Director: Charles Chaplin
Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Maurice Moscovich, Emma Dunn, Bernard Gorcey, Paul Weigel, Chester Conklin, Jack Oakie, Reginald Gardiner, Henry Daniell, Billy Gilbert, Grace Hayle, Carter DeHaven, Stanley “Tiny” Sandford, Joe Bordeaux, Hank Mann
Country: United States
Running Time: 125 minutes
BBFC Certificate: 12
If it were even possible to contemplate such a notion, what one figure could represent cinema? For my money, Charlie Chaplin could be such a person. He was there at the birth of Hollywood and he made it through the upheaval of discovering sound; and considering the art form had reached a sublime peak in the silent era, successfully wrangling the shift in style was not for the fainthearted. Chaplin was the very embodiment of cinema and his voice remains relevant.
He was born the same week as Adolf Hitler. The Great Dictator entered production the same week Hitler invaded Poland, which is a fascinating alignment of fates, but it wasn’t that simple. With the benefit of many decades and the understanding of how devastating Hitler was, it’s difficult to appreciate that Chaplin was trying to develop the film while the world’s leaders were playing a “wait and see” game with Germany. Chaplin took a lot of criticism for trying to make it and Britain even threatened to ban it, rather than risk upsetting Hitler.
The resulting film is astonishingly passionate and precise in its anger. Considering a turbulent pre-production the focus is sharp. It’s also still an important film because, aside from scenes of atrocities even before we knew the extent of the Holocaust, it is a story about political ideology. Chaplin’s famed coda, a wonderful speech about finding humanity and denying greed, remains incredibly moving. A beautiful moment, not just in words, but in spirited, unashamed sentiment.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This is no navel-gazing precursor for Schindler’s List, it is reliably ridiculous and silly. Chaplin’s well-trodden tramp routine has segued into something more subtle, but he’s still prat-falling, hanging upside-down from a plane or slapping storm troopers in the face with paint. It has proper belly laughs (even if modern sensibilities might find it jarring) often with a “how did they do that” element that works to this day. Chaplin also brilliantly plays the Dictator himself (as an idiot) and the scene where he plays with an inflatable world globe is sublime.
As sharp as it is goofy, The Great Dictator is a noble and important film, precisely because it laughs right in the face of the very worst evil. It doesn’t try to be clever, it tries to be silly, succeeds at both and becomes so much more.
I wish cinema still had this kind of power. Lacking much of the subtlety, Mel Brooks came close, but his best work was out of step with world events. A kind of Death of Stalin that dares step inside contemporary Russia would be a start. Unthinkable though. Too many people don’t want to upset Putin.
A clean, crisp and stable image throughout. As with most of Chaplin’s key works, the film has been well treated over the years.
Considering the film is from 1941 and made by a man with one foot firmly still in the silent era, it is not an ambitious sound presentation. It is a strong and clear presentation though.
This is an excellent array of extra features, though some have been around on previous editions. Still, this is a fabulously presented Blu-ray that collects old and new.
The Tramp and The Dictator
The Clown Turns Prophet
King, Queen, Joker
Charlie The Barber
2011 Commentary with Dan Kamin and Hooman Mehran