In retrospect, Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940) plays as inspired anti-war comedy and an utterly wicked satire of Adolph Hitler. True enough, the film fits that bill. Yet, to simply view it as such is to discount the bravery of its creator. Only Chaplin it seems had the audacity of genius to challenge the status quo in Hollywood and defy the grim harsh realities of the Axis powers. By 1940 Adolph Hitler was well on his way to achieving his maniacal fantasy of world domination with the rest of the world powers still in complete denial of his atrocities. In Hollywood, there was an almost obtuse ignorance to even consider that another World War had begun to brew. Instead, the dream factories chose to concentrate on the fantastical make-believe that had made their profits soar throughout the 1930s.
It was a mistake of blind-sightedness but one that the movie moguls - most of them of Jewish descent - hoped would continue to appease Hitler enough to allow them to continue distributing their product to the foreign market. Hitler was, in fact, a huge movie buff who enjoyed a steady diet of American films. What he liked he passed on for general distribution. What he found subversive was quickly condemned and occasionally even re-edited by Hollywood studios in yet another attempt to pacify the Nazi leader. But with The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin's little tramp took an unapologetic dead aim at the tyrannical forces of the Third Reich. It's as though Chaplin is looking Hitler straight in the eye shouting, "Hitler, Schmit-ler. You're a crazy man and I defy you through the power of laughter."
Chaplin, who had never spoken in films before or even considered sound necessary, chose The Great Dictator as his first 'talking' movie. Clearly, his cinematic genius had something relevant to say. The strength of Chaplin's convictions cannot be overstated. In fact, when he announced that The Great Dictator as his next project the creative trusts at the other studios quietly banned together to encourage Chaplin to abandoned the film. After all, it would undoubtedly receive a negative review and be banned in Germany. But even more disturbing for the moguls was the prospect that Hitler might view Chaplin as evoking Hollywood's collective sentiment and thus impact their own ability to do future business overseas. Undaunted, Chaplin received the biggest plug of his career when U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt not only encouraged him to make the movie but also guaranteed its distribution.
The script, by Chaplin, is another tour de force. The Great Dictator begins in earnest with an unnamed Jewish barber (Chaplin) blundering through the front lines of World War I. The barber rescues an officer, Commander Schultz (Reginald Gardiner) who is carrying important documents that may turn the tide of war and save their country of Tomania from falling into a dictatorship. Regrettably, the plane carrying Schultz and the barber loses altitude and crashes. Although both men survive the wreckage their country is lost. Flash forward twenty years into the future. Tomania has become a totalitarian state under the autocratic leadership of Adenoid Hynkel (Chaplin also) whose political agenda is for an anti-Jewish Arian nation. Minister of Interior, Garbitsch (Henry Daniel) and Minister of War, Herring (Billy Gilbert) are the right and left hands of the administration; the former a crafty and manipulative warmonger, the latter a grossly incompetent fop simply along for the ride.
Suffering from amnesia, the barber returns to his trade only to learn that Hynkel's storm troopers have condemned the shop for being owned by a Jew. After a scuffle with these agents the barber is rescued by another exile, Hannah (Paulette Goddard) who strikes Hynkel's henchmen on the head with her fry pan. Captured by Commander Schmidt, who is now a high-ranking official in Hynkel's government, Hannah and the barber are released from custody after Schmidt recognizes the barber as the man who once saved his life. Meanwhile, Hynkel invites neighboring Italian dictator, Benzino Napaloni (Jack Oakie) to a demonstration of his military might. The exercise is a disaster and Hynkel quickly breaks the political pact he has formed with Napaloni in favor of pursuing his unilateral dream for world domination. It should be pointed out that this course of action is maniacally encouraged by Minister Garbitsch who has his eye on becoming dictator himself, presumably by overthrowing Hynkel at some later date.
