[box cover]

The Great Dictator: The Chaplin Collection

MK2 / Warner Home Video

Starring Charles Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Jack Oakie
Reginald Gardiner, Henry Daniell, Billy Gilbert,
and Maurice Moscovitch

Written and directed by Charles Chaplin

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Review by Mark Bourne                    

"We may take pride in observing that there is not a single film showing in London today which deals with any of the burning questions of the day."

— Lord Tyrell, President, British Board of Film Censors, 1937

According to The New York Times on October 16, 1940, "No event in the history of the screen has ever been anticipated with more hopeful excitement than the première of this film.... The prospect of little 'Charlot,' the most universally loved character in all the world, directing his superlative talent for ridicule against the most dangerously evil man alive ... turns out to be a truly superb accomplishment by a truly great artist — and, from one point of view, perhaps the most significant film ever produced."

More than forty years later, biographer David Robinson in Chaplin: His Life and Art wrote, "Quite apart from any particular merits of the film, The Great Dictator remains an unparalleled phenomenon, an epic incident in the history of mankind."

Not exactly what you'd call faint praise.

What is it about The Great Dictator that prompts such hosannas? After all, although it's generally considered Chaplin's last great work and was his biggest money-maker despite being banned in parts of Europe and South America, it's not the most smoothly crafted of his ambitious and personal feature films. It lacks the grace and sophistication of The Gold Rush, City Lights, and Modern Times, or the precision of his classic shorts from roughly 1916-1920. Instead, The Great Dictator, while being comical often enough to satisfy strictly on the funny-bone level, aimed to be something a great deal more than just an easy lampoon. With this movie Charles Chaplin — who had already turned heads by mixing comedy with editorial commentary in Modern Times — set out to do no less than save the world. As in Dr. Strangelove a generation later, a respected director stared down the gun barrels of a real-world danger, in this case Adolf Hitler and the Nazi war machine that was on the move, and laughed.

The Great Dictator opens with a simple declaration: "This is the story of the period between two world wars — an interim during which insanity cut loose, liberty took a nose dive, and humanity was kicked around somewhat."

Ain't that the truth.

In 1933, the Nazi party took power in Germany and Hitler became Chancellor. The Nazis "temporarily restricted" civil liberties for all citizens, never to restore them. In 1935, the German government enacted the Nuremberg Laws codifying the "racial" definition of Jews and depriving them of citizenship and fundamental rights. In March '38, Germany annexed Austria. That July, delegates from 32 countries gathered at an international conference called by Franklin D. Roosevelt to discuss the growing number of Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler's Europe. Germany boycotted the conference. Three months later German troops occupied the Sudetenland and the Czech government resigned. In November, Chaplin registered a script called The Dictator and the world witnessed Kristallnacht, "the Night of Broken Glass." Nazis attacked Jews throughout Germany. 30,000 Jews were arrested, 91 were killed, 7,500 shops and businesses looted, and more than 1,000 synagogues were set afire. Jewish children were officially expelled from public schools and Nazis seized control of Jewish-owned businesses.

When Chaplin announced his plans to make a satire that mocked Hitler and ridiculed the nature of Fascism, the displacement of Jewish populations, and the acquisition of Austria, everyone from the British government to Hollywood producers strongly advised him against it. Even with Hitler's armies — "machine men with machine minds and machine hearts," as Chaplin puts it — goosestepping across Europe, the continent was a lucrative market for Hollywood, which maintained a policy of not caricaturing foreign heads of state. The Depression-beaten U.S. was in a staunchly isolationist mood, and when war broke out the country declared its neutrality. The motion picture industry wasn't to be seen choosing sides, and politically no one wanted to piss off Hitler. The most famous movie-maker in the world wavered until President Roosevelt got involved. FDR contacted him and green-lighted the project himself. Financing The Great Dictator entirely from his own pocket, Chaplin made the choice to stand up and be counted.

*          *          *

A number of things make The Great Dictator unlike any previous Chaplin film. Bosley Crowther's New York Times review noted that this was "no droll and gentle-humored social satire in the manner of Chaplin's earlier films. The Great Dictator is essentially a tragic picture — or tragi-comic in the classic sense — and it has strongly bitter overtones." And in a bow to technological inevitability, this was Chaplin's first full-on sound film with dialogue. Knowing that dialogue would destroy the essence of the necessarily silent Little Tramp, cinema's foremost pantomimist retired the character forever at the conclusion of Modern Times four years earlier. So The Great Dictator was the first feature-length film in which he starred as a character other than the Tramp.

