By Ed Garea
You Nazty Spy! (Columbia, 1940) – Director: Jules White. Writers: Felix Adler & Clyde Bruckman (story). Cast: Moe Howard, Larry Fine, Curly Howard, Don Beddoe, Richard Fiske, Lorna Gray, & Dick Curtis. Short, B&W, 18 minutes.
It has become an item of accepted wisdom that Charlie Chaplin was the first artist to take on Adolf Hitler with his comic masterpiece The Great Dictator, which premiered in New York on October 15, 1940. But that wasn’t the case at all. In fact, some nine months prior to the release of Chaplin’s film, on January 19, 1940, a short by the Three Stooges beat him to the punch. Before there was Adenoid Hynkel, there was Moe Hailstone.
Both films were conceived roughly around the same time. During the late ‘30s, Hitler was frequently noted as looking like Chaplin’s Little Tramp. When producer Alexander Korda told Chaplin of the resemblance at a party in 1937, it supposedly gave Chaplin the idea for a satire of Der Fuehrer. Korda wasn’t the only one: In 1939, British comedian Tommy “It’s That Man Again” Handley released a song called “Who Is That Man (Who Looks Like Charlie Chaplin)?”
Though Chaplin was inspired, he took his time preparing a script and getting the film off the ground. Part of his problem lay with his company, United Artists, who told him that such a film wasn’t a good idea as Germany was a major market and it would also alienate the many around the world who sympathized with Hitler. In 1938, Joseph Breen, the Production Code’s chief bluenose, wrote German Consul George Gylissing in response to Gylissing’s letter asking whether such a film was actually being planned that his office had not heard of anything and that any script would first have to be approved before it could be produced.
However, by the summer of 1939 it was a foregone conclusion that Europe would soon be at war. Hitler marched into what was left of Czechoslovakia, and in August signed the infamous peace pact with Stalin that effectively sealed Poland’s fate by dividing it between Germany and the U.S.S.R. Chaplin began writing the script for The Great Dictator in June 1939 and production began shortly after on September 9, finishing in June 1940.
Chaplin was not the only person that could resemble Hitler. The story is that in 1939, between takes of a Three Stooges short, Moe did a hilarious impression of Hitler. According to Lynn Rappaport in The San Diego Jewish Journal, it gave Jules White, the head of Columbia’s Shorts Department and producer-director of many of the Stooges shorts, the idea of a Hitler parody of his own. Also in the summer of 1939, White came to his brother Sam’s office and announced his plans to make a comedy about Hitler. Moe would be Hitler, Larry would play Goebbels, and Curly would be Goering. Sam’s reply was that the situation in Europe was pretty grim; could Jules make it funny? Jules told Sam not to worry on that account; he’d make it plenty funny.
Filming on the short began December 5, 1939, and lasted for seven days. Cutting was finished on December 26, 1939, and on January 19, 1940, You Nazty Spy (a play on the popular “You nasty man” catchphrase of radio comic Joe Penner) became the 44th Three Stooges comedy released by the studio. Moe Howard thus became the first American actor to lampoon Hitler.
As the film opens we are in the fictional country of Moronica. A meeting is taking place among munitions manufacturers Messers. Ixnay (Fiske), Ohnay (Curtis) and Amscray (Beddoe). Complaining that business is on the decline, they come to the conclusion that they need to oust the king who is for peace and establish a dictatorship so they can start a war. “We must find someone who is stupid enough to do what we tell him,” says Ohnay. “But where can we find anyone that stupid?” Amscray asks. “I’ve got the very man and he’s in this house right now,” says Ixnay. “His name is Moe Hailstone. He and his two helpers are papering my dining room right now.”
Cut to the dining room, where the Stooges are working. Ixnay introduces his companions to Moe Hailstone, Curly Gallstone, and Larry Pebble, who answer “Shalom aleichem” in unison. Rarely did the Stooges ever make reference to their Jewish roots, but here they decided it was essential.
