Monday, June 30, 2014

World War II Films: Hitler Satires

Decades before "Springtime for Hitler" (Mel Brooks' The Producers), there were Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator and Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not To Be, two classic comedies, which respectively hold places 37 and 49 on AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs list. Both films poke fun of Hitler and his regime. They were released within a year of each other, but interestingly, America's reception of each satire differed. 

Chaplin dancing with the globe
When Charlie Chaplin began work on The Great Dictator, the outlook appeared grim. He was warned against making the film as it might aggravate the situation at hand; i.e., anger a country with which Britain was technically at peace. Chaplin pushed through and by the time it premiered in October 1940, Britain was at war with Germany and no longer worried about maintaining neutrality with the country. The picture was well received and audiences flocked to see Chaplin's Little Tramp masquerade as a Hitler-like figure dancing with a bouncing globe and shouting German-isque gibberish. The film earned numerous Academy Award nominations including: Best Actor, Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Score. In 1941, it was the second most popular movie in the U.S.

By 1942, however, America was no longer interested in making light of the situation overseas. As a result, To Be or Not To Be, which depicted a group of Polish actors outwitting Hitler and the Third Reich, was not well received. The general consensus from critics was that "this treats humorously of the Nazis at a time when the war news is not funny" (Motion Picture Herald). Germany had marched on Poland in September 1939, which prompted the war in Europe, well over two years prior to the release of To Be or Not To Be

Why the change in American attitude? 

America entered World War II in December 1941 following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Perhaps the movie hit a little closer to home now that America's own men were fighting across the Atlantic.
Carole Lombard

The death of one of the movie's stars, Carole Lombard, would have been in the American conscious as well. Her image was a glaring reminder of the very real sacrifice Americans were facing due to World War II. She died in a plane crash on her way home from selling war bonds in January 1942 and is considered by many to be the first casualty of the war. (The film was released in March 1942 after her line, "What can happen in a plane?" was deleted.)  In his autobiography, Chaplin admitted that he "could not have made fun of their [the Nazis'] homicidal insanity" had he known the extent of the horrors occurring in the concentration camps. Maybe America's own firsthand knowledge of death made it a little more difficult to poke fun at a wound still fresh.

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