—Still frame from “The Great Dictator,” United Artists 1940
“THE GREAT DICTATOR,” a smash-hit movie send-up with comic actors Jack Oakie (left) and Charlie Chaplin spoofing Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler.
Comedy as a Weapon
How to Dump Trump
‘Participate in the ridicule and satire’
by Thomas Adcock
Copyright © 2017 – Thomas Adcock
NEW YORK CITY, near America
A year before America joined Britain in resisting the Rome-Berlin Axis of World War II, “The Great Dictator” was released by United Artists in Hollywood as a burlesque of Italy’s Benito Mussolini and Germany’s Adolf Hitler. Leading the cast was Charlie Chaplin, the legendary physical comedian and impresario of the silent film era who also wrote and directed what became his most commercially successful production—in which, by the way, he delivered his first spoken dialogue.
Mr. Chaplin’s friend and fellow actor, Jack Oakie, played the Mussolini-esque rôle of “Benzino Napaloni,” strutting autocrat of an Italian-speaking puppet state called “Bacteria.” Il Duce Napaloni was in thrall to Chaplin’s film character—the lowborn, Jew-hating narcissist “Adenoid Hynkel,” xenophobic chancellor of German-speaking “Tomania.”
Of course, “The Great Dictator” was banned in all countries under nazi control. Hitler himself, however, screened it twice in his private cinema within the Reich Chancellery. Each time, according to his aides, Der Führer was “heartbroken” over the film’s most famous scene—in which Adenoid Hynkel dances with a world globe in balloon form, only to have the inflated orb suddenly burst into smithereens, thereby reducing the Tomanian tyrant to a tsunami of tears.
A public man who reveled the company of properly respectful celebrities, Hitler had several times extolled the multi-talented Anglo-American movie mogul as “one of the greatest performers of all time”—this despite Chaplin’s having been labeled a “disgusting Jew acrobat” in the pages of Juden Sehen Dich An (“The Jews are Watching You”), a publication of Hitler’s propaganda ministry. And just how had this Chaplin fellow returned Der Führer’s favor? With a thinly disguised impersonation of Adolf Hitler as the deranged fool Adenoid Hynkel. Ach du Lieber!
History records no such thing, but I enjoy imagining a resentful Hitler mumbling something to Eva Braun about a “disgusting Jew acrobat” in the moment before he popped a cyanide pill and ate his gun.
Midway through making “The Great Dictator,” Chaplin thought about scrapping the film that would win five Oscar nominations in 1941, three of them redounding to himself—best actor, best original script, best producer. As Chaplin was cobbling together his movie on a Hollywood soundstage in 1939 and ‘40, the world was increasingly sickened by an accumulation of atrocities under the Hitler regime; there were scribbles of fear about cruelty of historic proportion, yet the battles against evil had only just begun. As the film release date of October 1940 approached, Chaplin could no longer view Hitler and Mussolini as the buffoonish characters they had been not so long before—autocratic popinjays, amusing to those of us beyond Europe.
But one prominent American—among the first to sense a gathering storm, and by 1940 heard the dogs of war distantly howling—saw potential in comedy as a weapon. A weapon as useful on the home front as Browning M-19s and Mk.2 fragmentation hand grenades and M1/240mm Howitzers in combat.
One day, this prominent man dispatched a courier to the film set of “The Great Dictator.” The courier found Chaplin, and handed him a sealed envelope containing a three-word message: “Make this film!” Signed—Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
On the night of January 19, I joined twenty-five thousand of my fellow New Yorkers jammed into streets surrounding the Trump International Hotel at Columbus Circle in midtown Manhattan. We were in comradely mood, steeling ourselves for tomorrow’s dreadful event—the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as president. We never saw it coming: the possibility of a bigot in the White House, an uncouth “reality TV” star whom doctors tell us exhibits classic symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder.
We had a bit of fun that night, certainly with the signs we carried; fun would be over tomorrow. My favorite sign, referencing Donald Trump’s boast to an oaf pal that his boorish celebrity allowed him to approach women and “grab ‘em by the pussy” was this one: ONLY A WUSSY WOULD GRAB A PUSSY.
