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Warner Home Video presents
The Great Dictator (1940)

"We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that."
- The Jewish barber (Charlie Chaplin), mistaken for The Phooey, Adenoid Hynkel

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: June 24, 2004

Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie, Reginald Gardiner, Billy Gilbert, Maurice Moscovich
Director: Charles Chaplin

MPAA Rating: G
Run Time: 01h:59m:40s
Release Date: July 01, 2003
UPC: 085393794224
Genre: comedy

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

It is one of the great cosmic jokes that the greatest monster of the twentieth century bore a remarkable resemblance to its greatest clown—it's evidence that we live in a synchronistic universe, and that despite its horrors, Fascism cannot stand in the face of being laughed at. Charlie Chaplin's onscreen persona, the Little Tramp, was universally recognized and adored from just about the very beginning of motion pictures; he remains perhaps the best-known screen character of all time. And the uncanny similarity between the Little Tramp and Adolph Hitler would be an opportunity to mock Der Fuhrer, if the German leader weren't so potent, and so dangerous—Nazism was too menacing for pie-in-the-face jokes, a threat either to be appeased or met on the battlefield.

But not for Chaplin, who seems never to have shied away from a good fight, especially when he was on the side of the angels. The Great Dictator is his exploitation of the fact that this horrible little man was becoming dangerously powerful, and Chaplin's reminder to the world that the seemingly crazed rantings of the leader of the Reich needed to be taken seriously. It's a brave and vicious parody, and there could hardly be a more appropriate target. And outside of the political context, the film is notable for a cinematic breakthrough: despite The Jazz Singer, Chaplin continued making silent pictures, but here, the Little Tramp speaks! It's the crossing of a line even more dramatic than Garbo vanting to be alone.

Chaplin stars as The Phooey, Adenoid Hynkel, the dictator of Tomania, and as an actor, Chaplin has down perfectly the guttural cadence of Hitler's speeches; it's nonsense German he speaks here, but there's no mistaking the parody of the man. He's also just as good sending up Hitler's vanity, the preening in the mirrors, the pomposity of medals and parades and ceremony. Chaplin doesn't always succeed as well mocking the Third Reich's visual style—for all his mastery as a storyteller, Chaplin was never an especially technically accomplished filmmaker, and his efforts to give the Tomania scenes the feel of a Leni Riefenstahl picture are little more than pedestrian. But no matter, as he also does double duty as the unnamed Jewish barber, recognizably the Tramp; a World War I veteran, the barber has decades' worth of amnesia after the war to end all wars, and returns home as the Phooey comes to the height of his powers. So with the director playing two roles, he plays on the visual similarities with his target: the onscreen Chaplin gets mistaken for the onscreen Hitler, and vice versa.

There is something of a plot, about the efforts to close down the barber's business, and the barber's unlikely wartime friendship with one of those in Hynkel's inner circle. But the emphasis, for most of the picture, is on the comedy—there's some old-style Chaplin physical humor, reminiscent of the best of his silent work, but more important is the portrait of the megalomaniacal Hynkel. His two chief henchmen are Herr Herring and Herr Garbage; he goes toe-to-toe with a Mussolini stand-in, Benzino Napaloni, the dictator of Bacteria, played with brilliant physical comedy and a silly Chico Marx-like accent by Jack Oakie. Napaloni is as vulgar as Hynkel is pretentious; the competition between the two as to who will be top dog is among the funniest stuff in the movie.

More important, perhaps, is Chaplin's unflinching look at the fate of the Jews in Nazi Germany: there is much discussion of and even a sequence set in a concentration camp, which should give the lie to those who argue that these were unknown, that the German population weren't in fact Hitler's willing executioners.

