The Great Dictator – The Criterion Collection #565 (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)
May 10, 2011 by Dennis Amith
This is Charlie Chaplin’s bold masterpiece and also a sound film that is audacious because it was a satire of Adolf Hitler, but the film also provided a chance for Chaplin to use cinema as a way to communicate to millions against the dictatorship, oppression, persecution and war. The film is fantastic but what the Criterion Collection has done was release it on Blu-ray, giving it the best PQ and AQ presentation possible plus including many wonderful special features to make this release an easy “must own”! Another five-star release from the Criterion Collection, “The Great Dictator” is highly recommended!
Image courtesy of © 2011 The Criterion Collection. All Rights Reserved.
TITLE: The Great Dictator – The Criterion Collection #565
YEAR OF FILM: 1940
DURATION: 125 Minutes
BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition (1:33:1 Aspect Ratio), Black and White, Monaural
COMPANY: Janus Films/THE CRITERION COLLECTION
RELEASE DATE: May 24, 2011
Directed by Charles Chaplin
Written by Charles Chaplin
Cinematography by Karl Struss and Roland Totheroh
Edited by Willard Nico
Art Direction by J. Russell Spencer
Charles Chaplin as Hynkel – Dictator of Tomania/A Jewish Barber
Jack Oakie – Napaloni as Dictator of Bacteria
Reginald Gardiner as Schultz
Henry Daniell as Garbitsch
Billy Gilbert as Herring
Grace Hayle as Madame Napaloni
Carter DeHaven as Bacterian Ambassador
Paulette Goddard as Hannah
Maurice Moscovitch as Mr. Jaeckel
Emma Dunn as Mrs. Jaeckel
Bernard Gorcey as Mr. Mann
Paul Weigel as Mr. Agar
In his controversial masterpiece The Great Dictator, Charlie Chaplin offers both a cutting caricature of Adolf Hitler and a sly tweaking of his own comic persona. Chaplin, in his first pure talkie, brings his sublime physicality to two roles: the cruel yet clownish “Tomainian” dictator and the kindly Jewish barber who is mistaken for him. Featuring Jack Oakie and Paulette Goddard in stellar supporting turns, The Great Dictator, boldly going after the fascist leader before the U.S.’s official entry into World War II, is an audacious amalgam of politics and slapstick that culminates in Chaplin’s famously impassioned speech.
The most audacious film from Charlie Chaplin.
It was Charlie Chaplin who was known for the moustache before Adolf Hitler and in 1940, Chaplin would create one of the most surprising and shocking comedies during World War II mocking Adolf Hitler and at the same time, giving one of the greatest movie speeches of all time that was directed to Hitler.
“The Great Dictator” was a film that Chaplin needed in his career. Know for his role of the tramp in many of his silent films, like many silent film stars, their careers died when the talkies took over. But Chaplin was still one of the few who were able to create a silent during when most people were enjoying films with sound. His film “Modern Times” (1936) remains a classic but its the “Great Dictator” that stands out amongst the many films in his oeuvre. It was a film that was risky because he put $1.5 million of his own money to the film and it was important for him to release the film or else he would have to file bankruptcy.
Nominated for five Academy Awards which included “Best Actor in a Leading Role” and “Best Writing, Original Screenplay” in 1941, Chaplin took risks by taking his tramp character and playing the role of a Jewish barber and a dictator. While Chaplin insists that he would never play the Tramp in his sound film, and this character is not the tramp but an entirely different character, Chaplin would later acknowledge a connection.
And while the film continues to be studied by scholars and each having their own interpretation of the juxtaposition of Chaplin ala his dual role in the film and to Adolf Hitler, the fact is that both were born four days apart, both sported toothbrush moustache, both were born in poverty and both rose in popularity, one man had aspirations to make millions laugh while the other would hurt and emotionally scar millions.
But the film was created during wartime. Shot in 1938 and 1939, during a time when the atrocities caused by Nazi Germany was known. This satire of Adolf Hitler was bold, it was supported by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and it was what many Americans needed during this dark time in the world. People needed to laugh and thus the film was well-received and popular in the American public. Nearly 60 years later, in 1997, “The Great Dictator” was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”.
“The Great Dictator” begins during World War I. A Jewish private (played by Charlie Chaplin), a barber is sent to fight for the Central Powers in the army of the fictional nation of Tomainia.
Despite not being a good soldier and often messing up. May it be trying to throw a grenade, trying to use anti-aircraft weaponry or accidentally getting lost and ending up with enemy soldiers, while trying to runaway from his enemies, he accidentally runs into a pilot who is in need of help.
The Jewish private ends up helping Commander Schultz (played by Reginald Gardiner) on to his airplane and helping pilot it, while Schultz is in a daze and must bring important information to his superiors. While the Jewish private and Commander Schultz ride the airplane, it runs out of gas and both crash in a marsh. Both are injured but survive.
While Commander Schultz is able to give his fellow soldiers the dispatches, he is told that the war has ended and Tomainia has lost the war.