A floodlit speakers’ stand was filled with Hollywood folks: among them, Sally Field, Mark Ruffalo, Robert DeNiro, Cher, Alec Baldwin, and the satirical filmmaker Michael Moore. Mr. Baldwin favored the crowd with his wickedly funny impression of the pumpkin-faced president-to-be. But it was Mr. Moore’s notion of resistance to a dangerous egotist that came closest to the insightful spirit of Charlie Chaplin and President Roosevelt.
As we know only too well at this point, the doughy-faced man-child in the White House (whom I refuse to acknowledge is my president) has not the slightest interest in or curiosity about substantive government policy issues. Nor does he respect empirical facts of the reality-based world; if he sees something on a TV screen that activates his endorphins or affirms his prejudices, he presumes it is true.
His political passion, writes New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, is a “masturbatory…claim that he [is] the helmsman of ‘a historic movement, the likes of which the world has never seen.’”
To which Mr. Bruni added, “Bolsheviks might quibble.”
With the possible exception of Hitler’s speeches—which the first of his three wives once sat atop his bedside table—Donald Trump reads nothing. He is consequently ignorant of the value and definition of writing: the tangible exercise of thought. Clad in a bathrobe and padding through the White House corridors in the post-midnight hours, he tweets his every splenetic, sulky, or sorehead impulse; he is convinced that each of his 140-character rants demonstrates leadership, and even literature. As he often says, “Many people tell me I’m the Ernest Hemingway of Twitter.”
Donald Trump is unaffected by people wiser than himself who worry that the most powerful man in the world is unashamed of his numerous shortcomings.
“So, what is he affected by?” Mr. Moore asked that night of January 19, answering with, “He’s affected by comedy. He has the thinnest skin of any bully I’ve ever met. If you make fun of him, if you ridicule him, or if you just show he’s not popular—I’m telling you, my friends, this is how he’ll implode. It’s his Achilles’ heel. And we don’t need to depend on the comedians to do this for us. Everybody has a sense of humor. Use it! Participate in the ridicule and the satire, for the emperor wears no clothes. …Let’s form an army of comedy, and we will bring him down!”
Do I sense a Chaplinesque moment? As we near another eve of destruction, as Bob Dylan would say, is there need for satire? Rude comedy to combat a crude man-child? Perhaps another movie; perhaps an opening scene that goes something like this:
as The President aka Der Gropenführer
EXT. THE WHITE HOUSE – NOON
INT. OVAL OFFICE
President Darth Trumplethinskin behind his desk, chewing on a McDonald’s triple-patty cheeseburger (mouth open). Ketchup and pickles dribble onto his necktie. Annoyed, he splats down the burger on the desk. As he picks up his ever-present cellphone, there is a knock at the door…
…Enter Shiv Banlon, rumpled chief White House advisor. As he greets the boss with a stiff-armed salute—
Heil, mein Gropenführer!
Knock it off, Banlon. You’re not the Schutzstaffel, I’m not your Uncle ‘Dolfie—
—Nein! Nein! Lügen! Lügen!
(with a sigh)
Calm down, sauerkraut. Where’s that idiot Ratz Chinless? He says he has to see me—bigly. Go fetch him—
(placing a hand over his squashed lunch)
—By the way, Shiv, you look like crap. You sleep in a bowling alley last night?
Jawohl, mein führer
The president waves Banlon off. Banlon hesitates for a moment, licking his lips as he eyes the burger mess, then shambles over to the door. We hear muffled voices from the other side. Then—Banlon admits Ratz Chinless, chief of staff.
(nodding to Trumplethinskin,
clicking heels to Banlon)
Good afternoon, Mr. President…Herr Banlon.
Ruf mich an Shiv!
Banlon moves toward the president’s desk, eyes locked on the cheeseburger splat—a mean and hungry look. As Banlon reaches for the burger, Trumplethinskin grabs it away. Then, with a malicious grin, dangles it in front of Banlon. Speaking to him in a smoochy tone, as he would to a pet dog—
Who’s the good boy? You’re the good boy? Speak, Shiv. Speak!
