Monday, December 2, 2013

The Great Dictator (The Criterion Collection) (1940)

The Great DictatorWithout a doubt, Charlie Chaplin is the reigning king of silent comedy. His impeccibly limber gesturing, sense of timing and evocative facial features have made him a landmark artist, a masterful film maker and one of the greatest talents to ever grace the silver screen. What more can be said; does it get any better than the little tramp?!? And now, Warner Home Video proves that it does, indeed get better; a lot, lot better. Having had to contend with poorly transferred, badly worn VHS and primative bootlegged DVD copies for years, the home video audience at last gets to witness Charlie in his best video incarnation ever! This box set features four classics from the Chaplin legacy; Modern Times, The Gold Rush, The Great Dictator and Limelight. In each case, Chaplin illustrates the art of making movies as no one before or since. Great fun!

THE TRANSFER: No expense has been spared in making each film sparkle as never before. The gray scale is incredibly rich and beautifully balanced. Blacks are deep. Contrast levels show off Charlie's make up. Fine detail is gloriously realized. Minor edge enhancement and some pixelization do occur but nothing to distract or even hint that anything but absolute care has been taken to make these films look as good as they possibly can. Almost all age related artifacts are gone. Truly, I can't say enough to recommend these transfers. The audio is mono and nicely balanced.

EXTRAS: Each disc comes with a brief featurette on Chaplin's legacy and some interesting supplimental extras including outtakes in some cases and interviews in others.

BOTTOM LINE: No more to be said: don't walk RUN to your nearest video retailer and make the Chaplin Collection a part of your home video library!

Say what you like about this film: it's too preachy, it's not focused, it's this, it's that, say whatever you like.

The facts, however, say it all.

This film was made at a time when most of America was anti-semitic, when no one wanted to think of getting involved with Europe's affairs, and when Chaplin's own art of pantomime had been lost in the onslaught of 'talkies'.

And for Chaplin to choose *this* premise for his farewell to the little Tramp-turning his Tramp into a Jew and turning himself into Adolf Hitler-well, it's nothing short of daring.

For those that prefer Charlie as just the funny little fellow, and not his serious side, there's enough slapstick in this film to satisfy even them: the comedic highs are the moments when no words are needed-the misplaced grenade, the dance with the globe, or the shaving scene to Brahm's Hungarian Dance. But the film IS at its best when Chaplin's Adenoid Hynkel is shown as a stark raving madman, and he with Jack Oakie's 'Napaloni' expose the true ridiculousness and lunacy of it all.

Cynics have been known to call this film 'preachy', but as far as I'm concerned, it was awful gutsy of Chaplin to speak out on the issue-and not just speak out, but to point a finger right in the face of Fascism and to charge it as a 'blunder' of humanity. For him to be *successful* in making us laugh on a subject that, in its essence, is not funny in the least really is a testimony to his abilities as an actor.

His other films may be better than this one, and it's not my personal favorite of his work, BUT: **this** is the film that made Charlie a hero in my eyes. And that sort of passion for speaking out in what you believe deserves Five stars anyday!

Buy The Great Dictator (The Criterion Collection) (1940) Now

One of the greatest satires ever filmed and Chaplin's most fully realized comedy. A beautiful blend of the usual Chaplin slapstick and pathos along with a very effective social and political commentary. Charlie is Adenoid Hynckle, dictator of an only slightly fictional country of Tomania. He also plays a Jewish ghetto barber. Both are played with such impeccable accuracy that to distinguish between them is extremely easy.Names are changed but this film is still the most effective film of Nazi Germany and Hitler's thankfully aborted attempt to take over the world. Chaplin's script never gets too preachy at least without an equal dose of satire. His approach is to make people laugh while teaching them at the same time. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his final monologue. After a predictable mistaken identity episode, Chaplin as the unnamed Jewish barber speaks of the horrors of Nazism. This climazes what may be the greatest performance in the history of comedy films. The greatest because it does more than simply make us laugh-it makes us think. The film earned Chaplin well deserved Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Screenplay and Actor. This is a film you must see.

Read Best Reviews of The Great Dictator (The Criterion Collection) (1940) Here

My grandfather, as big a Chaplin fan as they came, never got over the narrated version of The Gold Rush. It wasn't the narration that bothered him as much as the way that "they had to change the ending." A romantic at heart, he missed the original's softer closing. Every time the film aired on television or was re-released at the theater, he looked for the silent version with the original ending. He never found it. The re-release seemed to be a constant thorn in his side. Sort of like the 1940's version of Greedo shooting first. I hope my grandpa is looking down from above, because the original version of the film is included in this standout DVD collection. If you liked Charlie's light-hearted narration, that version's here too (I think both versions are great). And so are four beautifully restored Charlie Chaplin films. The hilarious Modern Times. The controversial The Great Dictator (Chaplin's first "talkie"). The oftentimes overlooked -and underrated -Limelight. And quite possibly the most well-liked film of Chaplin's career, The Gold Rush. There aren't as many outtakes as a Chaplin fan would want, but that's because most were lost or destroyed. The outtakes that are included are as fun as the "little fellow" himself. I'm guessing the films look nearly as good as they did when they were first projected onto the gigantic movie house screens of the 1920s, 30s and 40s. This collection takes you back to the early days of film and reminds you that when most were taking baby steps, Mr. Chaplin was moving cinematic storytelling ahead by leaps and bounds. My grandfather would be proud.

