The Great Dictator (Blu-ray)
Directed by Charles Chaplin
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1 1080p AVC codec
Running Time: 125 minutes
Audio: PCM 1.0 English
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: May 24, 2011
Review Date: May 20, 2011
When Charlie Chaplin began working on the script for what turned out to be The Great Dictator, war clouds were already forming over Europe. By the time of its premiere more than 1 ½ years later, war had begun. Even discounting the advantage that time gives us to view this film in retrospect, it’s an amazingly trenchant film: equal parts comedy and tragedy, satire and parody, with melodrama, slapstick, and sentiment all in abundance, The Great Dictator is a milestone in the career of the comic genius. It is not his greatest film, but it was his greatest box-office hit, and its view of the deplorable greed of dictatorships whose people must bear the weight of the supreme egos that drive such institutions still resonates today. Chaplin admitted that he had no idea of the severity of the inhumanity that was going on in the Third Reich, and that had he known, he would never have made a comedy about it. The world would have been a poorer place had he not made this film.
After suffering a brain injury during World War I, a Jewish barber (Charles Chaplin) spends years in a veteran’s hospital not fully aware of what’s going on in his country Tomania. During his period of convalescence, Adenoid Hynkel (Charles Chaplin) has risen to power. With his hatred of Jews, he’s making sure the ghettos are heavily patrolled and the Jews kept under strict surveillance. Needing a loan from Jewish banking interests to finance the invasion of Osterlich, Hynkel backs off from his Jewish repression, and it’s at this time that the barber returns from the hospital to reopen his barber shop assisted by pretty maid Hannah (Paulette Goddard). Hynkel has other worries. His chief rival Benzino Napaloni (Jack Oakie), the dictator of Bacteria, has his own plans to invade Osterlich, so he needs to stay one step ahead of him and also try to recapture former General Schultz (Reginald Gardiner), a war hero who’s pro-Jewish and a friend of the barber before he stirs up the Jews to resist the once again harsh restrictions he's imposing on them.
With the film's beginning with a hilarious quarter hour sequence set in World War I which recalls the writer-director’s earlier 1918 wartime hit Shoulder Arms and ending with one of the most heartfelt and genuinely moving pleas for peace and understanding that has ever been photographed (a six minute monologue that even today divides audiences as to its merits and appropriateness), The Great Dictator contains some of the best things Chaplin ever did on film. An hour into the movie come back-to-back classic sequences that can be shown apart from the rest of the film and still impress: the dictator’s majestic global ballet followed by the barber’s superbly nuanced and choreographed shaving performance set to Brahms. In fact, Chaplin has structured the entire film segueing back and forth between his two protagonists (both played by him naturally), and each has his comedic gems: the barber eluding stormtroopers or Hynkel trying his frustrating best to one-up Napaloni. The film is crammed with precocious sight gags (the double cross symbol of the party, a Venus de Milo and The Thinker statues posed with “heil” salutes) and funny word play (“fuehrer” becomes “phooey,” the names of Hynkel’s cabinet ministers so close to their real-life counterparts but sounding like “garbage” and “herring”). True, Chaplin at this stage in his career sometimes overdoes a good thing: his German double-talk sequences sometimes overstay their welcome (even with mirthful sight gags like the microphones resisting what he has to say), and he doesn’t always get the best out of his cast (Billy Gilbert is a scapegoat once too often). Still, it’s easy to nitpick a classic. For all of its tiny flaws, what it does right, it does magnificently right and where it errs, it always errs for noble, artistic purposes.
Chaplin’s dual performances earned him much praise and the New York Film Critics’ Best Actor prize (which he declined), and even today, the comic timing and inspired tomfoolery along with the artful satire that never turns bitter or nasty as it so easily could have certainly have never been matched. Jack Oakie steals every one of his scenes as the braggadocios Napaloni and makes a hilarious continual foil for Chaplin’s Hynkel. Henry Daniell is all business as the calculating Garbitsch while Reginald Gardiner plays it straight as well as the democratically-committed Schultz. Paulette Goddard’s Hannah is the only substantial female presence in the movie, but she’s given only minor bits of business: hitting stormtroopers over the head with a skillet and allowing herself to be shaved by Chaplin. She’s a beautiful companion for the master, but this was not a worthy consolation prize for losing out on Scarlett O’Hara (she fared better in The Women).
The film’s theatrical aspect ratio of 1.33:1 is presented in a 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Grayscale is beautifully presented with crisp blacks and whites and outstanding sharpness throughout the movie’s running time. In fact, the transfer’s only problems are some minor print damage and a tiny bit of fringing along the left frame of the movie, neither the fault of the transfer but inherent in the film elements used. The film has been divided into 20 chapters.
The PCM (1.1 Mbps) 1.0 audio track sounds a bit shrill in the high end and features almost no low end in the mix (though explosions in the World War I opening sequence do have some resonance). Still, technicians have carefully cleaned all age-related audio artifacts so that hiss, pops, crackle, and flutter are never a problem. Dialogue, crucial in this, Chaplin’s first significant film to feature large amounts of talking, has been recorded well and is ably presented.
The audio commentary is provided by Chaplin scholars Dan Kamin and Hooman Mehran, and it’s a terrific compendium of scholarly research and movie analyses delivered in breezy, appealing style by both men.
“The Tramp and the Dictator” is the 55-minute Turner Classic Movies documentary narrated by Kenneth Branagh which compares and contrasts the lives and careers of Charlie Chaplin and Adolf Hitler. Superbly produced, this documentary is in 1080i.
“Chaplin’s Napoleon” details Charlie Chaplin’s lifelong attempts to mount a film about Napoleon Bonaparte. This 19 ¼-minute 1080p featurette traces the various treatments and developments of his script over an almost twenty year period.
“The Clown Turns Prophet” discusses the origins of the movie on its way to becoming Chaplin’s biggest commercial hit despite the skittishness of Hollywood and foreign movie exhibitors. This 21-minute feature is presented in 1080p.
Charlie’s half-brother Sydney shot many rolls of silent Kodacolor film while the film was in production, all of which is presented here in 1080i and running 26 ¾ minutes.
King, Queen, Joker is a 5-minute short written by and starring Sydney Chaplin as a barber featuring some gags which seemingly influenced some of Charlie’s barbershop business in The Great Dictator. It’s in 1080i. A further comparison compilation of the two shaving scenes in the two films is mocked-up and offered in a 2 ¼-minute clip.
“Charlie the Barber” is an interesting and funny 7 ¾-minute outtake from Sunnyside in which Charlie first appeared as a barber (this time shaving Chaplin regular Albert Austin). It’s in 1080i.
The theatrical trailer for the film’s reissue (rated G) is presented in 1080p and running 2 minutes.
The enclosed 30-page booklet features the cast and crew lists, the chapter listing, a couple of stills and a few Al Hirschfield caricatures, professor Michael Wood’s celebratory essay on the film, Chaplin’s defense of his final speech as written for The New York Times, and writer Richard Brody’s intensive analysis of the speech.
4.5/5 (not an average)
A great but not quite perfect film is given a great Blu-ray release with Criterion’s The Great Dictator. Fans of its genius creator should rush to add this satiric masterwork to their Chaplin collections. In all respects, highly recommended!