Ixnay asks Moe is he’d like to be dictator. When Moe asks what a dictator is, Ixnay explains it to him: “A dictator? Why, he makes love to beautiful women, drinks champagne, enjoys life and never works. He makes speeches to the people promising them plenty, gives them nothing, then takes everything! That's a dictator." “Hmm,” says Curly. “A parasite! That's for me!" Moe tells the munitions men he must think about it and leans back on a table. His fingers accidentally pick up a swatch of dark wallpaper. When he raises his hand to his lips, the paper attaches itself like a mustache. Brushing his hair back at the same time, Moe looks almost exactly like Hitler.
But Moe won’t do it without his friends: “Our motto has always been all for one and all for me.” Ixnay says that’s no problem – Curly can be Field Marshal of all the armies and Larry can be Minister of Propaganda. When Larry asks what propaganda is, Curly answers by saying that a papa gander marries a mama gander and they raise a lot of little goslings. Moe says, “We’ll take the job. What do we do?” “First,” says Ixnay, “you start a beer putsch.” “How?” asks Larry. Curly explain it thusly” “You putsch your beer down and wait for the pretzels.”
So far the short is following the popular perceptions of both Hitler and how he rose to power. It was widely assumed the time that munitions manufacturers and other industrialists were responsible for putting Hitler in power, and there’s truth in this assumption, for Hitler was actually given the position of Chancellor by those in the Reichstag that represented the business classes. Led by Franz Von Papen, it was thought they could control him, an assumption that proved disastrously wrong – and shown during the course of the short, when Moe, Larry, and Curly spiral out of control. It was also commonly thought that Hitler was a paperhanger in Austria before the First World War, a belief that persisted well beyond the Second World War as well. The truth was that paperhanging was work, and work was the last thing on Hitler’s mind. Even then, the future Fuehrer imagined he was too important for ordinary work. He lived off a small bequest from his mother and from earnings painting watercolors for tourists.
As Moe speaks to the masses with Larry and Curly at his side, the resemblance to Hitler is remarkable, especially in reference to Hitler’s gestures and speech pattern. Curly and Larry stand alongside, with Curly in uniform posing more like Mussolini than Goering and Larry holding up cue cards for the audience. Moe tells the throng that, “We must lend our neighbors a helping hand! We must lend them two helping hands, and help ourselves to
our neighbors!” Larry holds up the cue card that says “Cheer,” and the crowd cheers. Later, when Moe is promising the masses goodies, Larry accidentally holds up “Hiss.” The reaction surprises Moe who sees Larry with the wrong card and bonks him. Larry then turns the card around to read “Applause.” Moe then tells the crowd that “we must throw off the yoke of monarchy, and make our country safe for hypocrisy!"
Back at Hailstone’s office, Moe catches Curly reading a book. He tells Curly that he should be burning books, not reading them. Looking at the wall behind Moe’s desk, we see the new flag of Moronica – two snakes intertwined into the shape of a swastika – and below the flag a motto, “Moronica for Morons,” a parody of the Nazi slogan “Deutschland fur Deutschen” (“Germany for Germans”). They are informed that Matte Herring (Gray) has arrived and Moe tells the secretary to "marinate her and send her in.” The name is a play not only on the famous World War I spy, but also on the Yiddish and German name for pickled herring, matjeshering. (In fact, there are several Yiddishisms used throughout the course of the film, as Yiddish is a High German language, originating with the Ashkenazi Jews. The Stooges were of Ashkenazi origin, being from Lithuania.)
Matte has come to read their fortunes. They sit at a table while she pulls out a large 8-ball. As she tells their fortunes, both Moe and Curly stick their hands under the table for Matte’s but end up holding each other. Moe discovers what’s going on and breaks the 8-ball over Curly’s head. They find a note inside for Matte. It turns out she’s the daughter of the deposed king and has orders to kill them. They arrest her, and as Curly takes her out to be shot, he tells her they’ll shoot the works, a ‘30s reference to injecting morphine and a slap at Goering’s morphine addiction. Curly takes Matte into the hall and asks her “Blindfold?” She agrees and proceeds to tie it around Curly’s head. He tells her he’ll take 10 paces, turn, and fire. While he paces, she runs away. “We must catch her,” says Moe, “before she reports to her father, the King, and the people turn on us.”
