both men are well-versed in Chaplin's style and techniques, and provide a point-by-point, gag-by-gag analysis of the picture that is informed but conversational.
"The Tramp and the Dictator" (55:00), produced for Turner Classic Movies in 2001, is a terrific documentary from Kevin Brownlow (who co-directed the definitive Chaplin documentary, Unknown Chaplin) and German filmmaker Michael Kloft. Narrated by Kenneth Branagh, it is a dual biography of Chaplin and Hitler--who, intriguingly, were born within days of each other. Extensive archival footage is employed, as are clips from the film and interviews with Sidney Lumet, Arthur Schelsinger, Jr., Al Hirschfeld, Stanley Kauffman, and Chaplin's son Sidney, amongst others. Due to the scope of their stories and the brief running time, the film is (understandably) somewhat cursory, but it is still a fascinating document and well worth investigating.
"Chaplin's Napoleon" (19:12) tracks the evolution of Chaplin's unrealized Napoleon project into The Great Dictator. It's a "visual essay," more images and narration than clips, and is thus just a touch dry, but still interesting. "The Clown Turns Prophet" (20:54) is another visual essay, from Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance; it's well-done, though much of this information can be found elsewhere on the disc. Next up is "Sydney Chaplin's Footage" (26:52), assembling the 16mm Kodachrome behind-the-scenes footage shot on the set by Chaplin's half-brother. The footage is excerpted in the Brownlow/Kloft featurette, but is presented here in its entirety (without introduction or music) and offers a riveting look at the filmmaker at work.
King, Queen, Joker (4:54) is a 1921 short comedy directed by Sydney, who played dual roles. The only known existing excerpt, set in a barber shop, combined with the doubling of the lead, indicates that this may have been an influence on The Great Dictator; "Two Shaves" (2:21) intercuts the two. Further influences on this thread are explored in "Charlie the Barber" (7:50), another (very funny) barbershop scene, this one cut from his 1919 short Sunnyside. A Trailer (2:01) closes out the supplements.
Though Chaplin steps wrong in his final scenes, The Great Dictator is nonetheless a funny, pointed, smart, and bold (lest we forget, it was released the year before Pearl Harbor) satire of Hitler's Germany. The pacing occasionally flags, and Chaplin was not (and, for that matter, never really quite got) entirely comfortable with the shift to sound comedy. But this is still a memorable and well-constructed political comedy.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.