Charlie Chaplain Versus Sony: Two Responses To Intimidation

Stephen Smoot Freelance Writer
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One of modern history’s worst years was 1940. Japanese forces expanded their cruel hold over millions of Chinese. German tanks rolled over France. The British government even debated for a few days whether to choose a prime minister who would again appease Hitler, or one who would confront evil with fighting spirit. At home, President Franklin Roosevelt tried to balance his hatred for the horror spreading through the world with the need to win reelection from a skeptical public.

And Charlie Chaplin was finishing up his finest film, “The Great Dictator.” Maybe one of the finest movies ever made.

Chaplin, a British citizen, started writing the script in 1938 after Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain agreed to slice up Czechoslovakia to satiate Hitler’s ambition. Some claim that Chaplin decided to make it after learning the Nazis had listed his name in a book of “artistic Jews.” Many in that book had met their fate at the hands of the terroristic Nazis.

Chaplin was not Jewish, but he refused to give anti-Semites the satisfaction of hearing him deny it. The book lists him as “pseudo-Jew.”

Hollywood divided over the Nazis, who grew prominent in German political life in the 1920s and were elected into power in 1933. America watched the ideals it proudly fought for in World War I discarded by Europe in the Treaty of Versailles. By the 1930s, the country remained strongly isolationist. Many Americans feared any move that could embroil the country in another European war. Many studios made films about Germany that did not address Nazism at all, but took the same neutral political stance as 1932’s “Grand Hotel.”

Appeasement in any form did not sit well with Warner Brothers studios.  Jack and Harry Warner feared the rise of Nazism and employed their studio in the ideological fight against them. To commemorate Hitler’s rise to power, Warner Brothers’ “Bosko’s Picture Show” cartoon lampooned Nazism. Later, the studio released films such as “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” and “Black Legion” that did not simply expose the evil of the ideology. They also illustrated the threat of Nazi front groups in the United States, such as the German-American Bund.

Other studios aligned to shut down the Warner Brothers, creating a production code that forbade attacking Nazi ideology. The Warners simply went over the heads of the industry and appealed directly to President Roosevelt.

During the height of the tempest, Chaplin resolved to make the movie that he wrote, directed, and produced with the studio company that he owned.

Chaplin’s first decision was to partially discard the character that had served as his persona in every movie, the silent and expressive everyman stand-in called “The Little Tramp.” He wrote himself two roles in The Great Dictator, that of ruler Adenoid Hynkel and a poor Jewish barber. Its plot loosely follows the theme behind Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper.

But the main message comes more from Chaplin’s parodic portrayal of Adolf Hitler. After watching Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” and finding it an uproarious comic absurdity, Chaplin set to mimic every Hitler mannerism. Nazi era minister and Hitler advisor Albert Speer said it was the closest to the real Hitler that a movie ever got.

Chaplin called the country “Tomania” and substituted the “Double Cross” insignia for the swastika. Jack Oakie played Benzino Napolini, dictator of Bacteria. The Mussolini-alike character was used to emphasize the essential absurdity that underlay Hynkel’s rule.

“The Great Dictator”’s greatness lies in not only its impact on the times and its statement about Nazism, but also its influence on the future. Gags used by Chaplin made their way into years of Warner Brothers cartoons. The film also influenced future director, actor, and producer Mel Brooks. In 2006, when questioned by Der Spiegel about the appropriateness of Hitler jokes in his film “The Producers,” Brooks responded by saying that film creators making fun of Hitler never lose sight of his grave evil. He also explained that “you can laugh at Hitler because you can cut him down to normal size” and that it is important to “rob Hitler of his posthumous power and myths.”

When the film came out, powerful detractors attacked Chaplin and other filmmakers rising to meet the Nazi menace. Joseph Kennedy, father of a president and the Anglophobe Ambassador to Great Britain (perhaps not one of Franklin Roosevelt’s more well-thought out decisions) blasted anti-Nazi films and said that Americans could learn a lot from the fascists – at a luncheon given in his honor by the Warners, Louis B. Meyer, and Samuel Goldwyn.

Shortly thereafter, President Roosevelt had a private chat with Kennedy. His only comment afterwards was “I never want to see that son of a bitch again as long as I live. Take his resignation and get him out of here.”

Roosevelt and his advisors understood both the evil of Nazism and the power of film to shape public perception. Chaplin’s work helped Roosevelt change public perceptions of fascism. This was not simply a system that made “the trains run on time,” but the antithesis of American civilization and its values. It resonated with Americans in the same way as radio broadcasts of Winston Churchill from his frequently bombed capital, preparing the nation for war.

Chaplin’s work required personal and professional courage. A powerful government with a network of agents named him as an enemy. Fanatical pacifists and fascist sympathizers saw him as a warmonger who twisted what they saw as the truth. And yet he persevered, poking his finger directly into the eye of the regime that despised him and challenging his countrymen to take a stand against tyranny.

Hollywood today needs to ask itself if it can match that standard of courage.