In The Great Dictator Chaplin in fact plays two lead roles. One is a meek Jewish barber in the European country of Tomania. Granted, the barber bears more than a passing resemblance to the Tramp, even affecting the familiar bowler hat and cane. But Chaplin was clear that the barber is not the Tramp and The Great Dictator is not a Tramp movie. The barber is a World War I soldier stricken with amnesia in an aircraft accident. After twenty years in a hospital, he returns to the Jewish ghetto where he re-opens his long-abandoned shop, blissfully ignorant of how the world has changed in his absence. Thuggish Aryan stormtroopers patrol the streets to assault Jewish civilians. They paint the word JEW on the barber's shop windows. They wear armbands with the Swastika-like "double cross." The country is under the thumb of Adenoid Hynkel, the power-mad Fooey (that is, Führer), who with his jackbooted armies is determined to conquer the globe. Grinding the Jews in the ghetto beneath his heel is only the start of his plans.

Secondly (and more memorably), Chaplin plays the crazed dictator Hynkel. It's in this savage and undisguised parody of Hitler that The Great Dictator achieves its immortality. A pompous little megalomaniac, Hynkel was a pie in the face to a madman whom Hollywood and the rest of the world had come to fear. Chaplin inhabits Hynkel so fully that the barber is rendered almost perfunctory. Chaplin studied hours of newsreels to capture Hitler properly, and this lacerating sendup of the Führer's oratorical style blends mock-German gobbledygook with a bullseye on his theatrical bombast.

It turns out that the barber and Hynkel are lookalikes. ("Any resemblance between Hynkel the dictator and the Jewish barber is purely coincidental," quips an opening title card.) Hynkel prepares his plans to kill off all the Jews ("then the brunettes") with the aid of his loyal advisers, Field Marshal Herring and Propaganda Minister Garbitsch. Meanwhile, the barber innocently tries to adjust to his new life as a prisoner in his own country. He becomes involved with a young orphan woman, Hannah (Paulette Goddard), and through her falls in with a group of conspirators who aim to assassinate Hynkel. A scene where they consume puddings, and whoever spoons up a hidden coin must embark on the suicide mission, is one of the great Chaplin bits.

Each of Chaplin's pinnacle features — The Kid, The Gold Rush, City Lights, Modern Times, and The Great Dictator — contributed at least one of cinema's all-time indelible images. In Dictator that comes with the inspired scene where Hynkel, alone in his palatial Chancellery, dances a graceful ballet with a globe of Planet Earth. When the balloon-globe eventually pops in his face, the great dictator cries like a spoiled child. The scene is one of Chaplin's most sublime. Artistically, any faults one can quibble about in The Great Dictator are trumped by this famous sequence.

For good measure, Chaplin drives a clown car up Mussolini's ass as well. Vaudeville-trained Jack Oakie turns Il Duce into "Napaloni of Bacteria," a back-slapping, uncouth, low-comedy bulldog of a despot. He competes with Hynkel for everything from the height of their barber chairs (which telescope toward the ceiling in a brilliant one-panel cartoon of political one-upmanship) to whose army invades a country first. It's to Chaplin's credit that he shared so much screen time with the born scene-stealer Oakie, who barrels through the movie like a New York cab driver through a yellow light. The performance earned Oakie an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Events turn so that the barber must impersonate the dictator in a radio address to the entire world. And here arrives the most controversial scene in The Great Dictator, probably in all the Chaplin syllabus. The barber, disguised as Hynkel, steps up to the podium and through the camera faces us eye to eye. Now Chaplin drops character utterly. He speaks not as the barber, but as himself and from the heart in a screen-filling close-up. In an impassioned six-minute speech he pleads for tolerance and the elevation of the innate greater good of the human spirit, and an end to oppression, industrial dehumanization, greed, militarism, and nationalism.

*          *          *

The physical resemblance between Chaplin and Hitler had been noticed long before The Great Dictator was on the drawing boards. Parallels between them didn't start or stop with their familiar toothbrush mustaches. The two men had been born within four days of each other in 1889. Each came from humble beginnings. Each rose to be the master of his chosen domain. Each was a tyrannical control freak possessing a towering ego, attributes on full display in the behind-the-scenes chronicles of Hitler's wartime rise and Chaplin's idiosyncratic career.

"Each in his own way," stated an unsigned article in the Spectator in 1939, "has expressed the ideas, sentiments, aspirations of the millions of struggling citizens ground between the upper and the lower millstone of society.... genius each of them undeniably possesses. Each has mirrored the same reality — the predicament of the 'little man' in modern society. Each is a distorting mirror, the one for good, the other for untold evil."