The film now enters its most inspired arena of comedy. Schultz, Hannah and the barber are sent to a concentration camp but escape when Schultz taps into the idea of using the barber to impersonate Hynkel. The rouse works on the camp guards and the trio is set free. Meanwhile, Hynkel is accidentally thrown overboard while on a duck hunting expedition. He is recovered from the drink but accused of being the barber attempting to impersonate Hynkel and is sent to one of his own camps. The barber, now dressed as Hynkel seizes the opportunity to liberate Tomania from its tyranny, addressing the people and Hannah directly from a podium during one of Hynkel's rallies.
"Hannah, can you hear me? Wherever you are, look up, Hannah. The clouds are lifting. The sun is breaking through. We are coming out of the darkness into the light. We are coming into a new world, a kindlier world, where men will rise above their hate, their greed and brutality. Look up, Hannah. The soul of man has been given wings, and at last he is beginning to fly. He is flying into the rainbow—into the light of hope, into the future, the glorious future that belongs to you, to me, and to all of us. Look up, Hannah. Look up".
In retrospect, time and history have regrettably proven the barber's speech too optimistic an epitaph for the realities of Adolph Hitler. Still, the potency of Chaplin's own plea to the world cannot be discounted. In many ways, the final speech in The Great Dictator plays like a call to arms for the Allied Forces. Certainly, the film illustrates with the most threadbare of masks that darkening malaise having begun to envelope central Europe. There is no mistaking the parody of either the names or situations depicted as anything but a direct hit to Hitler's self-perceived supremacy on the world stage.
By 1940, Chaplin's popularity was in a class apart from the rest of Hollywood. Arguably, he was the number one star in the world. A decade earlier, Chaplin had been mobbed by ardent fans in Berlin, a display of adoration that infuriated the Nazi party and led directly to the publication of their propaganda, 'The Jews Are Looking At You'. Now, Chaplin was taking an even more direct stab at the Nazi establishment, one that could not be ignored either for its sentiment or scathing parody.
Despite Chaplin's enviable autonomy in Hollywood, failure to find distribution for The Great Dictator would have meant financial ruin. Chaplin had invested $1.8 million of his own money to make it. Yet, in hindsight The Great Dictator came at a curious crux in the genius' career. Following its release and overwhelming critical and financial success, Chaplin would make only four more movies, each met by increasing unpopularity with audiences. By 1950, the McCarthy witch hunt labeled Chaplin a subversive Communist sympathizer. Exiled from the U.S. - except for a brief reprieve to accept his Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1972, Chaplin's reign as the undisputed comedic genius of the 20th century had come to a sudden end immediately following the release of The Great Dictator.
Criterion Home Video gives us another gorgeous 1080p transfer from the Chaplin archives and Mk2. Previously they released a breathtaking Blu-ray of Modern Times. If anything, The Great Dictator looks even better than its predecessor on Blu-ray. The B&W image exhibits a superbly rendered gray scale. Blacks are deep and velvety. Whites are crisp though never blooming. Film grain appears as grain, not digital grit. The annoying aliasing and digital combing of an interlaced transfer that plagued the Warner release of the film on DVD in 2005 has been completely eradicated. Age related artifacts have been almost entirely removed. The image is smooth, clean and gorgeous. In keeping with Criterion's attention to authenticity, the film's soundtrack is presented in original mono, nicely cleaned up and very crisp sounding.
Extras include the hour long, 2001 TCM documentary that parallels Chaplin and Hilter's lives, a compelling audio commentary by Dan Kamin and Hooman Mehran, two extensive visual essays totalling 40 minutes, nearly a half hour of silent but thoroughly fascinating behind the scenes footage shot by Chaplin's brother Sidney in Technicolor, a sequence from the 1921 film King Queen Joker, a deleted sequence from another Chaplin precursor shot in 1919 and a 30 page collector's booklet by film critic Michael Wood. Good stuff all around. The Great Dictator on Blu-ray is a no brainer repurchase. It belongs on everyone's top shelf!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)