The following is a review of the May 2011 Blu-Ray release of Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" by The Criterion Collection. The main body of the review was written by John Puccio in regards to the 2003 SD release by Warner Brothers. The other sections (Video, Audio, Extras, Film Value) are written by Christopher Long and address the 2011 Blu-Ray release.
THE FILM ACCORDING TO JOHN:
In the character of the Little Tramp, Charlie Chaplin created one of the screen's immortals, but it was not his only trump card. "The Great Dictator," the famous filmmaker's first completely talkie film, has become as classic as anything he did with only partial help from the little fictional fellow. It's good to see "The Great Dictator" and all of Chaplin's full-length films finally getting their proper due on DVD in "The Chaplin Collection," special-edition, two-disc sets from MK2 and Warner Brothers.
Yes, it wasn't until 1940, well over a dozen years after sound was introduced to film, that Chaplin was dragged kicking and screaming into the talking era. He was, after all, the supreme mime, so it was no wonder his early sound films like "City Lights" (1931) and "Modern Times" (1936) continued to be mostly devoid of dialogue. More directors should take the hint in this day and age. Nevertheless, while "The Great Dictator" does use dialogue, there is still a good deal of visual humor throughout, which was always Chaplin's forte. When the great man is doing his silent bits, the movie is art; when he stops to talk, with few exceptions, it tends to drag. Maybe there's a moral there. Anyway, the movie is a wonderful showcase for Chaplin's talents, as it combines biting satire and serious issues, slapstick and sentimentality, all the trademarks of the famous comic actor, writer, and director.
The plot rails against the horrors of tyranny and racial persecution, specifically against Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, occasionally straying uncomfortably into preachiness but generally staying within the bounds of farce and caricature. Chaplin opens the picture with the following preface: "This is a story of a period between two World Wars--an interim in which Insanity cut loose, Liberty took a nose dive, and Humanity was kicked around somewhat."
Chaplin plays two parts in the film, which alternates sequences between the characters. His first role is that of the dictator of Tomainia, Adenoid Hynkel, a peevish, foolish, and quite mad character whose emblem for his country is not the twisted cross but the double cross. This Hitler imitation is complete with broken, nonsense German and all of the real dictator's mannerisms. By way of further oddity, it has been suggested that Hitler adopted his own abbreviated mustache after watching early Chaplin films. So life imitates art, which in turn imitates life. At least Chaplin's mustache was temporary.
The second role Chaplin plays is that of a Jewish barber living in a Tomainian ghetto. He is, of course, the Little Tramp himself, right down to topcoat, vest, derby hat, and cane. He is forever the small or insignificant man fighting the big and seemingly indomitable enemy and always prevailing in the end, much to the delight of every small guy in the audience. The character remains universal.
Supporting Chaplin in the cast are Paulette Goddard, Chaplin's wife at the time, as Hannah, a local laundress who befriends the barber; Henry Daniell as Garbitsch, Hynkel's evil and calculating advisor (a part in which Chaplin thought the actor a little too calculating, to the point of Chaplin's accusing Daniell of trying to sabotage the film); Reginald Gardiner as Commander Schultz, one of Hynkel's senior officers, whose life the barber had saved many years before in World War I; Billy Gilbert as Field Marshal Herring, a thickheaded soldier who keeps coming up with harebrained military ideas; and perhaps best of all, Jack Oakie as Benzino Napaloni, the egomaniacal dictator of a neighboring country, Bacteria, and the man whom Hynkel grudgingly tries to make an ally. Like Chaplin's Hitler burlesque, Oakie's Mussolini parody is spot on.
Chaplin was unaware of the extent of the persecution facing Jews in Europe at the time he produced his film. He later revealed that he would never have made "The Great Dictator" or depicted Hitler as such a simpleminded blockhead if he had known the full horror of Hitler's crimes and that the Holocaust would eventually claim the lives of millions of innocent people. There are some things, he said, that are simply not the subjects of humor. There is a prescient moment in the movie when Hynkel says he wants not only to wipe out the Jews, he wants to eliminate brunettes next. So close it was to the horrendous truth.
