Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review: THE GREAT DICTATOR

Joshua Brunsting

by: Joshua Brunsting
May 25th, 2011

Sometimes, it not only takes an artist to move the medium forward, but also move an entire nation forward.

Taking on the tyrannical rule of one Adolf Hitler far before the U.S. became embroiled in World War II, Charlie Chaplin combined his political satire with his first attempt at the jumping into the world of sound motion pictures with what has become arguably his most beloved film, 1940’s THE GREAT DICTATOR. And now, thanks to The Criterion Collection, this Memorial Day Weekend will be made even more classic, as the film has finally seen a release onto Criterion DVD and Blu-ray.

The company’s second Chaplin release after their gorgeous MODERN TIMES set, THE GREAT DICTATOR is a logical move through the Chaplin filmography for the company, and one that has many fans waiting anxiously. Known as Chaplin’s truest masterpiece, DICTATOR finds the icon in dual roles. First, he takes on the character of Adenoid Hynkel, the evil dictator of Tomainia. He also stars as the ruler’s Jewish barber, a man who is mistaken for the maniacal leader. Co-starring both Jack Oakie and Chaplin’s MODERN TIMES co-star, the gamin herself Paulette Goddard, THE GREAT DICTATOR is still, to this day, a masterpiece of the medium.

What makes THE GREAT DICTATOR a classic still to this day is the film’s humor. Whether it be its no holds barred take on Fascism and totalitarian rule, or the physical humor behind watching a man gleefully bounce a balloon globe around like a child, DICTATOR is a masterpiece of comedic cinema. Balancing the satire and slapstick so perfectly, the film will have you guffawing from the first frame, right until the credits end. It is a lengthier Chaplin feature, clocking in at 125 minutes long, but ultimately, it feels about half of that thanks to just how entertaining and breakneck the film’s comedic pace is at.

Also, Chaplin does wonders with the added level of sound. He has a great sense of comedic timing, and ultimately, the scene the film may be best known for, his speech, is the classic cinema moment that it is due to Chaplin’s delivery of the lines. Goddard is equally as good here as Hannah, as is the aforementioned Oakie as the dictator of Bacteria, Benzino Napaloni. Both give wonderful supporting performances, as do other names such as Reginald Gardiner, Henry Daniell, and Maurice Moscovich.

However, it’s the film’s politics that will have many chewing on this film far after watching it. An inherently political human being, Chaplin was a known liberal, whose advocating of the U.S. to enter World War II and the overall fight against the Nazis became something he was starkly known for in that part of his career. Even prior, particularly in the overtly labor focused MODERN TIMES, Chaplin’s political thoughts were always at the forefront of his career. This is ever apparent in DICTATOR, far deeper than just on the titular, superficial level.

That said, for those looking for a splendid and absolutely uproarious comedy, look no further. There is an immense amount of depth to THE GREAT DICTATOR, but ultimately, the film is a comedy first, and one hell of a comedy to boot. Steeped in both satire and slapstick, DICTATOR is a film that will have you open mouth laughing at the goofball nature of Chaplin and his performances, but will also have you talking and thinking afterwards, as to just what the film was saying thematically.

And the Criterion release will help both of those aspects, as this is one hell of a release.

On a small level, the film has everything one could ask for. The mainstay booklet is absolutely gorgeous, featuring Al Hirschfeld’s original art, two essays, and Chaplin’s defense of the film, and the rerelease trailer is also top notch. Two barbershop scenes are featured here as well, including ones from Sydney Chaplin’s KING, QUEEN, JOKER and one from the 1919 Chaplin film, SUNNYSIDE, and even color footage shot by Sydney, Chaplin’s half-brother. However, there is much more. Two visual essays are found on the release, as is a 2001 Kevin Brownlow and Michael Kloft documentary, THE TRAMP AND THE DICTATOR, looking at the lives of both Chaplin and Hitler. Finally, a commentary featuring Dan Kamin and Hooman Mehran will have the rewatchability of the film off the scale. It’s an absolute must-listen.

The film’s transfer both audio and visually are, as usual, brilliant, showing that Criterion really seems to be giving extra love and care to their Chaplin releases. And as they should, as the two film’s they’ve decided to start off with, MODERN TIMES and THE GREAT DICTATOR, are two of Chaplin’s strongest films, if not two of the strongest comedies ever made. Simply put, if there is one DVD or Blu-ray you should buy this week, this is it.

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