Blu-ray
Highly Recommended
4 stars
Amazon
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Overall Grade
4 stars

(click linked text below to jump to related section of the review)

The Movie Itself
4.5 Stars
HD Video Quality
4.5 Stars
HD Audio Quality
4 Stars
Supplements
3.5 Stars
High-Def Extras
0 Stars
Bottom Line
Highly Recommended

The Great Dictator

Street Date:
May 24th, 2011
Reviewed by:
Nate Boss
Review Date: 1
May 23rd, 2011
Movie Release Year:
1940
Studio:
Criterion
Length:
124 Minutes
MPAA Rating:
Unrated
Release Country
United States

The Movie Itself: Our Reviewer's Take

I hate to Godwin my own review for Charlie Chaplin's 'The Great Dictator' in the first sentence, but do you know who else had a block mustache?

The history of 'The Great Dictator' may be as entertaining and complex as any film's can be, though it isn't production snags or script rewrites that are the amusing aspect of the story. Rather, the coincidences and parallels between Chaplin and Adolph Hitler are some of the most bizarre bits of trivia out there. Written and filmed before the real atrocities of World War II were brought to light, Chaplin's take on the dictator in his very first talky is memorable for all the right reasons, with a silent star taking aim at a man whose orations brought him great power. In a time before comedy about the most infamous leader in world history was taboo or in poor taste, the world's most famous man entered the political fray with his opinions on the value of life, freedom, and liberty, at the risk of alienating his already waning fan base. War was breaking out all around the world, bit by bit, and one man wanted to mock the man partially responsible.

There is no complexity in the plot to 'The Great Dictator,' as Chaplin weaves an all too familiar tale with his take on the Chancellor, playing two polar opposite roles. In one hand, Chaplin was a Tramp-ish fellow, a man of few words, a bumbling barber in the Jewish ghettos of Germany, a former soldier whose medical care and experiences leave him a stranger in the new political climate. On the other hand, Chaplin is the Phooey of Tomania, Adenoid Hynkel, the man who stands behind the double cross proudly inked or stitched into everything in sight, a man whose lust for power and global domination plays second to no other thoughts or desires. As the unnamed barber character struggles with his friends, constantly being oppressed and attacked by stormtroopers, his perfect duplicate is furthering the propaganda against the Jews and plotting whom to invade next, alongside his trusty aids Herring and Garbitsch (Billy Gilbert and Henry Daniell, respectively, playing two very familiar faces to war followers), while awaiting the arrival of the Dictator of Bacteria, Napaloni (Jack Oakie, clearly playing the part of Mussolini with a hint of Napoleon, hence the wordplay).

From the opening scenes of 'The Great Dictator' to its close, greatness can be found around every corner. The late-World War I opening, featuring the greatest cannon in the world, Big Bertha, as well as some flight gags that are beyond stupendous, may very well be the most slapstick-y the film gets, but with the arrival of the late '30's, the tone changes dramatically. Instead of slapstick, irony and sight gags take the lead, with Chaplin doing the best German gibberish in history as he mocks Hitler's infamously powerful speeches to great applause. The barber story maintains the status quo of classic Chaplin gags and familiarities with new twists, though, to keep an odd two flavored sense of humor that keeps viewers guessing as to what's coming next, rather than setting up gag after gag after gag. The fantastic use of long cuts remains, with numerous scenes feeling borderline Rube Goldberg-ian in their intricacy and precision, including a stunning barbering sequence, where Chaplin synchs himself and his movements poetically to Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 5, in one of the signature scenes of the film, a gag that modern actors seem incapable of performing in such lengthy precision.

'The Great Dictator' is a comedy, yes, but it's also one of the best films at portraying the Jewish plight of the era, with fully realized, human characters and families banding together for more reason than their religion, leaving a number of powerful sequences, both of rebellion, the testament of the human spirit, and of loss and suffering. Sure, one can readily call the "coin in the pudding" scene the stick in the cogs of my statement, but even it shows men unwilling to give up and die, even if it means deceit (with great comedic result). With a man like Hynkel in charge, with his unending swarm of soldiers to do his bidding, it's hard to not feel for the conditions portrayed here, sequences that ended up being about as truthful as any other in the film, intentional or not, which sadly only skimmed the surface of the depths of the atrocities being committed in reality, acts that would have seen Chaplin not make the film had he been aware of them.

Seventy plus years after its release, 'The Great Dictator' remains powerful, incredibly acted, and, quite frankly, hilarious, for all the right reasons. There are no low blows, but rather attempts to remove the legs of a man whose power was grandiose and unchecked. The film almost seems like Chaplin's attempt to remind the world that he is nothing like the man whose appearance and rise to fame mirrored his own. One of the greats of cinema, the first time a voice was associated to the familiar character Chaplin embodied, this film is as relevant today as it was in 1940, even if the settings have changed, and damn if Chaplin isn't going to sit us all down by the end and remind us of it. Yes, the film has tone issues, and may run a bit too long for its own good, occasionally dragging along unnecessary sequences both good and bad, but it's still a true pleasure to behold.

The Video: Sizing Up the Picture

Criterion works wonders with 'The Great Dictator,' bringing the 71 year old film to new life with their extensive restoration, resulting in a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode in the natural 1.33:1 frame.

The picture is remarkably clean, with debris minimized so dramatically, yet naturally, that the film retains the appearance of age, without looking horribly overridden by wear. The few vertical lines remaining in the picture are faint, hardly noticeable, while dirt speckles and scratches politely blend in with the backgrounds, when they weren't removed entirely. The amount of detail on display is fantastic and doesn't, for the most part, waver, with only a few random soft, blurry shots mixed in the two plus hour runtime. Aliasing never presents an issue, not even in the varying pans in the globe sequence, though there are two sequences in the film where a sudden burst of obviously cleaned up debris will splatter the film and look somewhat odd for a quick, couple second duration. Artifacting and banding never show their ugly faces, and DNR use, one of the many tools Criterion employs in these cleanup jobs, doesn't ever get distracting or obvious.