The notion of these two brilliant and spectacularly successful monomaniacal over-achievers existing simultaneously like some Good Twin/Evil Twin duality, watching each other ascend to dominance as living iconic images, then "meeting" in a David-Goliath match playing on movie screens internationally . . . you couldn't pitch that story line to Hollywood even as an X-Men flick.

*          *          *

The results were astonishing but uneven. Therefore critical praise was high but usually qualified. The premiere's New York Times review observed that while The Great Dictator "comes off magnificently," it bears "several disappointing shortcomings." Still it received standing ovations. Reviews were stronger in England, where audiences recognized Hitler as a more immediate threat. The film opened in London at the height of the Nazi Blitzkrieg.

Those "disappointing shortcomings" are easy to spot. Chaplin was Professor Emeritus in the university of silent film technique. Now, however, he found himself a reluctant guest lecturer in the sound age, a school where all the rules had changed. As a result, the film's rhythms and cadences are often leaden. The narrative's two split-personality story lines — one following the Jewish barber, the other Hynkel — don't coexist harmoniously. The comedy is often self-consciously broad and slapsticky, even Stoogey. Goddard, meanwhile, doesn't deliver the presence she did in Modern Times, and Chaplin's inexperience with writing talkies leads to dialogue that's occasionally strained. The Great Dictator lacks the coherence of his greater masterstrokes, feeling instead like the early work of a gifted but lesser director.

None of which is to deny that this is a funny, funny movie. Even when adjusted for 1940 dollars, the bang/buck ratio is high. Film buffs will catch scenes that bring to mind the Marx Brothers' hysterical 1933 war romp Duck Soup (it's as if Tomania and Freedonia are separated by only a narrow line in some absurd alternate-universe Fodor's guidebook). Half a dozen gags here surely inspired animator Chuck Jones (a delightful shaving scene built on Brahms' Hungarian Rhapsody No. 5 must have stuck with Jones, who crafted a near-identical sequence into the 1950 Bugs Bunny classic Rabbit of Seville). There are moments that could be transplanted straight into Mel Brooks' The Producers.

The closing speech was and remains a point of bother for critics. Never mind that it stops the narrative cold. In 1940, the political left dismissed it as simplistic. For the right it was nothing short of dangerously subversive (calling upon the "comrades" in the world's militaries to refuse to fight was a staggeringly foolish PR move). From a non-partisan movie-making perspective, in various ways it's been called inartistic, mawkish, or off-putting. Certainly as a rousing call to action it isn't well crafted, although whether it's underwritten or overwritten is hard to say. Yes, Chaplin's appeal for reason and kindness is inarguable, yet as the speech rambles forth trying to open our eyes to too many ills at once, it's punctuated less by plain-speaking Lincolnesque oratory than by naive kumbaya. Its truths are swamped by airy truisms. His intent is honorable, no question. It's the execution that's so damned frustrating.

Still, it's stirring in its earnestness. The impact it carried in the face of Hitler's advances, a demonstrably imminent threat, must have been staggering for many. To quote the original New York Times review again: "The effect is bewildering, and what should be the climax becomes flat and seemingly maudlin. But the sincerity with which Chaplin voices his appeal and the expression of tragedy which is clear in his face are strangely overpowering. Suddenly one perceives in bald relief the things which make The Great Dictator great — the courage and faith and surpassing love for mankind which are in the heart of Charlie Chaplin."

At a time when Adolf Hitler was the very definition of a clear and present danger, Chaplin found a means to grab his worldwide audience by the collar and shake them to say "It doesn't have to be this way!"

Say what you want about the man's ego. You still have to admire the balls.

*          *          *

History's appraisal of The Great Dictator has remained healthy over the years. Its virtues are sharper and its overweening pieties mellower when viewed in hindsight. At the time of its release, 50-year-old Chaplin was regarded as a pillar of Old Hollywood, a revered anachronism with one foot still in the La Brea tar pit of the silent era. As critic Andrew Sarris put it in his history of the talking film, The Great Dictator was "discounted by audiences and critics on the grounds that the old comedy conventions were inadequate for the sleek new tyrannies." Sarris then observes that only "when absurdist modes of expression became the rage in the sixties and seventies could The Great Dictator be appreciated for the psychologically complex vision it provided through its stylized spectacles."

In 1997 it was inducted into the National Film Registry. On the American Film Institute's 2000 list of The 100 Funniest American Movies, The Great Dictator ranks #37, near The Gold Rush (#25), Modern Times (#33), and City Lights (#38).