Fast forward and we hear a speech by Adenoid Hynkel (Chaplin’s satire on Adolf Hitler), the ruthless dictator of Tomainia who wants to persecute the Jews. He rules Tomainia with an iron fist and together with his staff, they try to find ways to cause war in order to dominate the world, capture more areas and persecute more and more people, even if they have to be nice at first but then to double cross them (side note: Tomainia’s flag is a double cross).
The film then focuses on the lives of these two men.
The Jewish barber has been hospitalized with memory loss and is unaware of Hynkel and Tomainia’s powerhold in various countries and their persecution of the Jews. When he returns to his barbershop, he notices that storm troopers are painting the word “Jew” on windows at his shop. When he tries to stop them, the storm troopers try to discipline him by brute force. But he is saved by Hannah (played by Paulette Goddard), who is smitten by the barber due to his bravery of confronting the storm troopers and eventually, the barber himself would start to develop feelings towards Hannah.
Of course, the storm troopers are not going to let the Jewish Barber mock them and next thing you know, a large group of them go after the barber. As they are about to lynch him on a light post, he is reunited with Commander Schultz who saves him and tells the storm troopers to back off and not touch him.
Meanwhile, the dictator Adenoid Hynkel is planning to betray the Jews. One, to find a way to take their money to fund his war and invade the neighboring country of Osterlich but first he plans to end the persecution of Jews but once he is able to secure the money from them, he will betray and persecute them. Commander Schultz is against Hynkel’s plan and despite being a decorated warrior, Hynkel will not tolerate Schultz’ behavior and sentences him to the concentration camps.
Schultz manages to escape from captivity and ends up reuniting with the Jewish barber. But how long can these two continue to run from the Tomainian storm troopers and survive? And what will happen to Hannah and her family when Hynkel authorizes the persecution of all Jews?
“The Great Dictator” has gone through major remastering several years ago. And while there are many people who have saw this film many times before, the fact is that on Blu-ray, this film looks absolutely fantastic. I was very impressed, especially when I began comparing the Blu-ray version to the DVD release. Blacks were inky and dark, picture quality was sharper, detailed and more pronounced.
For now, this is the definitive version of “The Great Dictator” to own when it comes to picture quality.
Personally, I feel that this Blu-ray release of “the film is the best looking version of “The Great Dictator” to date. Presented in 1080p (1:33:1 aspect ratio) and in black and white, the blacks are nice and deep. The contrast is just right and there is a good amount of grain. Previous releases usually were devoid of grain and dust and scratches can be seen. While for this release from the Criterion Collection, they did a wonderful job of eliminating the dust and scratches that were seen on the original DVD release and suffice to say, this transfer on Blu-ray is fantastic!
You can notice the detail in the film. In fact, similar to “Modern Times” on Blu-ray, there is noticeable detail in the images from the close ups of Paulette Goddard, you can see the shimmer in her eyes and how she absolutely shines in this film and in HD, she looks terrific. We can literally see the grime on her face and of course, the transformation from cleaning lady to a beautiful counterpart for the Jewish barber.
This is a new remaster and the new high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit 2K Datacine from a combination of a 35 mm fine-grain mater positive and a 35 mm duplicate negative. Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS system, while DigitalVision’s DVNR system was used for small dirt, grain and noise reduction.
AUDIO & SUBTITLES:
One thing that fans of “The Great Dictator” will notice is how clean the lossless monaural track is. No hissing or pops and for the most part, the monaural soundtrack is quite crisp, clear and very clean.
The monaural soundtrack according to the Criterion Collection was transferred at 24-bit from the sound negative and restored by L.E. Diapason using Pro Tools and Cedar. Additional restoration was done at Criterion, where clicks, thumps, hiss and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD and crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.
“The Great Dictator – The Criterion Collection #565” on Blu-ray comes with the following special features:
- Audio Commentary – Performer/Author Dan Kamin and silent film historian Hooman Mehran discus the verbal and visual puns of the film, the Jewish performers of the film, the two dictators, “King, Queen, Joker”, the real world violence and more.
- The Tramp and the Dictator – (55:00) 2001 Documentary by Kevin Brownlow and Michael Kloft discuss the parallels of the life of Chaplin and Hitler. Narrated by filmmaker Kenneth Branagh and featuring interviews with author Ray Bradbury, director Sidney Lumet, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., screenwriter Budd Schulberg and many others.
- Chaplin’s Napoleon – (19:12) A Visual essay by Cecilia Cenciarelli, archivist and head of the Cineteca di Bologna’s Progretto Chaplin.
- The Clown Turn’s Prophet – (20:54) A Visual essay by Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance using films stills and historical imagery.
- Sydney Chaplin’s Footage – (26:52) Silent footage in color filmed by Charlie Chaplin’s half-brother documenting the production of “The Great Dictoator” on 16mm.
- King, Queen, Joker – Surviving elements of the 1921 Paramount Pictures silent film: Sidney Chaplin (4:54) and Two Shaves (2:21)
- Charlie the Barber – (7:50) A scene shot for the 1919 silent film “Sunnyside” but never used.
- Trailer – (2:01) The original theatrical trailer of “The Great Dictator”.
