Lessons From Chaplin

For as long as I can remember, Nazis were always the villains, both onscreen and off. My grandfather had fought against them in WWII, and I learned in school about the Nazis’ atrocities, leading to the Holocaust. Many of my wife’s extended family died at Nazi hands. In 80s movies Harrison Ford battled the Nazis while Humphrey Bogart had done the same in older films. Clearly both Hollywood and America as a whole hated the Nazis, so much so that I took it for granted.

As we see neo-Nazis and their racist allies now rising in America, let’s take a moment to remember that this country’s attitude towards them was not always clear cut. In the 1930s the German American Bund, a party formed to celebrate Nazi virtues and lobby for Nazi goals, numbered in the tens of thousands, operating 20 youth training camps and 70 regional divisions across the U.S. On February 20, 1939 the Bund held a rally at Madison Square Garden, attracting 20,000 members and supporters. Many others who were not as blatant quietly supported anti-Semitic and racist policies. Some “America First” isolationists argued against America joining WWII through implying that doing so would be merely serving Jewish interests.

Hollywood studios during the most of the 30s were very hesitant to take any stand at all against Nazi Germany. A recent book, The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler, by Ben Urwand, examines how studios worked closely with Nazi officials, in some cases even giving them veto power over which films were made. The Nazis stationed an emissary, Georg Gyssling, in Hollywood, who monitored and influenced studio productions.

Gyssling did not work alone. In 1934 the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America named Joseph I. Breen as the chief enforcer of the Hays Production Code. Breen had earlier written that “people whose daily morals would not be tolerated in the toilet of a pest house hold the good jobs out here (Hollywood) and wax fat on it. Ninety-five percent of these folks are Jews of an Eastern European lineage. They are, probably, the scum of the scum of the earth.”

While Breen spent much of his time focusing on sex and language, he also actively enforced another provision of the Code: “The history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry of all nations shall be represented fairly.” According to the New Yorker staff writer and film critic David Denby, that provision was so loose in meaning that it could be used to ban any critical look at a foreign country. As Denby explains, “By 1934, then, Breen and Gyssling had overlapping briefs. Breen read every script before it went into production, and he used the “fairness” justification to limit or kill any film that touched on Nazi Germany. As J. Hoberman and Jeffrey Shandler put it in their volume ‘Entertaining America’ (2003), a history of Jews and the media, ‘Breen and his ecclesiastical supporters saw Hitler’s rise as instrumental in their campaign to reform Hollywood. Nazi politics and anti-Semitic agitation had made Jewish studio executives newly vulnerable.’”

Why did the studios allow this? Most of the studio heads were Jews of Eastern European descent. Some of them had relatives remaining in Europe. In theory they would have every reason to speak out against Nazism. However, in practice, they were overwhelmingly concerned about anti-Semitism being directed towards them or their studios. Like many Jews and other ethnic groups, these men wanted to be considered Americans. To them, being American meant not rocking the boat.

Of course the studios had other reasons, mostly financial ones. The Nazis had absolute power to block access to the lucrative German film market. Through strategic use of German law Gyssling and his allies threatened to blacklist any studio that produced a film offensive to the Nazis.

In his book Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, Mark Harris summed up the situation: “Even as most studios maintained a strong financial interest in the German market and continued to do business with Hitler and his deputies, the issue of how to fight Hitler’s rise to power was becoming a subject of discussion, and discomfort, in their boardrooms and executive suites. But in 1938, all of Hollywood’s major moviemaking companies ... were adamant on one point: Whatever they thought about the Nazis, they would not allow their feelings, or anyone else’s, about what was happening in Germany to play out onscreen. On rare occasions, a veiled or allusive argument against Fascism or tyranny would make its way into a motion picture, but it was then unthinkable that studios could use their own movies to sway public opinion about Hitler without sparking instant accusations that they were acting as propagandists for foreign – meaning Jewish – interests.”

The consequences of this cowardice became very real. In 1936, MGM acquired the rights to Sinclair Lewis’s best-selling novel It Can’t Happen Here, about “a Huey Long-type demagogue (who) takes over the Presidency, and rules by means of the secret police.” The studio had tabbed James Stewart and Lionel Barrymore to star, and was going to begin shooting when Breen intervened. He demanded 60 cuts to the screenplay, and in a letter to studio head Louis B. Mayer argued against proceeding with the film at all. Mayer cancelled the project.

According to Denby: “Breen continued to pressure the studios not to mention Nazism right up to the outbreak of war. In 1938, when MGM wanted to adapt Three Comrades, an explicitly anti-Nazi novel by Remarque, Breen insisted that the movie be set earlier in time. ‘Thus we will get away from any possible suggestion that we are dealing with Nazi violence or terrorism.’ The pattern was clear: no matter how vicious Nazi conduct was, any representation of it could be deemed a violation of the code’s demand that foreign countries be treated ‘fairly.’ In practice, the more cruel and irrational the Nazis got, the safer they were from any Hollywood dramatization of their actions. Breen warned the studios of the danger to their German earnings, but his real intent was probably to remind the men running Hollywood that they should never feel safe.”

