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The Great Dictator
Savant Blu-ray Review

The Great Dictator
Criterion 565
1940 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 125 min. / Street Date May 24, 2011 / 39.95
Starring Charles Chaplin, Jack Oakie, Reginald Gardiner, Henry Daniell, Billy Gilbert, Paulette Goddard
Cinematography Karl Struss, Roland Totheroh
Art Direction J. Russell Spencer
Film Editor Willard Nico
Original Music Meredith Willson
Written, Produced and Directed by Charles Chaplin

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Charlie Chaplin's 1940 comedy The Great Dictator is perhaps the most successful propaganda film ever made. At a time when isolationist and pro-German influences in Washington were warning Hollywood not to provoke Adolf Hitler, the independent Chaplin directly attacked the Füher and drew attention to the oppression of Jews in the European Ghettos. Producers ordinarily avoid topicality of any kind, let alone such direct provocation. Chaplin had to face a new filmmaking challenge as well, as he had never before directed dialogue scenes in a talking motion picture.

Even as war raged in Europe, Hollywood was expected to look the other way. Politicians gave independent producers a hard time for making anti-Nazi films even when the enemy wasn't specifically named, as in Walter Wanger's Foreign Correspondent. It was in this atmosphere of appeasement and moral cowardice that Chaplin risked his fortune on a matter of principles.

As the film premiered the Allies were just becoming aware of the horrors being perpetrated in Nazi concentration camps. Some still think that The Great Dictator and Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be are in terrible taste. But Chaplin's film turned out to be his biggest box-office success. As a potent weapon of propaganda, it cut Hitler down to size and made him an object of ridicule. The ability to laugh at an enemy is a great boost to morale. Chaplin rallied American support for Europe over a year before the U.S. committed itself to war.

As the "angry, funny little man in the newsreels", Hitler had often been compared to Chaplin's Little Tramp character. Charles Chaplin exploited that likeness to skewer the despot. The movie plunks the inoffensive, quaint Little Tramp into a drama dominated by political terror. On the last day of WW1 a meek Jewish Barber (Charlie Chaplin) rescues a wounded Tomanian officer, Schultz (Reginald Gardiner), but spends almost 20 years in a hospital suffering from amnesia. When the barber returns to the ghetto, he's attracted to a neighbor's daughter, Hannah (Paulette Goddard). Tomanian storm troopers harass the Jewish citizens, who have already lost most of their rights. Dictator Adenoid Hynkel, the Phooey of Tomania (Chaplin) hates everything, especially the Jews, and his evil minister Garbitsch (Henry Daniell) and his foolish Field Marshall Herring (Billy Gilbert) are helping him prepare for war against Osterlich. Hynkel invites Napaloni, the Diggaditchie of Bacteria (Jack Oakie) for an official visit, in an effort to keep the neighboring despot from invading Osterlich first. Meanwhile, a disaffected Schultz is conspiring with the Jews to resist Hynkel from inside the Ghetto.

The Great Dictator is Charlie Chaplin's finest hour as a citizen of the world. It's also one of the bravest stands ever made by an entertainer. Although not publicized, at least one Hollywood actor complained about being assigned to an anti-Nazi film, with the argument that he would be compromised if the Germans won the war. An English citizen, Chaplin had won the hearts of moviegoers but was frequently criticized as a meddler for expressing his social opinions. More than a few pundits and even some American Jews were against the film being shown as it might further antagonize Hitler. But audiences roared with approval.

Chaplin depicts his Adenoid Hynkel as an egomaniac consumed by hatred. Between pratfalls and verbal jokes, Chaplin inserts a weird faux-lyrical sequence in which Hynkel toys with a balloon-globe, bopping it into the air like a ballet dancer. The scene is a weirdly lyrical expression of megalomania. Chaplin's depiction of a European Ghetto was something new for an American film. Other notable early anti-Nazi films like The Mortal Storm restricted their concern to the moral dilemma faced by well-to-do Christian Germans. Chaplin's conception of the Ghetto resembles the knockabout streets of his silent one-reelers more than the concentrated horror of The Pianist. But the comedian's point is undiminished: he equates the suffering of the Jews with the suffering of everyone under the heel of conquering despots.

