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ON POLITICAL SATIRE

THE HACKING of Sony because of its movie The Interview and subsequent responses bring to mind political satires of 1940, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and You Nazty Spy! by none other than The Three Stooges. Generally, the comparison between then and now is not favorable to current days.

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The Great Dictator (The Criterion Collection) 1940, written, produced and directed by its star, Charlie Chaplin. Image from IMDb http://goo.gl/7fgZKq.

Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp character, introduced in a 1914 one-reeler Kid Auto Races in Venice, had long exemplified the common man. In the 1930s, Chaplin became aware of the Jews’ plight in Europe through friends and fellow artists there. Though not Jewish, Chaplin was early in recognizing the Nazi threat.

In a sense, the Third Reich reciprocated. In a 1934 book Juden sehen Dich an (Jews are Looking at You), Nazi propagandist Johann Von Leers called Chaplin “an annoyingly fidgety Jew” and “a disgusting Jewish acrobat.”

Chaplin studied the mannerisms of Adolph Hitler in Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 propaganda film Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will). He later said he wouldn’t have treated The Great Dictator as a comedic satire had he known the full atrocities of the Nazi regime.

Briefly, The Great Dictator recounts an unnamed Jewish barber who’s a lookalike for Tomainian dictator Adenoid Hynkel, with Chaplin playing both roles. Others in the film include the barber’s friend Hannah, played by Paulette Goddard, and Benzino Napaloni, dictator of Bacteria, portrayed by Jack Oakie.

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A pair of dictators, Benzino Napaloni, left, and Adenoid Hynkel.

A series of misadventures casts the barber into the role of the dictator Hynkel (and vice versa, the dictator is thrown in jail as an undesirable). The movie ends with the barber breaking cover in his Hynkel masquerade and delivering an impassioned speech against tyranny. This speech, still moving today, can be viewed at http://goo.gl/t0IPj7.

The six-months’ production of The Great Dictator began in September 1939. To put the film in perspective, the U.S. was not without strong isolationist leanings, national hero Charles Lindbergh being a proponent. Along with its moral policing, the era’s Hays Code prohibited many types of political or satirical messages in film. In England, such was the country’s appeasement policy that there were plans to prohibit the film from being shown.

The Great Dictator was introduced in New York City in October 1940 and throughout the country in March 1941. It became a major hit. With Britain at war, the film drew 9 million people to its cinemas. Eventually, The Great Dictator became Chaplin’s highest grossing film.

At the Academy Awards for 1940 releases, The Great Dictator was nominated in five categories, Best Film, Best Actor, Best Original Screenplay (all three, Chaplin accomplishments), Best Supporting Actor (Jack Oakie’s Napaloni) and Best Original Score (Meredith Willson, of later Music Man fame, who said Chaplin deserved much of the credit for The Great Dictator music).

The film took no Oscars, as 1940 was a vintage year for Academy Award nominees. Best Film went to Rebecca; among other contenders were Grapes of Wrath and The Philadelphia Story. James Stewart in the latter movie beat Henry Fonda, Raymond Massey, Laurence Olivier and Chaplin for Best Actor.

The Original Score category was especially rich, with 16 nominated scores composed by the likes of Victor Young, Franz Waxman, Max Steiner, Miklós Rózsa, Erich Korngold and Aaron Copland. Disney’s Pinocchio (remembered for When You Wish Upon a Star) took the Oscar.

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Charlie Chaplin as the barber in The Great Dictator. The shop sign reads “Used Clothes” in Esperanto.

Shop signs in Esperanto were among The Great Dictator digs against Hitler, who had condemned this language as a Jewish plot to destroy German culture. (Esperanto had been constructed in 1887 by L. L. Zamenhof, a Polish Jew. See http://wp.me/p2ETap-2Is for more on this.)

The film was Chaplin’s first talkie; this, despite the introduction of sound with The Jazz Singer 13 years before. Indeed, Chaplin had been considered something of a Luddite for holding out so long.

An earlier parody of Hitler appeared on American movie screens nine months before the October 1940 release of The Great Dictator. The Three Stooges’ 44th short subject was titled You Nazty Spy! And it was every bit as scathing a Third Reich sendup as Chaplin’s full-length feature.

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You Nazty Spy 1940, starring Moe Howard, Larry Fine and Curly Howard, The Three Stooges. Image from http://goo.gl/N8zij0.

Three dolts (guess who) are conned into running the country of Moronika. Moe Howard gets the Moe Hailstone/Adolf Hitler role. His brother Curly is Field Marshall Gallstone, aka Hermann Göring, and Larry Fine is Minister of Propaganda Pebble, aka Joseph Goebbels.

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For a sense of the madness, see http://goo.gl/3Eo1hP.

Larry injured his leg shortly before the filming. Ironically, this enhanced his portrayal of Goebbels who limped with a club foot.

The two-reeler is filled with Nazi satire, including Moronika for Morons as the Stooges’ rendering of Deutschland den Deutschen (Germany for Germans). In one of Moe’s Hitleresque rants, he says “in pupik gehabt haben,” Yiddish for the off-color “I’ve had it in the bellybutton.”

Nyuk nyuk nyuk! Take that, you oppressive regimes! ds

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