The Great Dictator
was Charles Chaplin's first fully talking picture, a scathing comic assault on Adolf Hitler, which these days will mostly play like brilliant slapstick. But in 1940, with America still neutral, it was the boldest anti-Nazi statement Hollywood had then put on screen. The thin plot doesn't matter, being just a peg for writer-director Chaplin's almost consistently inventive and hilarious set-pieces featuring himself in the duel roles of Adenoid Hynkel, the ludicrous anti-Semitic Dictator of Tomania, and an innocent Jewish barber who happens to be a Tomanian hero of the Great War. In the latter role he affectionately spins a variation on his beloved Tramp character while briefly romancing a lacklustre Paulette Goddard, costar of his equally satirical Modern Times
Yet it's as Hynkel/Hitler that Chaplin really shines, from a side-splitting opening speech to some Duck Soup-style madness with rival leader Napaloni, played with flamboyant swagger by Jack Oakie. While the finale, a clarion call for a brave new world united by science and technological progress that seems to emanate straight from 1936's Things to Come, may jar, the comedic approach to a deadly serious subject has proved lastingly influential, from Dr Strangelove (1964) to Life is Beautiful (1997).
On the DVD The Great Dictator is presented in the original 4:3 black and white with strong, clear mono sound and a picture so sharp and detailed that, bar a few very minor instances of damage, the film could have been shot yesterday. Also included are French and Italian dubbed versions and an English Dolby Digital 5.1 version of the soundtrack, which is best avoided. The disc features multiple subtitle options, including English for hard of hearing.
Disc Two begins with a superb 55-minute documentary, directed by film historian Kevin Brownlow and Michael Kloft, narrated by Kenneth Branagh and coproduced by the BBC. The Tramp and the Dictator goes seriously in-depth to explore the parallels between the world's most loved and hated men, drawing on many interviews and remarkable rare footage, including colour sequences of the making of The Great Dictator shot by Chaplin's brother, Sydney. Next comes the complete 25 minutes of that home-movie footage, including coverage of the original abandoned ending, and a seven-minute deleted scene from Sunnyside (1918), which inspired the barber scene. Finally there is a poster gallery and a scene from Monsieur Verdoux (1947) concerning the rise of Hitler and fascism. Marvellous stuff, though a commentary could have added considerably to the already remarkable silent colour material. --Gary S Dalkin
Chaplin plays two totally opposite roles in his first "talkie," giving a superb display of his boundless talent for both inspired comedy and powerful drama. One of his masterfully drawn characters is a Jewish barber facing the constant threat of storm troopers and religious persecution. The other is the great dictator, Hynkel, a brilliant lampoon of Adolph Hitler that is awesome proof of Chaplin's pantomime genius. The movie's famous highlight comes in its final scene, when Chaplin steps out of character and addresses the camera with an eloquent plea for the triumph of reason and humanity over mindless militarism. This speech is so moving that Chaplin was later asked to repeat it on national radio, and the film itself was voted one of the year's Ten Best by The New York Times