It's time for our home video feature: critic Bob Mondello's movie tips for folks who prefer to skip the multiplex by popping in a disc and popping their own popcorn. This week, Charlie Chaplin's 1940 classic, The Great Dictator, gets Bob's salute.
Chaplin had gotten there first with that toothbrush moustache, so how could he not make use of it?
In The Great Dictator, the Little Tramp turned der Fuhrer Adolf Hitler into The Phooey Adenoid Hynkel, dictator of Tomania (he spoke in German-sounding gibberish sprinkled with food references) mixing pure silliness with more serious slapstick involving stormtroopers and even a concentration camp sequence. Chaplin also played a Jewish barber who gets mistaken for the Phooey.
It would be hard to overstate the audacity it took to release the film in 1940 — the world's most beloved entertainer mocking the world's most hated tyrant. Even Chaplin wondered if it would work. But The Great Dictator was an enormous hit, cheered by President Roosevelt, opening in London as German bombs rained down at the height of the Blitz, and banned outright in occupied countries.
That meant most of Europe didn't see the classic ballet Chaplin designed around a prop in Hynkel's office — a dance for deranged dictator and his beachball-like world globe. It would be Chaplin's last great moment of pantomimed silent-film-style comedy.
Criterion has lavished its usual care on restoration, eliminating scratches and leaving pristine blacks and whites. There's a pretty splendid documentary narrated by Kenneth Branagh that points up links between the comedian and the dictator – born less than a week apart, raised in poverty, leaving their native countries to conquer the world – and also color home movies revealing how ridiculous Hynkel's storm-troopers looked on the set, their uniforms sporting bright red pants.
An accompanying booklet reprints a letter Chaplin wrote to the New York Times the week of the film's release, defending its controversial final speech, as well as essays that get at why that speech so startled audiences in 1940. Chaplin, the great silent star, finally speaking — and really speaking, not as great dictator, or even as humble barber, but as himself — to plead for sanity in a world where laughter seemed, and was fast becoming, impossible.