Delegates from Moronica’s neighbors now enter to begin a peace conference. When Moe demands a corridor through the country of DoubleCrossia to the Bay of Window, the conference breaks down into a brawl. Moe and Curly shoot golf balls off the delegates’ heads while they are busy pummeling Larry. Knocking out the delegates, the trio plans to throw them to the lions when noise is heard outside. It’s the people, coming to overthrow Moe. The Stooges run into the arena and lock the door, but realize too late that they’ve locked themselves in with the lions, who then proceed to chase them around the corner into a back room. Roars and screams are heard and only the lions emerge. One, wearing Moe’s cap, proceeds to belch (possibly from indigestion) as the short ends.
There are several interesting points about the film. One is that, while the Hays Office objected to Chaplin’s film (FDR himself helped push it through), You Nazty Spy passed through unscathed, perhaps because the censorship requirements were not as stringent for shorts as for full-length features. (Article X of the Production Code stated: "The history, institution, prominent people and citizenry of all nations shall be presented fairly. No picture shall be produced that tends to incite bigotry or hatred among peoples of differing races, religions or national origins.") During the autumn months of 1941, a Senate Subcommittee on the motion picture industry and war, led by several Isolationist senators, began looking into what it termed “anti-Nazi propaganda films” coming out of Hollywood. (Congress always enjoyed looking into Hollywood from time to time, as many in the film industry – actors and moguls – lacked the intellectual wherewithal to properly fight back.) The Great Dictator was subjected to close scrutiny while You Nazty Spy was overlooked, despite its popularity at the box office. The hearing mercifully came to an end on the morning of December 8, 1941, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and turned isolationists into traitors.
While everyone praises Chaplin’s portrayal of Hitler, it must honestly be admitted that Moe Howard did it better. Whenever I watch The Great Dictator, I come away with the impression that if only Germany – and Hitler – would listen to the sweet reason of Chaplin’s speech at the end, they might be convinced to do good. Nothing of this sort happens with You Nazty Spy, for Moe did a better job of channeling Hitler’s lower-class origins and manic rage. Chaplin’s Hynkel speaks with a soft voice and almost breaks into an English accent at times while Moe shrieks, substituting nonsensical gibberish sprinkled with a few Yiddish phrases, more closely imitating the real Fuehrer in his irrationality and pure rage. More to the point, like Hitler – and unlike Hynkel – Moe Hailstone is undone by farce. Hitler was living a farcical existence during the last months of his life trapped underground in Berlin. Moe and associates retreat to a bunker of sorts in their attempt to escape the lions. The image of the one lion emerging wearing the Fuehrer’s cap and belching almost approaches the level of an editorial cartoon in its sharpness.
The short did well in theaters, even playing in first-run houses that did not normally run Stooge shorts. It became so popular, in fact, that the ending was forgotten in favor of a sequel, titled I’ll Never Heil Again (July 1941). In this sequel, the industrialists Ixnay (Vernon Dent), Amscray (Lynton Brent), and Umchay (Bud Jamison) approach the exiled King Herman VI 7/8 of Moronica to seek his help in getting rid of Moe Hailstone and his associates. The king sends his daughter, Gilda, to assassinate Moe, Larry and Curly with an explosive billiard ball – to be used when they play pool. This is somewhat close to the real attempt on Hitler’s life at the Wolf’s Lair in East Prussia when Von Stauffenberg placed a briefcase loaded with explosives under Hitler’s conference table. I’ll Never Heil Again reaches its climax when, during a conference of the Axis powers, Hailstone declares the world to be his, which results in an all-out brawl during the course of which Curly detonates the explosive pool ball. The king is restored and the heads of Moe, Larry and Curly are mounted on his trophy wall.