There is of course a girl, as well—Paulette Goddard plays a neighbor of the barber's, hoping for a better life with him in another country. And finally there is Chaplin's address to the camera—the Jewish barber, mistaken for Hynkel, is forced to address the troops at a Nuremberg-style rally. It's obviously didactic, and isn't really a great piece of filmmaking—it is in many respects Chaplin using his celebrity to find an audience for his political views. But his views are largely unimpeachable, and even if his rhetoric here is a little grand, he was saying things in the public sphere that no one else dared to: "Let us fight for a new world, a decent world...brutes have risen to power...let us fight for a world of reason." The most memorable sequence in the picture is undoubtedly of Hynkel dancing a ballet with an enormous globe-shaped balloon, Hitler's dreams of world domination reduced to a pantomime, and a funny and graceful one at that; but the final speech may have been the most important element for Chaplin's contemporary audiences, the resolve of one of the great artists and entertainers of the day to do everything possible to help in the fight against the darkness.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The black-and-white photography generally still looks sharp, though this print seems to have been culled from a couple of sources, and the gray levels can vary from scene to scene; also, you'll see occasional instances of bacterial decay.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglish, French, Spanishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: There's something very odd about even addressing the audio content of a Chaplin film. Nevertheless: the track is generally pretty clear; I preferred the English mono to the remixed 5.1, static, room tone and all. Dynamics are fair, and the limits of the audio equipment (and Chaplin's relative lack of experience with same) are occasionally evident.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 20 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Thai, Korean, Chinese, English for the hearing impaired with remote access
2 Documentaries
Packaging: Cardboard Tri-Fold
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. poster gallery
  2. scenes from ten other Chaplin films
Extras Review: The feature is on the first disc, and the second brims with extras. The Tramp and the Dictator (54m:56s), produced in 2001 for Turner Classic Movies, is a smart and informative look at the production and its time, narrated by Kenneth Branagh. The documentary points up uncanny coincidences—Hitler and Chaplin were born in the same week of the same month of the same year, for instance - and gives twin, parallel biographies of the two. Some of the smart points made include the importance of the coming of sound not just to Chaplin, but to Hitler—in silent pictures, The Fuhrer was a clownish, almost Chaplinesque figure, his studied oratory losing all of its effect. Among those interviewed are Chaplin's son, Sydney; director Sidney Lumet; longtime New Republic film critic Stanley Kauffmann; historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.; and writers Budd Schulberg and Ray Bradbury. Also included here is interview footage with a member of Hitler's inner circle, whose take on his former boss seems more than a little insane (e.g., "Hitler wasn't a killjoy"), but who also confirms a surmise of Schulberg's: Hitler went out of his way to see The Great Dictator, at least twice. (Students of the two may want to read Running Dog, a typically brilliant novel by Don De Lillo; in it, he imagines Hitler and Eva Braun making home movies in the bunker, turning tables on Chaplin, with the leader of the Thousand Year Reich grabbing a bowler and a cane and doing his best Little Tramp.)

Shown in clips in the documentary and included in its entirety (25m:43s) on the DVD is the color footage shot on the set by Chaplin's brother Sydney—it's comforting to see Chaplin silent again, but jarring to see him in color. This features not only scenes from the film, but Chaplin berating an A.D., and rehearsal footage for an alternate ending that ended on the cutting room floor.

There's also a scene (07m:28s) from Sunny Side, Chaplin's inaugural appearance of the Little Tramp as the proprietor of a tonsorial parlor; and another (02m:24s) from Monsieur Verdoux, which makes explicit reference to Hitler and Mussolini.Rounding out the disc are clips from a bushel of other Chaplin films (not only The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux, but also The Kid, A Woman of Paris, The Gold Rush, The Circus, City Lights, Modern Times, Limelight, and A King in New York), and a poster gallery, featuring images from all over the world, concluding with a 1970s poster from Germany, promoting Der Grosse Diktator.

Extras Grade: B


Final Comments

The political moment of The Great Dictator has moved from the headlines to the history books, but Chaplin's film is no less smart, funny and brave than when it first appeared in 1940. A second disc, full of extras, help to situate the movie in a creative and historical context; it's a loving treatment of one of Chaplin's most enduring achievements.


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