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When Chaplin began planning his next film in 1937, criticizing the rise of fascism in Europe and condemning the treatment of the Jewish people under Adolf Hitler were controversial ideas, although they would become more accepted by the time of the film's eventual release in 1940. Chaplin stated in later years that he would not -could not -have joked about conditions in Germany had he known the full extent of the Holocaust. But this was an important film to be made. When the world was hemming and hawing over what to do about this great evil, Chaplin didn't back down. Maybe not all of the comedy is as successful as it could have been, but the movie's heart is definitely in the right place.

The film is divided roughly in half, with Chaplin playing the starring role in each segment (I've never understood the opening disclaimer stating that the resemblance of the dictator and the Jewish barber is entirely coincidental; the final portion of the film depends precisely on their similarity). The first role is the most obvious, given Chaplin's familiar mustache and general appearance. He plays Adenoid Hynkel, a very thinly veiled impersonation of Adolf Hitler. Chaplin's motivation appears to make Hitler look like a goofball -the target of ridicule. He falls down stairs, he flies into a rage when his office supplies don't function correctly, and he plays a childish game of one-upmanship with his "brother dictator", Benzino Napaloni of Bacteria. In one of the film's most memorable sequences, he performs a dance with a globe of the Earth, happily gazing at all which he hopes to conquer. It's a bizarrely wonderful moment -funny, frightening and beautifully directed. And it surely can't be by chance that in the first shot of the globe itself, the Western Hemisphere -the United States of America -is what is pointed at the camera.

The other part of the film is ultimately the most moving, especially from a modern day perspective. Chaplin's tramp had always been the everyman -the little guy up against the world. Surely there had not been a more beloved character in the history of film than the diminutive beggar with his ill-fitting costume. Gaining sympathy for his cause is simplicity itself; take this adored tramp who has entertained millions and turn him into a Jewish barber living in central Europe. Seeing this wonderful and charming character thrown into the horrors of a ghetto in Germany during WWII is shocking. It's almost inconceivable to imagine the fictional tramp existing in the same world as the horrors of Nazi Germany. In earlier films, we never really feared for the tramp's safety; we always knew he'd figure some way out of trouble. But here, he's powerless. He must run away. He can't simply kick the policeman in the butt and scamper to victory. It's a subtle but important difference from his other films. His adversaries until now had been easily defeated heavies. But now he's up against something horrible and real. He's dragged across a street, beaten and almost hanged by stormtroopers. The word "Jew" is painted on the front of his shop. His home is burnt to the ground. He retains his humor, his hope and his will to fight, but he needs the world's help -which is one of the movie's messages.

Chaplin's final speech, where he breaks character and vehemently decries fascism, hate and bigotry, has been called overwrought and schmaltzy. I disagree. I get goose bumps every time I hear it. As one of the interviewees on the DVD documentary states, "He said what had to be said." It's fascinating from a historical point of view. There are plenty of propaganda films from WWII (which is what this basically is when you boil down to it), but how many of them appeal to basic human decency instead of blunt patriotism?

One of the DVD extras is a documentary, THE TRAMP AND THE DICTATOR, produced by Turner Classic Movies. This is actually really good. Showing footage from the movie next to newsreels of Hitler just goes to demonstrate how spot-on Chaplin's impersonation was. Fascinating is the inclusion of excerpts from one of the worst Nazi propaganda films ("The Eternal Jew" -a hateful piece of appalling racism) which features Chaplin's 1931 visit to Berlin and denouncing him in a series of racial epitaphs. The discussion as to the appropriateness of laughing about something evil as Hitler is touched on and the topic is worthy of debate.

Also included is some recently discovered color footage shot on the set of the film by Charlie's brother, Sydney. It's also included in its entirety as an extra, but it works better when excerpts are seen in the documentary. The footage by itself is relatively boring for most of the time; the documentary uses the most interesting material. On the other hand, I was amused by Sydney Chaplin's focusing in on seemingly every woman present during the filming of the ballroom dance scene.

The movie does have its weak points. The WWI portions are more silly than genuinely funny (though I've mellowed to the upside-down airplane gag the more times I've seen it). And although Jack Oakie's performance as a Mussolini-clone was inspired, one feels that the movie is biting off more than it can chew by including both dictators. As a result, some portions dealing with their relationship drags. So too does the whole Commander Schultz subplot. Additionally, a lot of the humor seems somewhat stuck between being silent and being talkie. But for all of the flaws, this is still an excellent movie that I appreciate it a little more on each viewing. Perhaps not the best Chaplin film, but it definitely has something to say.

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