Charlie Chaplin's most popular film was a daring challenge, especially for a man who had never directed dialogue scenes in a talking motion picture. It's hard to think of a more politically risky production; producers ordinarily avoid topicality of any kind, let alone such direct controversy.
In 1940, even while war raged in Europe, American films were just beginning to acknowledge that the subject of war was worth making movies about. Unwilling to lose valuable markets, Hollywood played ostrich, and giving independent producers like Walter Wanger a hard time for making pictures like Foreign Correspondent. It was in an atmosphere of cowardice and appeasement that Chaplin made a comedy lampooning the fascists Hitler and Mussolini, while portraying the oppression of European Jews in the Ghetto.
The miracle is that The Great Dictator was released at all, for as it was premiering, conditions in concentration camps were just beginning to get serious publicity. Considering the appalling horrors that would follow, some still think Chaplin's film, along with Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be, was in terrible taste. But Chaplin's wonderful ridicule cut Hitler down to size and proved comedy to be a potent weapon of propaganda, and an excellent morale builder.
The Great Dictator is perhaps Charlie Chaplin's finest hour as a citizen of the world. His first talking film is a combination of wonderful comedy and sometimes clunky storytelling, that is one of the bravest stands ever made by an entertainer. An English citizen, Chaplin had the love of moviegoers but was often criticized as a meddler for his social opinions. Many pundits, and even American Jews still trying not to antagonize Hitler, were against the film being shown.
There was so much bad international news in 1940 that The Great Dictator's lampooning of Der Führer must have been a joy to watch with a crowd. When Hitler was fresh on the scene, he was immediately compared to Chaplin, and now Chaplin was using that likeness to skewer the despot. Deflating his fearsome speeches, Chaplin paints Hitler as a egomaniac consumed by hatred. Between pratfalls and verbal jokes (which Chaplin, in his first talkie, times perfectly), Chaplin inserts a weird faux-lyrical sequence where Hynkel toys with a baloon-globe, bopping it into the air like a ballet dancer. It expresses fully the insane basis of megalomania.
At a time when Hollywood rarely depicted Jews except as endearing lower-class immigrants, Chaplin created a little community in the Ghetto to directly show the victims of Hitler's oppression. This was a first - notable anti-Hitler films like The Mortal Storm concerned themselves with the moral dilemma of well-to-do Christian Germans. As the world had not yet seen one, Chaplin's conception of the Ghetto is of course all wrong - it looks more like the knockabout streets of Chaplin's one-reelers, not the concentrated horror of The Pianist. But Chaplin uses the setting well, by equating the suffering of the Jews with the suffering of everyone under the heel of conquering despots.
The adroitly timed jokes are linked with some very strange scene structure that shows how much Chaplin struggled with the talkie format. One section following the antics of Der Phooey is so lengthy, we almost forget what happened to The Barber. Goddard and the Barber escape to the roof, and to maintain continuity, the film inserts a single-shot blackout moment of Hynkel playing piano, before returning to the roof again for a new scene. Yes, Hynkel is like Nero, playing as the Ghetto burns, but awkward little moments like this are everywhere. Such is Chaplin's desire to be bluntly clear, that he has Goddard turn directly to the camera at one point, to express in words exactly what a scene has already communicated. Chaplin's decisions are sometimes uncinematic, but his aim in this picture was to place communication above both comedy and art, and he's very effective.
Unlike his earlier films, Chaplin has a lot of character parts to dole out, and he's very generous with his casting. Jack Oakie, Henry Daniell (The Body Snatcher) and Billy Gilbert are excellent and allowed to showcase themselves - something Chaplin had little tolerance for previously. Paulette Goddard essentially replays her Modern Times role. It's a definite sign of Chaplin's development that he conceived The Great Dictator as a message picture featuring himself in the two key character parts - but leaving plenty of elbow room to appreciate other actors as well.
The Great Dictator's comedy is gradually supplanted with serious scenes. The escaped Tomanian Jews are again persecuted in Osterlich. That's when Chaplin wraps things up with his own direct speech to the camera. As pointed out in the accompanying docu, it's not The Little Barber who's speaking, but Chaplin himself, stepping into his own movie to deliver an author's message. Some complain that it's vague and even weak, but it is again Chaplin trying his best to reach a universal audience, as if he were directly addressing humanity. Just by championing the concept of human decency, emphasizing that the human race was meant to embrace goodness and not war, he gave his audiences hope and courage. There are obviously higher goals than artful moviemaking, and with The Great Dictator Chaplin once again transcended his craft.
Mk2/Warner's disc of The Great Dictator is a pristine-looking transfer and, without a concrete comparison to the earlier Image disc, looks flawless. I've been alerted by more than one reader, however, that these new versions are conversions of European Pal transfers that have not been time-adjusted ... in other words, they run 4% faster than they should. The Warners running times are all shorter than the published lengths for these films, as well. There is a comparison for Modern Times on the DVDBeaver website that claims that the new transfers are slightly overcropped as well. I didn't pick up on on any of this at first viewing, mainly because the changes are so subtle. But purists like Gary W. Tooze object, and the evidence at his site demonstrates the alteration from the film's original look. Doubtless, industry marketers will use the presumed greater popularity of the Mk2 versions to discount the opinions of the purists. Savant prides himself on ferreting out things like film speed changes - yet has to confess not noticing it, not even in the fast-motion barbershop scene. Would the scene suddenly look unacceptable if played back-to-back with a proper 24fps transfer? I don't know. It certainly is not as critical as the speed change Savant wailed about with Metropolis.
One slightly disconcerting thing about the film's main titles: An entire freeze-framed card is used to give the film a new copyright, whereas on Modern Times, only a superimposed rectangle was required.
I doubt anyone will be anything less than pleased with the two-disc set's extras. The knockout on this title is the excellent essay-doc from TCM last year, The Tramp and the Dictator. Besides detailing the historical context of Chaplin's production, it provides a quick basic rundown on Hitler for a modern world that sorely needs to know and care more about military despots who promote hatred and invade countries. The docu uses parallels in the two men's lives (Hitler as Chaplin's evil twin) to create an interesting portrait of warring sides of humanity, but it doesn't belabor the point. The only weakness is the lack of follow-through: Chaplin's post-war media crucifixion in America is passed over in one or two sentences. In a way, he was as thoroughly destroyed as was Hitler. 1
Next up is a long chunk of Sydney Chaplin's Kodachrome 16mm home movies on the set of The Great Dictator. They're excellent. Chaplin's studio (now home to The Henson Co.) was on North La Brea Avenue near Sunset, and at one point the home movie tilts up from Charlie in the Tomanian Ghetto to show the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel and the Hollywood sign in color. It's amazing.
Charlie the Barber is a deleted scene from an earlier Chaplin short, that foreshadows the barbershop scene in The Great Dictator.
There's a depression/stock market crash montage from Monsieur Verdoux used as an extra, but its specific meaning escapes me here, and there's no accompanying explanation.
There is no extensive still gallery this time around, but there is a poster gallery, and the expected roundup of scenes from other Chaplin films.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Great Dictator rates:
1. I once read a
movie section from a 1947 LA newspaper that in one day had two vicious attacks on Chaplin, made through
gossip columnists. Chaplin was labeled as an anti-American, Communist-sympathizing
atheist child molester who never took U.S. citizenship, and his deportation is urged. Those Hollywood
publicity wags were too ditzy to think up such a concerted campaign on their own; this was the first
time I believed accusations that the FBI routinely framed and smeared people.