Chaplin's gutsy stand against Hitler, Nazism, Fascism, and Jewish persecution are important contributing factors to the film's significance today, but the script has also got its moments of sheer fun, even if they are sometimes lost in the propaganda. Note the famous globe juggling scene, for instance, with Hynkel daydreaming of world domination by bouncing a balloon of the world around the room with all the grace of a ballet dancer. Then there's the barber shaving a customer to the tune of Brahms' Fifth Hungarian Dance. And a coin-in-the-pudding routine. And Hynkel and Napaloni raising themselves higher and higher in barber chairs, each trying to look down on the other. And a dozen more.
This is not to say the film is without fault, however, classic or not. Its plot line is flimsy and old-fashioned, its characters one-dimensional, and it's moralizing sentimental and sometimes strenuously annoying. The barber's culminating speech, as a prime example, goes way over the top, altering the final tone of the picture. Moreover, there are stretches between gags that will seem agonizingly long and slow to viewers used to today's nonstop pacing.
I suspect the film has acquired its classic status as much because it was made by the great Chaplin as because of its actual humor content; and because Chaplin wasn't afraid to attack problems--Hitler and the persecution of the Jews--that most of the rest of the world, especially Hollywood, was turning a blind eye to at the time. Overall, though, with a little patience the movie has far greater pleasures than pains and remains a work worthy of every serious film buff's consideration.
The film is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The image is absolutely crystalline pure, and there were times when I felt this was a bit off-putting. This isn't a valid criticism, but it just feels _weird_ to be watching "The Great Dictator" looking so sharp and perfect. Perhaps I wanted a little bit of a grainier look to it (I feel that Criterion's Blu-Ray transfer of "Modern Times" had a grainier look to it), but what we've got here is pretty remarkable. There is virtually no evidence of source print damage here. Fortunately for us Chaplin was well aware of his legacy and his estate preserved many of his films in excellent condition.
The LPCM 1.0 audio track is as crisp and clean as you could ask for without a hiss or crackle audible. Some of the dialogue sequences (esp. Chaplin's final speech) sound a bit reedy, but that's also the case with every other version of the film I've seen. Optional English subtitles support the English audio. Sadly for all of us, none of Chaplin's gibberish-Tomainian dialogue is translated. We'll just have to guess.
This new Criterion Blu-Ray reproduces several of the extras included on the 2003 Warner Brother release, and also offers several new ones.
The ones also present on the Warner release:
"The Tramp and the Dictator" (2001, 55 min.) is a documentary made for Turner Classic Movies in 2001 and directed by filmmaker-historian Kevin Brownlow (now an Oscar winner!) and filmmaker Michael Kloft. It is narrated by Kenneth Branagh. According to John Puccio, "It is divided into thirteen chapters and covers everything from the production's history to behind-the-scenes material. Interviews with filmmakers, historians, and critics of the time paint a vivid picture both of Chaplin the funnyman and of Hitler the madman. Interestingly, the two men were the same age to the month; and, incidentally, a member of Hitler's inner circle later said that Hitler saw and actually enjoyed ‘The Great Dictator,' especially the takeoffs on Mussolini. But he still banned it in all of occupied Europe."
Also from the 2003 release, "Sydney Chaplin's Footage" (27 min.) is a remarkable collection of shots taken by Charlie Chaplin's half-brother on the set of "The Great Dictator." These scenes are silent and were shot on 16mm Kodachrome which means we get to see Chaplin and his cast and crew in glorious color. Most of the footage is from the ballroom sequence (where Chaplin dances with Grace Hayle who plays the festively plump wife of Benzino Napaloni), the final rally and some of the battlefield scenes.
"Charlie the Barber," the final import from the 2003 DVD, is an unused scene (8 min.) from the 1919 Chaplin film "Sunnyside" in which he gives an unfortunate barbershop customer a shave. No accompanying music is offered here.
Onto the new features for the 2011 Criterion release.
The full-length audio commentary track (hey, they are still doing these!) is by performer/author Dan Kamin and silent-film historian Hooman Mehran. Newly recorded for Criterion in 2011, this is a very comprehensive commentary covering production, background, and historical information as well as aesthetic analysis. I have listened to the first half hour and already learned a lot. I had no idea just how many scenes in this sound film were undercranked (a silent film staple in which footage is slightly sped up, but which doesn't synch up well with human speech).
