If you thought Hitler was funny on the TV sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, you should see his movies.
Believe it or don’t — Hitler was played for laughs in several American movies just before World War II. Before the horrors of the holocaust and other Nazi atrocities were discovered, Hitler was often portrayed by Hollywood as a clown. And it all started with Charlie Chaplin.
Chaplin wrote, directed, and starred in the classic anti-war comedy The Great Dictator in 1940. The title dictator was named Adenoid Hynkel, tyrant of Tomania — but everyone could see it was supposed to be Hitler. In the film, Chaplin depicts Nazi politics as laughable and Hitler as arrogant, stupid, and crazy.
So for the next several years, even after World War II erupted, Hitler was always portrayed as a joke. For example, in the short comedy film The Devil With Hitler (1942), the Board of Directors in hell threaten to replace the Devil with Adolph Hitler, unless the Devil can trick Hitler into performing a good deed. Hitler is played by actor Bobby Watson as a moron who brags about his skills as a two-handed house painter.
Apparently this little movie (it was only 44 minutes long) was popular enough for a sequel. In That Nazty Nuisance (1943) again Bobby Watson played Der Fuhrer. This time Hitler, Mussolini, and a Japanese madman named Suki Yaki (perhaps Hollywood was unaware of Hirohito), journey to a tiny island for a secret meeting. Their conference is ruined by a shipwrecked American sailor and a pretty island girl. The humor is the kind of broad burlesque that men today wouldn’t watch because it’s too corny and predictable and women today wouldn’t watch because it’s too much like The Three Stooges.
Better (or at least not as silly) was Hitler Dead Or Alive (1942). Bobby Watson played Hitler (imagine making a career out of playing Hitler for laughs), who was targeted for assassination by American gangsters. The plot centered on a rich American who offered a million-dollar bounty on Hitler. Three American crooks (Ward Bond, Paul Fix, and Warren Hymer) muscle their way into Germany to collect the reward. Viewing the assassination of Hitler as just another hit on another mob boss, the trio joins the Canadian Air Force, hijacks a plane, and heads into the Fatherland for a confrontation. It’s explained that the crooks speak fluent German because they had a bootleg beer racket during prohibition in Wisconsin. They are captured by the Gestapo and escape a prison camp with help from the anti-Nazi underground. They finally capture Hitler, and then shave his mustache and cut his hair. When the Nazi’s catch up with them, they don’t believe this “inferior specimen” is their beloved Fuhrer and he’s shot. The film concludes with the idea that even if Hitler was killed the German military would simply find someone to impersonate him to keep the Nazi ideal alive. The crooks realize that Hitler is just a symbol, and (sadly) Nazism would continue to thrive without him.
Then there was The Strange Death Of Adolf Hitler (1943), which stole bits of plot directly from The Great Dictator. This time Ludwig Donath plays an actor who is given plastic surgery by the Gestapo to look like Hitler. Why? Because they want to install their own Hitler so they can control him. However, the actor is anti-Nazi and tricks the Gestapo — only to be killed by his own wife who thinks he really is Hitler.
If Germany won the war?
1963’s They Saved Hitler’s Brain (also known as The Madman Of Mondoras and The Return Of Mr. H) is another Hitler movie of note. Many sources list this odd film as a comedy, considering it funny the way Plan 9 From Outer Space was funny — the so-bad-it’s-good comedy. Trust me, it isn’t. It’s a really, really boring story that was actually an uncompleted 1950s movie with added footage. Hitler’s head (in what appears to be a pickle jar) barks orders to dimwitted henchmen.
Now many of you are probably saying: “Hold up there, Mr. Pouncey! Aren’t you forgetting about the numerous times Mel Brooks has played Hitler for laughs?
No, I’m not.
The first time Brooks successfully used Nazis for laughs was in the original version of The Producers (1968). However, this movie featured a bad (and, it was implied, stoned) actor called LSD doing a bad impersonation of Hitler. Although Hitler and Nazism are essential to the plot, Hitler-as-a-real-person isn’t there. I enjoyed this film (and the movie version of the stage play released in 2005), but it’s really a satire on Broadway, with Nazi’s and Hitler as a subplot.
Brooks also gave us To Be Or Not To Be (1985), a remake of a much funnier movie (directed by Ernst Lubitsch in 1942 and starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard). Hitler actually does have a cameo in this movie (he’s played by Roy Goldman), and although Nazism is addressed more directly than The Producers, Hitler and his boys aren’t the stars — they’re just bit players.
Now, what are we to make of all this? Is the best way to defeat evil by making fun of it until no one takes it seriously? Or, by trivializing evil as stupidity, do you simply help mask its true nature? Don’t ask me — I’m just a guy who’s seen far too many movies.
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