Good heavens — no! I don’t mean great comedies MADE by the Nazi film studios! I apologize if I gave you that impression, although if it got you here then it was a good headline. No, no, I mean, great comedies at the EXPENSE of the Nazis, of course. There’s enough of such movies to make a mini sub-genre. And you know what? Now is the ideal time to revive it. A substantial portion of the American populace think it’s okay to warm up to Fascism; an even bigger slice think it’s fine to be soft on it, or pretend they don’t see it. But Fascism, like dog shit, is pretty unmistakable. It looks and smells odious. Animals, in their innocence, roll around in it. The rest of humanity, inasmuch as they represent humanity, have a zero tolerance policy towards it. You’re supposed to say, “Jesus! Dog shit!” Then you put a clothes pin on your nose, don some gloves, scoop the plop into a bag, and remove it from your midst. It’s the only rational course to take when confronted with unrepentant, unchanging racists, bigots, and authoritarians in a country that’s supposed to be free. You do not “live with” dog poop, even in a society of maximum tolerance. “What’s that next to the coffee table?” “Oh, that’s just some of the dog’s poop. What are you gonna do, right?” And if it’s outside your power to move the thing? Well, if you can’t scoop the abomination up, you can try to shrink it where it sits until it doesn’t matter any more. You can belittle Fascists, make them feel and appear insignificant, expose them as weak and foolish clowns. Some of our greatest comedians have chosen to make that statement at various times. If you ask me, we can use more than a few new anti-Nazi comedies at this very moment. But until new ones are forthcoming, these are these evergreen classics to enrich us:
The Great Dictator (1940)
The claim that “the Three Stooges did it first” is not completely true — Charlie Chaplin had actually begun pre-production on his satirical masterwork in 1937, three years before the short You Nazty Spy was even a gleam in Jules White’s eye, even if the latter film did beat The Great Dictator into theatres by three months. Chaplin’s comedy was not only devastating and surprisingly accessible but brave. Among Hollywood professionals only he was both rich enough and popular enough to take such a risk at the time. And the mustache made it virtually obligatory. My full essay on The Great Dictator is here.
You Nazty Spy (1940) and I’ll Never Heil Again (1940)
Like we say, the Three Stooges beat Chaplin into cinemas with their Nazi satire, no doubt emboldened to take the risk by Chaplin. Jews themselves, they were no doubt second to none in their personal outrage at what was happening in Europe. But, speaking of Nazty Spies…the techniques in You Nazty Spy (1940) and its sequel I’ll Never Heil Again (1940) are so similar to what Chaplin was doing in The Great Dictator, I find it hard to believe the Stooges didn’t somehow get wind of what he had planned. Things like the burlesques on proper names, and the use of a globe as a football (where Chaplin had used a globe as a dancing partner) seem awfully similar. Moe is the natural Hitler figure, Curly a curiously apt Goering, and as for Larry, they sort of shoehorn into a Goebbels/Ribbentrop hybrid. After these two comedies, the Stooges continued to make Nazis their villains, frequently having Nazi spies and saboteurs be the bad guys in their films through the end of the war. (Many others used that as a plot device as well: the East Side Kids/ Bowery Boys, Abbott and Costello, Bob Hope. If we jump down the “Nazi Spy comedy” rabbit hole, we’ll never get out. This post is more about comedians ridiculing actual Nazis in uniform).
To Be or Not to Be (1942)
This movie was a lot of firsts for me — my first Lubitsch film, my first Jack Benny film, probably my first Carole Lombard film. While today it’s probably Lubitsch’s best known comedy, and in some ways might seem uncharacteristic (it’s so specifically political), there are also ways in which it is right in line with his usual concerns: it’s set in Europe; and it’s about squabbling and adultery on the part of a married couple. I’m not the hugest Lubitsch fan, but this is probably my favorite of his films on account of the farcical perfection of it, and the fact that there is the political anchor to it. Benny and Lombard play a vain, sophisticated husband-and-wife acting team at a Warsaw theatre, just as the Nazis are occupying Poland. They use their acting skills (and their whole like-minded troupe) to deceive the Nazis and foil their plans. There is a poignancy in the film’s quotation of Shylock’s “Hath Not a Jew” speech, but also in the Hamlet quote used as the film’s title. Poland has just ceased to “Be”. Many of the film’s characters have their backs to the wall — they have no choice but to be brave and take risks. What have they got to lose?
The Devil with Hitler (1942) and That Nazty Nuisance (1943)
After he stopped making comedy shorts, Hal Roach attempted to fill a market niche by making what he called “streamliners”, films that were about an hour long or slightly shorter. They seemed to have fallen through the cracks, I can’t think of a single one that’s a well known classic. Here, he seems to have followed Columbia’s lead by making these comedies with Bobby Watson as Hitler and Joe Devlin as Mussolini. Johnny Arthur plays a stereotyped Japanese leader named Suki Yaki in the second film. The first films features Alan Mowbray as the devil. Former silent comedy star Glenn Tryon co-produced both films, and directed the latter one.
Der Fuhrers Face (1943)
This Donald Duck Short won the Oscar for Best Animated Short that year. There were many shorts featuring the Disney characters volunteering to serve, fighting in the war, and helping with home defense. This one went for the propagandistic jugular, and helped popularize the eponymous song, to boot.