"Chaplin's Napoleon" (19 min.) is a visual essay by Cecilia Cenciarelli, archivist and had of the Cineteca di Bologna's Progetto Chaplin. In this feature, Cenciarelli combs through the considerable amount of Chaplin correspondence included in the Cineteca's collection as well as other media sources to piece together information about Chaplin's long-planned but eventually abandoned Napoleon project. Chaplin was fascinated by Napoleon for years, but eventually decided to devote his attention to another great dictator. Great stuff here.
"The Clown Turns Prophet" (21 min.) is another visual essay, this time by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance. Vance discusses the tremendous anticipation leading up to the film's release, as well as the relationship between Chaplin and Hitler, born just four days apart. The press had long mocked Hitler for resembling The Little Tramp, so it seemed only inevitable that Chaplin would eventually take him on.
"King, Queen, and Joker" (1921) was a film directed by and starring Sydney Chaplin (Charlie's half-brother and manager) in both lead roles. The film was thought lost but in 1999, Chaplin historian Frank Scheide found elements from the film scattered throughout the BFI National Archive. Included here is a 5-minute barbershop sequence which obviously served as one of the inspirations for the famous shave in "The Great Dictator." Musical accompaniment is provided. In a very neat feature (described as "based on an idea by Christopher Byrd"), viewers can also watch a 2-minute featurette in which the two shaving scenes are intercut. Very fun!
A Trailer (2 minutes) is also included.
The 28-page insert booklet features an essay by author and professor Michael Wood along with excerpt from Jean Narboni's 2010 book "Why the Hairdressers?" in which he praises the film's controversial ending speech. Richard Brody provides a brief intro to the Narboni excerpt. Also included is an article published by Chaplin in the Oct 27, 1940 edition of the "New York Times" in which he provides a defense of his ending polemic. We also get six Al Hirschfeld drawings. Nice.
THE FILM ACCORDING TO CHRIS:
Like many other critics and viewers, John finds the climactic speech in "The Great Dictator" problematic. This was a thorny issue for critics at the time as well as today. The Criterion extras (including the essays in the insert booklet) target this criticism, and I will also take the pro-ending position. I think it's flat-out brilliant. Up until this point, we have seen Chaplin play two characters, and now he plays a third, not quite the "real" Charlie Chaplin but as close we'll get in front of a camera. The film simply stops, character is broken, and Chaplin directly addresses the audience, an audience of millions, as The Barber/Chaplin notes.
This form of direct address was a staple of early cinema, and accounts for much of its enduring power. Now Chaplin is doing the same thing, but with words. If those words may be a bit overwrought, well, hell man, look at what he was talking about. Perhaps he can be charged with a bit of hubris for thinking that a speech in a movie, even by the great Charlie Chaplin, could impact world events but, while it didn't exactly change history, it did reach many. It helped shape his public perception (eventually, not for the better) and even drew him a Congressional subpoena for propaganda. A commercial film used as a blunt ideological device? Throw the little commie in jail!
Yes it breaks character but as Chaplin wrote, "What of it?" Godard suggested this moment amounted to nothing less than the invention of cinema verité. A grandiose claim that doesn't hold up to a historical reading, no doubt, but the point is, it's not "just a speech." It's not just corny or pedantic or heavy-handed. It's audacious and downright transgressive in its abrupt switching of modes, and still shocking today. And, dare I say it, pretty damned inspiring. If Hitler was going to use cinema to spread lies, why not let Chaplin sneak in a little truth? Breaking character? Breaking the illusion? Yeah, you're allowed to do that in movies. Trust Chaplin to pick such a potent way to do so.
My admiration for "The Great Dictator" grows with each viewing, and as for any "rough patches" it might contain, well, what of them?
Criterion's Blu-Ray transfer is beautiful. The only complicating factor for viewers weighing the decision to upgrade from their previous SD copy is that about half of the extras here are taken right from the 2003 Warner Bros. release. The additional features are excellent in their own right, and I think that any serious (or even comedic) Chaplin fan is going to want to add this one to his or her collection. I know it will be on my list as one of the best Blu-Rays of 2011.