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DVD Review: The Chaplin Collection: The Great Dictator, Modern Times

By Glenn Abel

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photo First of two parts on the Chaplin Collection.

Charles Chaplin had a problem with authority. Policemen, bosses, bureaucrats -- the powerful and the pompous all had it coming. The Little Tramp usually had his way with them all before the lights came up.

In 1938, with the winds of war swirling in Europe, Chaplin took on his biggest target -- the swaggering former tramp from Austria who lorded over Germany and its Nazi Party. The satire would be called "The Great Dictator."

It seemed, at the time, a fair fight. The most popular man in the world vs. Adolph Hitler, leader of a reeling nation. Just two years before, in "Modern Times," Chaplin had tackled capitalism as personified by Henry Ford, a union-busting admirer of Hitler. Chaplin's weapon of choice was comedy, and it was feared.

"A comic David had arisen to fight Goliath," film critic Stanley Kauffmann recalls thinking, joyously, at the time.

Today, Charles Chaplin the man remains as closely linked to his leftist politics as Charlie Chaplin the comedian is to his derby hat, cane and mustache.

Fittingly, Warner Home Video's highly anticipated "The Chaplin Collection" opens with the filmmaker's most political films -- "The Great Dictator" and "Modern Times" -- as well as the classic "The Gold Rush" and the melancholy "Limelight" (see editor's notes). They are the vanguard of 10 titles in the WHV series. The two-disc titles retail for $29.95; a gift set goes for $89.92.

All four films look great, hopefully erasing memories of past video butchery. The movies were digitally remastered from the Chaplin family's picture and audio elements, resulting in what could stand as definitive versions of the films.

The black-and-white contrasts are often dramatic, notably in "Modern Times." Wear seems limited to what was necessary to retain. "Dictator" has quite a few scratches but still looks great.

The elegant Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mixes aren't shy, but have an organic feel, rarely calling attention to themselves. The original mono sounds powerful and focused.

Based on the initial titles, the Chaplin series' extras tend toward the whimsical. "Modern Times," for example, includes a government educational film from 1931 hailing assembly-line labor. Then there's an auto plant promo film featuring a symphony commissioned by Henry Ford and a 1967 Cuban documentary about a village getting a first look at a movie, which just happens to be "Modern Times."

Other extras are straightforward: Three of the four DVDs have brief introductions by Chaplin biographer David Robinson, all inconveniently placed on the bonus disc. MK2TV provides half-hour "Chaplin Today" documentaries, which feature filmmakers commenting on the film at hand.

"The Great Dictator" (1940) breaks the pattern with "The Tramp and the Dictator," a fascinating hourlong docu made in 2001 for Turner Classic Movies. The men were born in the same week of the same year, the docu points out, before delving into the strange tale of Chaplin's film.

Nazi propagandists attacked Chaplin, saying he was Jewish (he wasn't, but he refused to deny the claim). Chaplin's homeland, Britain, vowed to ban the upcoming film, hoping not to anger Hitler. Chaplin was under pressure in his adopted home of the United States not to make the film, which he would have to finance himself via United Artists. Chaplin pressed ahead after a message of support came from President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself.

The film remains controversial to this day. A historian appears in the DVD docu criticizing the movie's mix of humor and real- life horror. That appears to be a minority view. "Comedy is the greatest way to attack anything like a totalitarian regime -- they can't stand it," author Ray Bradbury says.

Chaplin played two roles: the ridiculous-but-deadly dictator Adenoid Hynkel (Hitler) and a Jewish barber who was a dead-ringer for the despot. Actor Jack Oakie turns up as a buffoonish Mussolini.

Although the film was banned in many parts of Europe, it became Chaplin's biggest boxoffice success. (The tagline was "The world laughs again.") Wartime records showed that Hitler saw the film not once, but twice.

Chaplin himself had doubts about the film and almost withheld it from release when Hitler invaded France. Had he known the extent of the Nazis' evil, Chaplin said later, he never would have made "The Great Dictator."

More accessible and vastly more entertaining -- but no less topical -- was 1936's "Modern Times," arguably among the greatest films of all time. The working title was "The Masses."

Chaplin's Little Tramp makes his final feature appearance in the film, which was a silent except for sound effects and the voices of authority heard over loudspeakers and radios. (Chaplin was the last director to make silents in Hollywood. He feared becoming just another comedian once he spoke and once he had given "talkies" six months.)

Chaplin's voice is first heard in the film's famous nonsense song, sung in a nonexistent language, in which he entertains bar patrons with a ribald tale. Viewers can sing along in a karaoke bonus version.

The film is full of marvelous images: the Little Tramp stuck in the cogs of factory machinery; a herd of sheep turning into an urban crowd; Chaplin inadvertently leading strikers into a clash with police. "Modern Times" had an obvious influence on talents as diverse as Stanley Kubrick and Lucille Ball.

Both "The Great Dictator" and "Modern Times" were billed as "Produced, written and directed by Charles Chaplin with Paulette Goddard."

The actress and leading man (twice her age) married during their collaboration. "You feel that the man shooting her is in love with her," director Jean-Pierre Dardenne observes.

The original ending had Goddard's girl of the streets becoming a nun (the scene was shot but not edited, as seen in the extras). And so the world had its last look at the Little Tramp as he walked off into the distance with Goddard's character, happily ever after, perhaps.

Other extras of note on "Modern Times" include a performance of Chaplin's theme song "Smile" by Liberace, a complete version of the nonsense song, an outtake about the Little Tramp crossing an L.A. street (there are many city locations in the film) and extensive photo galleries.

"The Great Dictator" extras include extensive color footage of the production shot by Chaplin's brother and recently discovered. "Charlie the Barber" is an outtake from 1919 in which he developed the barber character. Both DVD sets include poster galleries and some terrific scenes from "The Chaplin Collection" films.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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