Here’s a confession for you. I have never seen a Charles Chaplin movie the whole way through. I know. Shocking. I just haven’t. They weren’t on when I was young, they don’t seem to be repeated, my parents weren’t fans, so I never got to see one. I’ve seen clips, bits of movies, certain scenes that are considered classics, but nothing the whole way through.
Well, to counter that, the good people at The Criterion Collection sent me his first talkie; written, directed and produced by the man himself, this is The Great Dictator.
Coming in at just over two hours long The Great Dictator doesn’t shy-away from getting its message across. It’s a big fat satirical look at Hitler and his war and makes no bones about taking the piss out of the dictator.
Chaplin plays both the dictator, named Hynkel – Dictator of Tomania, and a Jewish barber in the ghetto. No attempts are made to cover the fact the two look alike, in fact this was arguably Chaplin’s biggest skit on Hitler, that he looked like a Jew himself.
The whole movie, whilst containing some of the Chaplin physical comedy you’ll know, is mainly a condemnation on Hitler, the Nazis, Mussolini, fascism and such evil.
What makes The Great Dictator stand-out is not just that it came from the mind of a silent movie comedian, it’s that, in his first true talkie, Chaplin delivers an impassioned speech at the end of the movie, after he’s inevitably mixed up with Hynkel, calling for all of humanity to work together, there’s enough for everyone, that we can create a world where old, young and all in between are looked after.
The Criterion Collection have given us a new, high-definition restoration with uncompressed monaural soundtrack for the main feature. It’s gorgeous to watch with all of the scratches and marks removed from the black & white movie.
In terms of extras there are a lot, perhaps my personal favourite is an on-set, full colour, production footage silent movie documenting the production of the movie. It was Chaplin’s half-brother Sydney behind the camera and it’s a fascinating insight into the world.
There’s also audio commentary for the main feature by Charlie Chaplin historians Dan Kamin and Hooman Mehran, the documentary The Tramp and the Dictator from 2001 by Kevin Brownlow and Michael Kloft, narrated by Kenneth Branagh, which parallels the lives of Chaplin and Hitler.
There’s a visual essay by Cecilia Cenciarelli about the Napoleon Bonaparte movie Chaplin apparently always wanted to make but which turned into The Great Dictator and another visual essay from Jeffrey Vance discussing the making of the movie and its influence.
There’s also a newly edited version of Chaplin’s half-brother Sydney’s movie: King, Queen, Joker from 1921, preceding The Great Dictator by some 19 years. Sydney plays two leading roles, a barber and ruler of a country which is about to be overthrown and it’s a clear influence on The Great Dictator.
Finally there’s the trailer for the movie and a further scene from a barbershop for Chaplin’s 1919 movie Sunnyside which was never used.
For fans of Chaplin and the classics, The Great Dictator from The Criterion Collection is a must have and is available on Blu-Ray from September 2022.
7th March 1941
THE QUICK SELL
Dictator Adenoid Hynkel tries to expand his empire while a poor Jewish barber tries to avoid persecution from Hynkel's regime.