Writing about “The Great Dictator” in the booklet accompanying this two-disc release, professor Michael Wood says this about Charlie Chaplin playing the roles of Hynkel the dictator and the unnamed Jewish barber: “The effect is not to humanize Hitler, but in part — and this is an aspect of the film’s courage — to Hitlerize Chaplin.” His essay does an excellent job of dissecting both characters and showing how they not only mirrored what was happening in the world in 1939 but also how they mirrored Chaplin’s own development as a screenwriter, director, and actor. As someone notes in the “Tramp and the Dictator” bonus feature on disc two, by this point in his career Chaplin had become a dictator, albeit one of the benevolent variety.
The included booklet also reprints a piece Chaplin published in “The New York Times” in October 1940, in which he defends the film’s ending and its impassioned speech by the Jewish barber mistaken for a murderous tyrant. “To me, it is a logical ending to the story,” he writes. “To me, it is the speech that the little barber would have made — even had to make.”
I agree. In fact, I would posit that while Chaplin’s delivery of the speech breaks the characterization established for the Jewish barber, the moment could be certainly seen as one we’ve seen many times in movies: someone thought to be of little consequence has an opportunity to make a difference, and he does so, rather than shirk his duty. After all, the Jewish barber could have taken advantage of the situation by using the case of mistaken identity to escape, or by delivering a speech that would have been expected of Hynkel, so no one was any wiser, but instead he risked outing himself by delivering a passionate condemnation of the insanity he had witnessed. Whereas he had earlier feared putting his life on the line to eliminate Hynkel, he now rises to the occasion.
Yes, the scene is also a convenient way for Chaplin to put his own a*s on the line by condemning someone who many in Hollywood feared angering at the time (they were still making money showing their films in Germany), but that’s what makes such an intersection between the real world and art a magical place. “The Great Dictator” would not have existed had lunatics not seized control of Germany and Italy, and thus the film not only reflects the European situation in Chaplin’s unique funhouse mirror but it also seeks to hopefully affect what was happening. If the Jewish barber’s speech caused just one person to question their devotion to a dictator, then Chaplin’s labor of love was worth it.
Criterion’s new release of this film is also a labor of love, one of those film classes in a box that I’ve mentioned in past reviews. I watched “The Great Dictator” with my eight-year-old daughter, who has enjoyed other Chaplin films. It was an opportunity to discuss a dark period in history without needing to delve into the gruesome details (she needs a few more years before being exposed to that). Together with the excellent bonus features in this set, I can see this release finding a home in any junior high or high school history class.
Disc one features a restored print of the film, which looks very nice except for a couple hairs that show up at the bottom of the frame as the barber steps up to the microphones at the end of the film. I’m not sure how anyone missed them during the digital scrubbing the film received, but otherwise it’s an excellent presentation. A rerelease trailer is included, along with an informative commentary by Chaplin historians Dan Kamin and Hooman Mehran.
Disc two’s centerpiece is “The Tramp and the Dictator,” a 2001 documentary produced by Turner Classic Movies. It covers the parallels in Hitler and Chaplin’s lives — the two men were born in the same week of the same year, and they would figuratively cross each other’s paths at the height of their power. According to one of the interviewees, who went through Hitler’s files as preparation for the Nuremberg trials, Hitler ordered “The Great Dictator” for viewing one evening and placed the same request the next day. We’ll never know what he thought of it, but a member of his inner circle who also interviewed claims that the Fuhrer would have found it humorous. That seems hard to imagine, especially since the Nazis assumed Chaplin was Jewish (he wasn’t, but he didn’t deny the claim) and had nothing nice to say about him; I can’t see Hitler finding amusement in a Jewish man mocking him. Others interviewed for the documentary include Ray Bradbury, Sidney Lumey, Chaplin’s son Sydney, and screenwriter Budd Schulberg; Kenneth Branagh provides the narration.
“The Tramp and the Dictator” is complemented by two visual essays that discuss how Chaplin’s ill-fated Napoleon film led to the creation of “The Great Dictator,” which is the sole focus of the second piece. They run about 30 minutes total and find new nuggets of information to uncover. Stanley Kubrick also desired to make a Napoleon film, as the first visual essay notes; it later occurred to me that “Dr. Strangelove” can be seen as a spiritual successor to “The Great Dictator.”
Moving on, we have 16 minutes of silent color footage shot by Chaplin’s half-brother Sydney during the making of “The Great Dictator.” Some of it appears in “The Tramp and the Dictator,” but it’s nice to be able to see all of it. Sydney also directed and starred in a five-minute 1921 film called “King, Queen, Joker,” whose only known existing copy was found in 1999. It’s presented here because of the barbershop elements it shares in common with “The Great Dictator,” which is also the reason why the deleted barbershop sequence from Charlie’s 1919 film “Sunnyside” is included too.
Finally, that aforementioned booklet also features an essay by film critic Richard Brody, along with the Al Hirschfeld illustrations that were originally created for the press book and souvenir program that accompanied the release of “The Great Dictator.”