*          *          *

Of course, such an overtly political film was bound to stir up controversy. Some critics felt that by reducing Hitler and Mussolini to clownish buffoons, it understated the importance of the authentic threat they represented. That's a point history promptly validated. If the full extent of the Nazi's treatment of the Jews had been known, Chaplin's "Springtime for Hitler" would have been pilloried for bad taste. After the war, Chaplin said if he had known exactly what was occurring in the German concentration camps, he would not have made The Great Dictator. "I would not have been able to make fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis."

It doesn't take much hindsight to see that The Great Dictator probably came too late to effect any meaningful change, even if you believe that a movie could have diverted the tank treads of history in any case. When Chaplin began work on it, France and England were just declaring war on Germany. By the time editing had begun, France and Denmark had fallen. Chaplin considered shelving the project, feeling that "Hitler is a horrible menace to civilization rather than someone to laugh at." Instead he changed the film's original conclusion — a folk dance among opposing armies and a pacifist montage similar to D.W. Griffith's Intolerance — to speaking as himself in the final speech. After eighteen months of production, France was occupied, England was burning, the rest of Europe was under Hitler's boot, and Josef Stalin had been appeased by the Führer's gift of half of Poland. More than a year after the premiere, the U.S. still hadn't joined the struggle. Ford factories in Germany were manufacturing trucks for the Wehrmacht right up until December 1941. (Let's just note that Chaplin's attack against industrial dehumanization, Modern Times, had been partly inspired by the Ford company, which was founded by an outspoken anti-Semite and admirer of Hitler.)

So Chaplin may not have halted a war, but he still left us with more than just a funny movie. Critic Harold Clurman once said that "Chaplin does not escape the world through his comic disguises; he faces it." From where we sit today, when we're hard-pressed to find a filmmaker of such prominence exhibiting more political boldness than ninety minutes' worth of Clear Channel programming, Chaplin's forthrightness and vision still raise our eyebrows. Hitler was a monster whose appearance on history's stage was so large that even today we can't wholly define him. In the posterity stakes, though, you wouldn't want to bet against Chaplin either, who outlasted Hitler and whose films have already outdistanced the dictator's Thousand Year Reich.

The MK2/Warner Home Video Chaplin Collection DVDs

In 2001, the rights to many of Chaplin's films became available. Several companies vied to license them. The Chaplin estate chose the Parisian company MK2, which holds the rights to the films for 12 years.

With distribution through Warner Home Video, in 2003 MK2 began releasing The Chaplin Collection, two boxed sets containing definitive, authorized editions of Chaplin's feature-length films. Each film receives an exhaustive, features-rich DVD presentation. All have been digitally restored and remastered from Chaplin estate vault elements. Volume 1 of The Chaplin Collection includes The Great Dictator, The Gold Rush, Modern Times, and Limelight. Volume 2 brings us The Kid, The Circus, City Lights, A King in New York / A Woman of Paris, Monsieur Verdoux, and The Chaplin Revue. Plus, exclusive to the Volume 2 boxed set is Richard Schickel's acclaimed documentary tribute, Charlie: The Life and Art of Charles Chaplin, a highlight of 2003's Cannes Film Festival.

These discs feature, among their many extras, never-before-seen footage, behind-the-scenes glimpses, exclusive family home movie footage, and specially made documentaries in which Chaplin biographer David Robinson as well as world-famous film-makers discuss the films and their personal, professional, or cultural impact.

Starting in the 1940s, Chaplin went back to several of his earlier films and tinkered with them, snipping bits here, changing footage there, and adding his own musical scores for reissue prints. Under the authority of the Chaplin estate, MK2's The Chaplin Collection delivers the films in their final state, "as Chaplin intended."

How's the picture and sound quality?

For The Great Dictator's restoration, experts at Cineteca Bologna assembled the best footage from a variety of sources into a new freshly minted print. The final product (which clocks in at 1:59:40) is splendid. Contrast, definition, and grayscale are exemplary. The print isn't as pristine as, for example, this series' Modern Times, so expect some minor speckling and wear, plus some infelicitous splices that reveal faint distinctions between the varying source footage used. Nothing significant to complain about at all. It's gorgeous.

The audio comes in four options remastered in Dolby Digital — English DD 2.0 monaural, English DD 5.1, French DD 2.0 monaural, and Spanish DD 2.0 monaural. All are strong and clear and free of hiss or wear. The 5.1 remix really impresses. It spreads out the musical score and sound effects, keeping the surrounds engaged continuously yet without drowning us in show-offy five-point-oneness. The battle scenes display some nice active discrete directionality. Frankly, it's perfect.