A fantastic job was done on this release by Criterion in making this the best the film will have looked in, no doubt, 70 years. Chaplin fans, leap on this as soon as you can.

The Audio: Rating the Sound

The audio on 'The Great Dictator' is no slouch, either, with a Linear PCM 1.0 track providing the sole audio option for the film.

For a film this old, you'd expect some type of whir, hum, rattle, hiss, snap, pop, crackle, groan, or any other sign of age, but there is not a single bit of that to be found here, which is spectacular. Explosions don't have a ton of power, but they are significantly stronger than I expected them to be, while dialogue is fantastically clear and crisp, sharp as a tack. The string accompaniment for the Barber character was amazingly clear in its whimsical melody, though range was somewhat restrained.

I caught a couple lines that sounded digital, just awkward, that could have been better, but my experience with this track was definitely a positive one.

The Supplements: Digging Into the Good Stuff

  • Audio Commentary - With Dan Kamin and Hooman Mehran. There are great tracks starring historians, editors, or writers on a subject. This isn't one of them. The two participants are fairly dry and mundane, explaining shots, motions, and words, harping on about uninteresting topics, over-analyzing the topic and throwing around words to attempt to sound smart. I'm sorry, this one really wore on my nerves, and that isn't to say it will do the same to you. Just don't expect something Bey Logan-esque.
  • The Tramp and the Dictator (HD upconvert, 55 min) - A 2001 documentary from Kevin Brownlow and Michael Kloft, narrated by Kenneth Branagh. This feature compares Chaplin and Hitler's similarities, and leaps back and forth to their rises to fame and power, respectively. 'The Tramp and the Dictator' is an absolute must watch feature if you're a fan of WWII or Chaplin, and especially if both. I honestly can see myself rewatching this documentary with every viewing of 'The Great Dictator,' as it paints the time of the film, and the history that lead to it, in such amazing detail that it's an absolutely essential complimentary piece.
  • Chaplin's Napoleon (HD, 19 min) - Stanley Kubrick wasn't the only master filmmaker who wanted to create a film about Napoleon, but never could. Various notes, articles, and anecdotes concerning the lengthy obsession of Chaplin with creating a Napoleon film are laid out, creating a fantastic "what if?" feature.
  • The Clown Turns Prophet (HD, 21 min) - This post-facto documentary covers the origins of the film, the similarities between comic and dictator, and his histories with large crowds, which helped him play the part of a faux-Hitler. We also see comparisons between Chaplin's past films that had premises or imagery reutilized in 'The Great Dictator,' and the various references throughout the film. It's a great extra, though the narration can be annoying at times.
  • Sydney Chaplin's Footage (HD upconvert, 27 min) - The entirety of the footage shot by Sydney Chaplin behind the scenes of 'The Great Dictator,' in full color with no audio. If you get tired of any sequence of footage, there are chapter breaks, so you can move along to another area of behind the scenes footage. You can see different improvisations of sequences here, which can be quite interesting for hardcore fans!
  • King, Queen, Joker (HD upconvert, 5 min) - Deemed an inspiration for 'The Great Dictator' by the introductory text, this is a segment of a 1921 Paramount Pictures film directed by and starring Chaplin's half-brother Sydney. There's also a quick feature in this tab called Two Shaves (HD upconvert, 2 min), that compares and intercuts the barber scenes in 'King, Queen, Joker' to 'The Great Dictator.'
  • Charlie the Barber (HD upconvert, 8 min) - A deleted segment from the film 'Sunnyside.' There is no musical accompaniment, but this is still a very funny sequence, that is made all that much funnier with the lack of music, testing the limits of how long a single joke can be prolonged with success. It even can get you to squirm as if there were a 'Sweeney Todd' sequence about to happen at one point.
  • Trailer (HD, 2 min) - The trailer for the film, in HD.

HD Bonus Content: Any Exclusive Goodies in There?

The lone exclusive on this release is the Timeline feature.

Final Thoughts

'The Great Dictator' is great. Few words sum it up with so few letters. Charlie Chaplin, legend of cinema that he is, puts on quite a show in his first talking role (or two), playing opposite leads in a story that openly mocks the European political climate of the era, yet doesn't feel trapped or aged in doing so. One of the greatest works from one of the world's greatest actor/directors of all time. Criterion has made the Blu-ray debut of the film a great success, with smashing audio and video, and a wealth of extras that are actually quite good and entertaining. I can't recommend this release enough!

Technical Specs

  • Blu-ray
  • BD50 disc
  • Region A

Video Resolution/Codec

  • 1080p/AVC MPEG-4

Aspect Ratio(s)

  • 1.33:1

Audio Formats

  • English PCM mono

Subtitles/Captions

  • None

Supplements

  • New audio commentary by Charlie Chaplin historians Dan Kamin and Hooman Mehran
  • The Tramp and the Dictator (2001), a documentary narrated by filmmaker Kenneth Branagh and featuring interviews with author Ray Bradbury, director Sidney Lumet, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., screenwriter Budd Schulberg, and a host of others
  • Two new visual essays, by Chaplin archivist Cecilia Cenciarelli and Chaplin biographer Jeffrey Vance
  • On-set, color production footage shot by Chaplin’s half-brother, Sydney
  • Deleted scene from Chaplin’s 1919 film Sunnyside
  • Theatrical trailer
  • PLUS: A booklet featuring an essay by film critic Michael Wood and a 1940 article by Chaplin on the film

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