A Night in Casablanca (1946)
After the conclusion of WWII there was a grace period of about a year when Nazi spies were still permissible fodder for Hollywood films. Thus we have Orson Welles’ The Stranger, Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious and the Marx Brothers’ A Night in Casablanca all released in 1946. This is the only exception we make to the “No Nazi Spy Comedies” rule. The photo above seems to have been a publicity still — no uniformed Nazis appear in the movie. For my full post on A Night in Casablanca, go here.
There followed a period of about 20 years when you don’t see Nazis in comedy, for two conflicting reasons, I think. On the one hand, for a while (the 1950s anyway) World War II was passe in movies. On the other hand, in the wake of the Nuremberg trials and all the revelations about the Holocaust, ironically, it was also “too soon” to joke about Nazis. The full extent of their evil was so great. Perhaps, many people thought, it would never be possible to laugh at them ever again. But that would be to underestimate the power of bad taste.
Context helps us understand the mind-bogglingly weird phenomenon of Hogan’s Heroes, the sixties’ sit-com set in a Nazi Germany POW camp. One, I think, is the success of the films Stalag 17 (1953) and The Great Escape (1963), which, mashed-together, add up to something like Hogan’s Heroes. The latter, released only two years before, put an almost cheerful, positive spin on the ordeal of Allied POWs in a German camp. The added twist on the show is that Colonel Hogan (Bob Crane) and his men are secretly spies who pretty much escape in and out of the camp at will to collect information and relay it back to their superiors via a secret radio. The fact that many of the cast members were Jewish Holocaust survivors (I’ve blogged about one, Robert Clary) was a kind of insurance against charges of callousness. And in the long run, maybe Hogan’s Heroes was almost cathartic, laughing at silly, ineffectual Nazis every week. The show remained on the air for six years — an extremely long time for a television sit com.
La Grand Vadrouille (Don’t Look Now…We’re Being Shot At) (1966)
For 40 years this unpretentious, enjoyable comedy was the most successful movie in France in terms of box office. And it’s a great movie; I just watched it for the first time this morning. How odd that Americans have never heard of it. It’s extremely popular throughout the world, regarded as a kind of classic. In fact, it’s so well made that I watched this French film on Youtube without English dubbing or subtitles and was able to follow it perfectly. Its simple plot: RAF pilot Terry-Thomas and his crew are forced to bail over occupied Paris. Some locals (played by French stars Bouvril and Louis de Funes, and others) help them to evade the occupying Nazis through a string of subterfuges, involving lots of farce and slapstick. Again, the Nazis are presented as straw men, easy to fool, easy to bonk on the head, easy to hide from. If only ’twere ever thus!
The Producers (1967)
Dick Shawn’s Hippie Hitler, Kenneth Mars’ stormtrooper playwright, and songs like “Springtime for Hitler” are only some of the delightful outrages in Mel Brooks pathbreaking satire. And it wasn’t even the first time he went there (think of “Siegfried” in Get Smart, which Brooks had co-created with Buck Henry).
Which Way to the Front? (1969)
For better or worse, the years 1969-1972 were Jerry Lewis’s Nazi period, encompassing not only this comedy but his later notorious drama, the unreleased The Day the Clown Cried (1972). Until we see the latter we won’t know which is the worse film, although I think of Which Way to the Front? as being among this comedy auteur’s worst. Based on a story by the one and only Dick Miller, it concerns a 4F millionaire who decides he’ll fight the war anyway with his own private army of misfits (which also seems a twist on The Dirty Dozen, which was released at around the same time.) Lewis’s character masquerades as a Nazi general and makes it all the way to Hitler, who, for some reason, has a Beatles haircut. In fact every dude in the movie has hair that’s way too long, they wear the wrong clothes, and the interior sets are all decorated wrong. The only thing Lewis seems to have gotten right or cared about was the actual Nazi uniforms. It is a deeply weird and grating movie. Oh, and don’t worry — he doesn’t miss the opportunity to do his offensive “Japanese” routine.
Soft Beds, Hard Battles aka Undercovers Hero (1974)
This is too interesting a movie to be as obscure as it is. Perhaps it is the fact that the film has no less than TWO terrible titles. And the movie….needs work. I’m sure a lot of people watch it and write it off as terrible, but I found myself fairly riveted, and not just because of all the topless women running around. It’s one of those comedies where Peter Sellers plays several characters, and in this, one of them is Adolph Hitler. It’s made by the Boulting Brothers, who made earlier Sellers films like I’m All Right, Jack (1959) and There’s a Girl in My Soup (1970). Here, they seem like they’re trying to get topical and experimental. The scenario is a lot like Genet’s The Balcony, set in a French brothel, where all the call girls have been called upon by the Resistance to spy on (and sometimes bump off) their high-up Nazi clientele. For some reason that must have seemed clever at the time, but must also have dated the film instantly, a Richard Nixon impersonator is the narrator. Oh, and don’t worry — Sellers doesn’t miss the opportunity to do his offensive “Japanese” routine, either.
To Be or Not to Be re-make (1983)
I have never been really sure why this film exists. There is some logic I guess, given Mel Brooks track record, of casting him in a remake of To Be or Not to Be, and the director Alan Johnson is the guy who choreographed “Springtime for Hitler”. But the original movie was perfect. Why remake it? This version doesn’t particularly recontextualize the story or reinvigorate it or put any new twist on it. Why make this picture in 1983? At the time, Poland was in the news because of the labor strikes and so forth, but this doesn’t particularly seem attached to that, or to anything really. It’s just a remake, almost like Gus Van Sandt’s 1998 Pyscho is a remake. Now, on the other hand — now would be an excellent time to remake this movie. It would indeed.