A 30-page booklet featuring the following essays “The Joker and the Madman” by Michael Wood, an article from the New York Times (October 27, 1940) titled “Mr. Chaplin Answers his Critics” and from “….Pourquoi les coiffeurs? by Jean Narboni – What is Known as Really Speaking” feat. an introduction by Richard Brody. The booklet also includes “The Great Dictator” illustrations by Al Hirschfeld from 1942, courtesy of the Al Hirschfeld Foundation.
Audacious. A masterpiece. Chaplin’s greatest film ever. The greatest speech in a film.
Decade after decade, many critics, many audiences have had their own say of how they felt about “The Great Dictator”.
I truly believe that for many of us living today, far from those who watched the film and had to live through both World Wars, we look at this film and while we expect physical comedy, scenes that are hilarious and Chaplin being Chaplin, sometimes a few minutes can change the course of a film and make it something entirely different. In the case of “The Great Dictator”, when I first watched this film, I felt like clapping, hooting and just being proud of the words that were coming out of the mouth of the Jewish barber. It was so unexpected but it was Chaplin being bold, being brave and reaching out to the millions who have watched him and give them a personal message.
After all, there have been juxtapositions between Chaplin and Adolf Hitler. From the mustache, their upbringing and how both had captured the attention of millions, one through comedy, one through brutality and force. And as Adolf Hitler was invading and persecuting the Jews, at the time, Chaplin had no idea of the extent of the atrocities that Hitler and Nazi Germany has done but yet that speech he gave at the end was the cherry on the cake.
After using satire to make fun of Hitler and his men, he delivered the unexpected grand slam by giving a speech that was loud and clear. Well, for me it was. Hitler was the force of evil, Chaplin was the force of good.
And I say that because not everyone felt that way back then. Back in the ’50s, due to McCarthy-ism, many in America turned on Chaplin as being un-American. A decade after “The Great Dictator”, public sentiment was not exactly at its kindest for Charlie Chaplin and also many entertainers, radio hosts, screenwriters and filmmakers at the time were boycotted and Chaplin was upset at how he was treated that he renounced his American citizenship and made Switzerland his home, only to return back to the US when he received his Honorary Oscar at the Academy Awards in 1972.
Each time I read about how critics lampooned Chaplin at the time is surprising and it was the sign of the times. Francois Truffaut once wrote,”Whenever I hear, ‘Now that Chaplin is taking himself seriously, his work is finished,’ I can’t help thinking that his work is beginning. An artist can create works for himself to “do himself good”, or “do good” for others.
Film critic Andrew Sarris wrote in his book “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet” in regards to “The Great Dictator”, “But even his devastating parody of Hitler was discounted by audiences and critics on the grounds that the old comedy conventions were inadequate for the sleek new tyrannies. Only when absurdest 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.”
When I read the various reviews from film critics from 1940 through the 1970’s, you can’t help but see how the times and the appreciation of this film would change. After all, if you lived in the ’40s and all you have heard is Hitler this and Hitler that, non-stop, especially if you grew tired of a war that last many years, you probably would want to tune-out as well.
But here we are. Over 70-years later and for me, “The Great Dictator” is a film that is bold, masterfully created, choreographed and performed with great efficacy, but without knowing the extent of the atrocities caused by Nazi Germany, what Chaplin was able to capture was one’s will to live. Those who are persecuted fought to survive, those who followed the dictatorship were fanatics, troglodytes that didn’t think for themselves but were people who were taught to think like their dictator.
But it was Chaplin who dared cross the man that he has been juxtaposed with. The other man with the similar mustache who rose to popularity like himself but chose a different path. And to think of today’s filmmakers, not being able to use a film as a platform to showcase their creativity, for the sake of making profit, there was no doubt that Chaplin had his back towards the wall, he risked everything for this film in the hopes that it would be successful but also understood.
As for the Blu-ray release, “The Great Dictator” is magnificent. I felt “Modern Times” was absolutely wonderful in content and presentation and of course, the film itself, but the Criterion Collection has done a great service to their loyal followers by giving people the best looking version of “The Great Dictator” to date.
And if you want to learn more about “The Great Dictator”, of course, after you have seen the film, from the comparisons of similarities and differences between Chaplin and Hitler, to the making of this film, deleted scenes for other Chaplin films, audio commentary, let’s just say that there are many special features to keep Criterion fans busy.
Overall, this is another 5-star release from the Criterion Collection. Sure, there are some who may find Chaplin’s crucial speech at the end as too much or too different for their liking but I call it bold, successful and impressive.
“The Great Dictator” is a masterpiece that one must watch and experience in their lifetime. Sure, it’s not Chaplin, the silent tramp that silent fans may have fallen in love with but with “The Great Dictator”, Chaplin was able to make a statement to those who are persecuted, to those who are being oppressed and to think of the context of when this film was released and who the man that Chaplin himself was mocking. It makes you wonder if Hitler actually watched the film and if so, how he felt about it.
In the end, “The Great Dictator” is a film that showcases Chaplin as a genius and this is one masterpiece that I can easily give it 5-stars. Highly recommended!
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