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(Criterion Blu-ray)
Studio: The Criterion Collection
Year: 1940
Cast: Charles Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie
Director: Charles Chaplin
Release Date: July 6, 2011, 2:01 pm
Rating: Not Rated for
Run Time: 02h:05m:19s

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

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Criterion spruces up Chaplin's first talking picture, an extended, impassioned, heartfelt kick in the ass of Adolf Hitler.

Movie Grade: A

DVD Grade: A-

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.

Criterion's Blu-ray edition of the title looks marvelous—a clean transfer and a nuanced gray scale, and a package of extras emphasizing, unsurprisingly, the historical parallels that the feature invites. The Tramp and the Dictator (55m:00s) was produced for Turner Classic Movies, and producers Kevin Brownlow and Michael Kloft have assembled all stars (Sidney Lumet!) to discuss Chaplin's work. (Especially notable are the clips of home movies—in color—taken on set by the director's brother, Sidney Chaplin—they're also include in their entirety [26m:52s] on the disc.) In the first of two visual essays, Cecilia Cenciarelli discusses Chaplin's work on a never-completed Napoleon project, and goes over how many of the elements from that landed in The Great Dictator; in the second, Jeffrey Vance pays more attention to the Chaplin persona. (Chaplin was at one point so full of himself that he mistook Hitler for yet another in a long line of Little Tramp imeprsonators.)

An early Chaplin short, King, Queen, Joker (4m:54s), has him going full Winklevoss already, playing two different roles; Two Shaves (2m:21s) deftly intercuts footage from this first look at the comic premise with its later incarnation in the feature. Similarly, Charlie the Barber (7m:50s), an unused sequence from 1919's Sunnyside, has the Tramp all tonsorial once again. Dan Kamin and Hooman Mehran brim with love and knowledge on a sprightly commentary track, full of information about comedic filmmaking technique, Chaplin's sense of history and parody, and the feature's reception. There's also an original trailer, and the highlight of the accompanying booklet is an essay by Chaplin, published in the New York Times, in which he responds to critics of the film's ending.

Jon Danziger July 6, 2011, 2:01 pm