All the hubbub about the Seth Rogen/James Franco comedy The Interview and its accompanying alleged North Korean threats against anyone showing/seeing the film, marketing strategy conspiracy theories, and censorship issues got me wondering if any other movies had caused a similar ruckus. After all, history tends to repeat itself. I challenge you to show me any recent headline that hasn't been seen or done before. And history proves me right in this instance, natch. Lots of movies have caused public uproars. Focusing on political films that directly target the leader of another country narrows the field considerably. Add debuting while said leader is still in power, and you get a very small sample size.
If you were ringing in on this topic on Jeopardy, you might answer, "What is The Great Dictator?", Charlie Chaplin's famous 1940 classic satirizing Adolf Hitler. However, another production caught my eye. I was delighted to learn there was an even earlier film by none other than the true kings of comedy: my childhood favorites, The Three Stooges. Their film, You Nazty Spy, beat Chaplin to theaters by several months. Moe Howard plays 'Moe Hailstone' aka Der Fuehrer, with Larry as 'Larry Pebbles' (Joseph Goebbels) and Curly as 'Curly Gallstone' (Hermann Goering). The 18-minute short film is full of Stooge silliness, physical humor, and so many puns, inside jokes and innuendo, I have to wonder how much of it the audience got on first viewing. After all, in 1940 there was no VCR, DVR,YouTube, or Wiki technology to ensure you got all the jokes.
Moe is the perfect Hitler (actually, with the addition of that little black smudge of mustache, any of us could pass). His stage persona as the bully of the threesome served him well as he ordered everyone around, shouted from podiums, and used that stiff arm salute to full advantage.
The plot thickens with the additional info that the three stars as well as the director, Jules White, were all of Jewish descent. It is tempting to cast these comedic icons as living dual lives as intrepid resistance leaders, but history does not quite bear this out. In 1940 it was common knowledge that the Nazi regime was anti-Semitic, but Jews were just one among many groups they targeted. It is doubtful either the Stooges or White were aware of the extent of the atrocities being committed or planned at the concentration camps. The idea for the short film may simply have been a combination of revenge fantasy, savvy co-opting of current events, and an irresistible desire to satirize such a ripe subject.
It is also tempting to envision You Nazty Spy as a heroic artistic statement that re-focused public opinion and precipitated the eventual fall of the Third Reich. Alas, again historical data points otherwise. Before the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, many Americans felt strongly about staying out of the European conflict. The faltering economy during the Great Depression, plus lingering memories of the atrocities of World War I had few in a mood to get involved in another foreign dispute. I tried to find out how the film was received; no luck. As a short film, it likely would have been bundled with other media such as a full length feature, a news reel, etc., thus making it difficult to determine how it fared individually.
The film was lucky even to have been made. Prior to our current movie ratings system, there existed a movie censorship system known informally as the Hays Code. The Hays Code was developed as a sort of moral compass for a movie industry that many felt had gone off the rails in the early part of the 20th century. The code listed many topics and behaviors to be avoided. Movie producers/directors submitted their screenplays to the censor. Movies that passed muster got made. Movies that didn't, didn't. You Nazty Spy violated the Hays Code as it related to causing 'willful offense' of foreign nations, but likely squeaked through because it was a short film - full length feature films were the focus of the censor's scrutiny.
Messrs. Rogen and Franco have some large shoes to fill, three pairs' worth between the two of them. They're funny, but Three Stooges-level funny? Only time will tell. I don't know if the writers were aware of You Nazty Spy as they wrote The Interview. There are some interesting parallels to be drawn between the two films, never mind the 70+-year gap in production timeline:
The Three Stooges were busy fellows. They were under contract to shoot several short films annually. With such a long career, it probably wasn't long before the idea well began to run dry. Then, as now, current events to the rescue! And what better way to bring attention to a grim, humorless topic sore in need of public awareness than education masquerading as comedy? If you don't believe this, compare the box office earnings of most wretched, juvenile, bathroom humor bomb to the highest of highbrow documentaries. Not. Even. Close.*
Beware the Bomb
The international hubbub over The Interview (whether real, or, according to the conspiracy theorists, a marketer's wet dream) made the term 'box office bomb' fearfully literal. Anonymous bomb threats to any theaters showing the film probably had many re-thinking their holiday viewing plans. The Stooges had their own bomb scare, but not over their Hitler film. Earlier in their career, they had a less than amicable split with fellow performer Ted Healy. Healy threatened to bomb theaters where Three Stooges performed if they pursued a career without him. Thankfully, both threats were empty (so far).
The End - Spoiler Alert
Both films chose to off their protagonists. I haven't seen The Interview, but I understand Kim Jong-un loses his head in a rather violent fashion. In You Nazty Spy, Hitler and his cronies don't make it out alive, either, although their demise is not shown on screen - only suggested by a roar and a belch. The Stooges going for subtlety - imagine that!
I haven't seen The Interview. I was all for seeing it for solidarity, but the more this story unfolds, the more I wonder if this hasn't all been a huge publicity stunt. I think I'll wait it out. I've got 219 more Stooges films to catch up on.
*For example, 2014 figures for #78 out of 100, the comedy Sex Tape earned $38.5 million domestic. Top grossing documentary 2014, something called America which hardly seems to fit my 'highest of the highbrow' requirement, but whatever: $14 million. Citizen Four (about Edward Snowden) is perhaps a better match, raking in a (relatively) paltry $2 million. Figures from BoxOfficeMojo.com.
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