The adroitly timed comedy set pieces are linked by a somewhat awkward scene structure that shows how much Chaplin struggled with the talkie format and the necessity of balancing two parallel storylines. Rather than intercutting Der Phooey's scenes with The Barber's progress, Chaplin lingers so long on the amusing Hynkel that we almost forget about what's happening in the Ghetto. When Chaplin wants a point to be communicated very clearly, he has Goddard turn directly to the camera to express in words exactly what a scene has already shown. Chaplin's decisions are sometimes un-cinematic, but his aim in this picture was to place communication above both comedy and art.

Unlike some of Chaplin's earlier films, Dictator offers a number of choice character parts for its expert gallery of supporting players, including Jack Oakie, Henry Daniell (The Body Snatcher) and Billy Gilbert. The message picture features Chaplin in a double role but leaves plenty of room for other actors to shine. Jack Oakie in particular is allowed to mug to his heart's delight in a hilarious caricature of Benito Mussolini. Only Paulette Goddard's perky girlfriend seems slighted -- her Hannah laughs and suffers but essentially replays her girlfiriend role from Modern Times.

At about the midpoint of the movie, the movie's more serious content begins to overshadow the comedy material. When Hynkle annexes Osterich, the escaped Tomanian Jews again find themselves persecuted. Instead of becoming a brave hero or a savior of the Jews, The Barber remains as confused as ever. That's when Chaplin takes his most daring step, and changes the format of his movie. Like an actor pausing in a stage drama to approach the footlights and directly address the audience, Chaplin delivers an impassioned speech, more or less as himself. Some complain that Chaplin speaks in generalities, but it is again Chaplin reaching out to a universal audience, as if he were directly addressing humanity. Just by championing the concept of human decency and asserting that the human race was meant to embrace goodness and not war, he gives his audiences hope and courage. There are more important goals than artful moviemaking for its own sake, and with The Great Dictator Chaplin once again transcends his craft.

The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray of The Great Dictator is a beautiful HD transfer of Charles Chaplin's classic and a distinct improvement on Warners' 2003 DVD. That release not only slightly cropped the image, but was converted from a PAL master that ran 4% faster than it should.

The disc's most impressive extra is a repeat from the earlier special edition, Kevin Brownlow and Michael Kloft's 2001 TCM docu The Tramp and the Dictator. Its theme is a nicely balanced parallel between the lives and ambitions of Hitler and Chaplin, reducing both to ambitious men who wanted to be artists. When the famous men diverge into entertainer and despot, the docu makes the interesting observation that history might have been much different, had Hitler only been accepted to art school. The idea of Chaplin and Hitler as benign and evil twins falters only at the end, when the show skips over the entertainer's post-war political crucifixion in America in just one or two sentences. The world's most famous comedian was silenced just as thoroughly as was Hitler.

Sydney Chaplin's excellent Kodachrome 16mm home movies from the set of The Great Dictator have been repeated as well. Chaplin's Hollywood studio was on North La Brea Avenue near Sunset. 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. The hills are not yet encrusted with thousands of homes. It's an amazing sight.

Two film clips compare The Great Dictator's barber chair scenes with similar scenes in an early Sydney Chaplin short and in a scene cut from Chaplin's own Sunnyside. Disc producer Abbey Lustgarten also gives us a commentary by Chaplin experts Dan Kamin and Hooman Mehran and insightful visual essays by Cecilia Cenciarelli and Jeffrey Vance. We learn that the film's composer was Meredith Willson, the creator of The Music Man; Willson composed entire musical numbers that were never used. Drawings by Al Hirschfeld from the film's original press book illustrate Criterion's insert booklet. It contains Chaplin's own defense of the film from the New York Times and essays by critics Michael Wood and Jean Narboni.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Great Dictator Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent Commentary by Dan Kamin and Hooman Mehran; visual essays by Cecilia Cenciarelli and Jeffrey Vance; color behind-the-scenes home movies; sequence from 1921 film King, Queen, Joker; deleted scene from Sunnyside, reissue trailer; Kevin Brownlow and Michael Kloft's TCM docu The Tramp and the Dictator; text essay by Michael Wood, Chaplin newspaper article, essay by Jean Narboni, illustrations by Al Hirschfeld.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 2, 2011

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

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