Even when the studios did proceed with a film condemning anti-Semitism, it was watered down. In 1937, Warner Brothers made The Life of Emile Zola, about Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish military official in the French army falsely accused and convicted of treason. The “Dreyfus Affair” was one of the most notorious examples of anti-Semitism in French history. The film became a critical and commercial hit, winning the Best Picture Oscar. However, the word Jew was not spoken at all in the film and anti-Semitism was never mentioned.

Into this cauldron of fear stepped Charlie Chaplin. He had long since become one of Hollywood’s biggest filmmakers and stars. After using sound sparingly in City Lights and Modern Times, he was planning his first full sound film, where his signature Tramp would, at long last, speak on camera. Chaplin had spoken out against totalitarianism before, and Hitler’s rise both frightened and fascinated him. Kevin Brownlow and Michael Kloft’s documentary The Tramp and the Dictator noted the parallels between Chaplin and Hitler. Not only did they have a physical resemblance, with similar mustaches, but they both used film in different ways to achieve staggering successes – Chaplin with his silent comedies and Hitler with his propaganda movies.

Unlike the studio heads, Chaplin was not Jewish. When asked, he would often politely reply “I don’t have that honor.” But he felt he had to do something, and film was his medium. Chaplin also had freedoms that other filmmakers lacked. He co-founded and was part-owner of United Artists (UA), meaning he could greenlight his own films. But Chaplin deciding to make what became The Great Dictator was not without risk. When he began work in 1938, his partners at UA worried that the film would not be shown in Europe and that isolationists and Nazi sympathizers would suppress it in America. The Hays Office warned of censorship. In The Tramp and the Dictator, one of Chaplin’s assistants claimed that Chaplin was having second thoughts at one point. After President Roosevelt personally assured Chaplin that his film would be seen in the US, filming proceeded.

Chaplin took the risk and America’s tastes caught up with him. He wrote in his autobiography that “Before I had finished The Great Dictator, England declared war on the Nazis… Then suddenly the holocaust began: the break-through in Belgium, the collapse of the Maginot Line, the stark and ghastly fact of Dunkirk -- and France was occupied. The news was growing gloomier. England was fighting with her back to the wall. Now our New York office was wiring frantically; ‘Hurry up with your film, everyone is waiting for it.’”

The Great Dictator became a massive hit, nabbing five Oscar nominations. Chaplin himself had a complicated relationship with the film, later claiming he would have never made it if he had known the full extent of the Nazi horrors. Many film writers and historians claimed that the film, with its perceived left-wing leanings, was a factor in Chaplin being effectively banned from the US in the late 40s.

None of that diminishes the film’s power. As critic Roger Ebert wrote “Chaplin was launching his comic persona against Hitler in an attempt, largely successful, to ridicule him as a clown.” As the Hitleresque Hynkel, Chaplin’s broad gestures and strident mock-German still draw laughs, as does his iconic dance with the globe balloon. Chaplin also turned his famous Tramp character into a Jewish barber evading Hynkel’s Stormtroopers, making it clear where his sympathies were. The Great Dictator is rightly considered a classic, which continues to be enjoyed on film and video.

Even beyond the artistry and humor of The Great Dictator itself is the fact that Chaplin made it at all. At a time when so many in Hollywood and across America were, at best, staying neutral or at worst sympathizing with the Nazis, Chaplin did not cower or equivocate. He did not believe that there were “good people on both sides.” To Chaplin, there was only one side: freedom and tolerance. The counter-protesters in Charlottesville, who stood up to the neo-Nazis, believed that too. One of them, Heather Heyer, gave her life in the struggle against bigotry and hate. I think Chaplin would have admired Heather Heyer.

Like Chaplin in his day, we are struggling not just against those who promote the Nazi philosophy, but also those that would look the other way as the Hollywood studio heads did in the 1930s. The studios did it for security and financial gain, while today it may be for political expediency. Either way, the decision Charlie Chaplin made, and the stand he took, nearly 80 years ago must still resonate today.

Chaplin ends The Great Dictator by giving a speech directly into the camera. It’s not Hynkel or even the barber, but Chaplin himself talking straight to the audience. Even many who adore the film criticize the speech. Ebert wrote that “It didn’t work then, and it doesn’t work now.... The movie plays like a comedy followed by an editorial.” Maybe as a comedy scene the speech fails, but as a film moment, I have to differ with Ebert. It’s one of the most stirring, moving speeches ever filmed and excerpts from it can conclude this column far better than I ever could: “I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone if possible; Jew, Gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other's happiness, not by each other's misery. We don't want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone, and the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way. Greed has poisoned men's souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed.... More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.... The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish.”

Adam Spector
September 1, 2017

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