Subtitles are in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Thai, and Korean.

Disc Two: Special features

The Tramp and the Dictator (54:57) — Hands down, this is the finest supplement in the four DVDs comprising The Chaplin Collection's first wave. This Turner Classic Movies original documentary, co-directed by Kevin Brownlow and Michael Kloft and narrated by Kenneth Branagh, compares the lives of Chaplin and Hitler. Without overreaching for eerie parallels, it chronicles the rise of the most-loved and most-hated men of their time until their lives intersected with The Great Dictator.

"Here was this huge artist standing up against this gargantuan monster," film critic Stanley Kauffmann says. Among others interviewed are Chaplin's son, Sydney Chaplin; author Ray Bradbury; politician/historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.; film directors Bernard Vorhaus and Sidney Lumet; and caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, who served as publicity artist for The Great Dictator.

Brownlow packs a remarkable amount of information and insight into The Tramp and the Dictator, which he illustrates with generous amounts of newsreel footage and early photos of Hitler, demonstrating the context in which Hitler, a failed artist, became consumed by hatred of Jews. We learn that Hitler took acting lessons to sharpen his oratorical chops, and that Chaplin's films were already being suppressed in Germany in the mid-1930s. Newsreel footage of Chaplin arriving to a joyous reception in 1931 Berlin was later included in the Nazis' 1940 propaganda film Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew). Chaplin might have been spurred to create The Great Dictator after finding out that he had been demonized as a Jew (an identity he neither publicly acknowledged nor denied) in the Nazi book The Jews Are Looking at You, which described him as "a disgusting Jewish acrobat."

Equally unsettling is the depiction of how close Fascism came to starting in the U.S. rather than Germany. Footage of a vast Nuremberg Rally-like assembly heiling a giant image of George Washington should raise the hairs on the back of anyone's neck. The Great Dictator fed ammo to the growing conservative faction in America who already had it in for Chaplin because of both his personal life and the politics they ascribed to him. The film's progressive stance enraged American hard-right-wingers. In response, Chaplin received public sympathy from the Left, which reinforced the Right's attacks against him as a "communist" or "Stalinist," never mind that Chaplin nailed Stalin as a threat before many did and had to be talked out of skewering him too in Dictator.

A perversely humorous line comes in the final section, called "Did Hitler See the Film?" The interviewee is Reinhard Spitzy, a former SS officer and member of Hitler's inner circle. He confirms stories that Hitler, a film buff, on two occasions ordered a print of The Great Dictator for his own private viewing. While no account of Hitler's reaction to the movie exists, Spitzy asserts that Der Führer would probably have enjoyed it. After all, the man had a good sense of humor, we learn. "Within the inner circle he could definitely laugh at jokes like these."

The old ex-Nazi assures us that — and I quote — "Hitler wasn't a killjoy."

Any resemblance to the character Franz Liebkind in The Producers is purely coincidental.

Making of in color by Sydney Chaplin (1939/40) (25:44) — This ungrammatical menu item refers to a film historian's dream, a cache of amateur color film shot on set by Chaplin's brother, Sydney, during the making of The Great Dictator. The silent footage was recently discovered at the Chaplin villa in Switzerland. It's edited into individual click-to segments:

  1. "The ball"
  2. "Previously unseen final scene"
  3. "The fall down the stairs"
  4. "The ghetto"
  5. "The First World War"

Charlie the Barber (1919) (7:29) — Chaplin develops the role of a barber in this deleted scene from an earlier short, Sunnyside. One of Chaplin's always-reliable supporting players, Albert Austin, is the unfortunate man in the chair. (A longer version of this footage also appears on The Chaplin Collection's DVD of The Chaplin Revue.)

Excerpt from Monsieur Verdoux (2:24) — A clip from Chaplin's next feature. Utterly superfluous except that it incorporates brief newsreel footage of Hitler and Mussolini, and the Nazi bombing of the Spanish loyalists headlines a newspaper Verdoux holds.

Film posters — Here's a click-through collection of 18 posters for The Great Dictator from various countries and decades. If anyone knows where I can find a print of the last one, from 1970s Germany, my email address is below.

Scenes from films in The Chaplin Collection — Finally, this "coming attractions" ensemble presents scenes from ten titles slated for the series (The Chaplin Revue is absent):

—Mark Bourne

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