Rare is a documentary about a movie as vital and essential as its subject; Lionel Chetwynd's Darkness at High Noon: The Carl Foreman Documents, an exploration of Hollywood's shrinking beneath the shadow of the House Un-American Activities Committee, springs to mind, but it's the aberration rather than the norm. So, too, is Kevin Brownlow and Michael Kloft's mesmerizing The Tramp and the Dictator, the historians' doc about the making of Charlie Chaplin's 1940 The Great Dictator, airing this week on Turner Classic Movies after a small dash through the film-fest circuit. It's an engaging, important work that parallels the lives of two men--born in the same week, in the same month, in the same year--who would collide on screen, in a film as wondrous as it was scabrous; Adolf Hitler and Adenoid Hynkel looked and acted similarly (Hitler, it's revealed, even took acting lessons), but to different ends. One man sought to conquer the world; the other, to save it.
The Tramp and the Dictator, narrated by Kenneth Branagh and filled with interviews with historians and firsthand observers, is astonishing on several fronts, not only for its presentation of never-before-seen color footage shot on set by Chaplin's older brother Sydney but for its examination of a rather ignoble period in movie history. A year before the United States entered World War II, among filmmakers only Chaplin, who was often mistaken for Jewish by the Nazis, took note of the rise of fascism and anti-Semitism overseas; his peers preferred to ignore the horrible and the obvious, for fear of infuriating the Germans and losing substantial business at the European box office. Chaplin often said he would not have made The Great Dictatorhad he known of the depth of the Nazis' atrocities; that he did make this tragic comedy--even now its laughs stick in your throat--proved him a courageous soldier. The doc honors him well.