“Any resemblance between Hynkel the dictator and the Jewish barber is purely coincidental.”
But of course it was. The resemblance between Charlie Chaplin and Adolf Hitler had not gone unnoticed by one another and by the public at large, just as the former was well aware of the latter’s policies as he rose to power in 1930s Europe. The Great Dictator would come out in 1940, the first full-blown talkie from the biggest star of the dead-and-gone silent era, and it came complete with a message that Chaplin couldn’t have sent more loudly or clearly.
Chaplin plays the dual roles of a hapless, nameless barber and Adenoid Hynkel, a fascist dictator who rose to power while the barber was recovering from his traumatic experiences in the Great War. The tramp-like figure contends with persecution alongside his neighbors in the Jewish ghetto, while the “Phooey” (rather than “Führer”) is advised by the likes of Garbitsch and Herring (a.k.a. Goebbels and Göring) to pursue his plans for total domination by first annexing a neighboring nation.
Our star-writer-director-producer hadn’t forsaken his performance priorities for the sake of then-topical finger-wagging, mind you. As demonstrated by artillery-related slapstick, rooftop peril, and shaving shenanigans, the barber and the dictator are maybe only equals as fools. One wants the world, the other wants the girl (Paulette Goddard of Modern Times); when one bumbles, it’s good-natured goofiness, and when the other bumbles, it’s often a justified folly.
Whereas 1933’s Duck Soup was a farce well-aimed at any and all wars, The Great Dictator is a more critical damnation of wartime atrocities, and by the time the evident prince-and-pauper scenario plays out, Chaplin as the barber (or maybe just himself) unleashes a speech that is still stirring to this day, an earnest, climactic counterpoint to the Phooey’s earlier, angrier, funnier gibberish. As a satire of political arrogance coupled with a showcase of affable ignorance, this is as fine a display as Chaplin’s multi-hyphenate capabilities as any, but it’s his final plea to the audiences of both then and now that truly makes this Dictator great.
The restoration of this 61-year-old film is, frankly, sublime -- hardly a speck in sight -- and the audio track proves every bit as crisp throughout. In addition, Criterion’s supplemental features are remarkably thorough: an exhaustive feature-length commentary by historians Dan Kamin and Hooman Mehran; a fascinating hour-long documentary, The Tramp and the Dictator, transplanted from the film’s original DVD release; a 20-minute featurette about the genesis of Chaplin’s first talkie by historian Jeffrey Vance; another 20-minute featurette concerning Chaplin’s unmade film about Napoleon by historian Cecilia Cenciarelli; five minutes of scenes salvaged from the now-lost King, Queen, Joker, directed by star Sydney Chaplin (Charlie’s half-brother) and a clear predecessor to The Great Dictator’s dual-role gambit; nearly a half-hour of full-color (!) behind-the-scenes footage filmed on set by Sydney; a deleted scene from Chaplin’s 1919 film Sunnyside, showcasing additional barbershop antics; and the original theatrical trailer.
And that’s not all! The requisite booklet includes an essay from critic Michael Wood, a defense of the film penned by Chaplin himself for the New York Times, and an excerpt of an essay by critic Jean Narboni all about the end speech, with reproductions of handsome Al Hirschfield illustrations accompanying each piece.