Delighted, Trumplethinskin tears off a chunk of flattened cheeseburger. He rises from his desk and steps to Banlon, his mouth a gaping maw. The president drops the chunk between Banlon’s eager lips.
Danke, mein Herr.
Get on with it, Ratz. I’m a busy man, that I can tell you.
Yes, sir. May I bring in the team?
Whatever floats your boat.
Chinless walks to the door, opens it to a procession of Trumplethinskin’s flunkies—sons Uday and Qusay, spokeswoman Carry-on Conjob, and press secretary Prawn Sphincter, dressed in an ill-fitting suit the color of tin foil. At Sphincter’s entry, Banlon points at him and laughs. Soon, the president and the others are laughing as Banlon jeers—
Hoo-hoo! Da ist der Girly-Mann!
Brief video clip of comedian Melissa McCarthy in a mocking impersonation of Prawn Sphincter presiding over a White House press conference.
RESUME CUT TO OVAL OFFICE:
The president’s goofy sons, Uday and Qusay, side by side with big toothy grins as they point at Sphincter—
Good one, Shiv. Girly-man! That woman, she looked just like him!
(glaring at the grinning brothers)
Go sharpen your teeth, you couple of Trump twits.
Prawn, my man, where’d you get that suit? Off the rack at the Dollar Store?
Sphincter is mortified.
(addressing Conjob as he steps
between his sons and Sphincter)
I’ll take care of this, Carry-on. Go flog some Ivanka schmata. Now, Sphincter, this oughta make you feel better—
The president takes to his cellphone, tapping out a tweet. Chortling, he reads aloud to Sphincter:
—Melissa McCarthy! So unfair to diss my Number Two on that failing TV show. Mike Bench is a fine Christian. You’re a fat cow and a heathen. A disgrace! Totally sad. I should grab your pussy ‘til you scream!
As everyone applauds the president’s latest Twitter rant, the Oval Office opens once more. Enter Melanoma, the president’s sultry Eastern European wife—and former nude model. Half-dressed, she slinks toward Trumplethinskin’s desk. Sweeping everything off to the floor, she hops atop the desk and reclines—alluringly.
Oh, mein schönes sexy Melanoma!
Watch you mouth, wiener schnitzel!
(with Slavic accent)
Dunt led me get in d’vay, boyz. Dunt even giff
me a look. I vatch you, OK?
Well, I’m not a “boyz!” Mr. President—please,
we’ve got urgent business. Delicate business.
Well, sir, you’re not going to like it—
—It’s about your first morning in the White House.
What? … What?
The morning after all the inaugural balls, all the buffets with the rich food…?
Tell me about it. By the time I got to bed—
The president is momentarily distracted as everyone turns to Melanoma, gesturing marital irritation. She rolls her eyes and holds up fingers in the form of a zero.
—I felt like there was a Buick in my gut.
Exactly, Mr. President. Something big. Something that just had to come out…Tell him, Prawn.
Well, sir—Speaking of number two as you were …by which I don’t mean the vice president; I mean, unless you’d prefer…Well, sir—you know how you’re always on about the biggest this, the biggest that…? You know, the yooge-ness of everything you do…?
For god sake, Sphincter, spit it out!
I’ll just spit it out, sir. There’s a nasty rumor on Facebook. It’s about your, ah—defecation. The morning after the inauguration…?
Supposedly, you had your sons Uday and Qusay Measure the size and weight of your first White House…Forgive me, sir, but your very first—ah, dung—as president.
What are you talking, you idiot? The leader of CHI-na? President Dung?
Uday and Qusay are a picture of twin horror, as—
By comparison to Obama’s maiden presidential—ah, feculence, yours was yooge.
Disgusting! Fake news! Lies! Not true!
Nein! Nein! Lügen! Lügen!
(purring at the president)
But my darlink, it zounds chust like you.
SIR CHARLES CHAPLIN (1889-1977)
When “The Great Dictator” was complete, as urged by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Charlie Chaplin had altered the original shooting script. The result was what many regard as the most famous monologue in movie history. Here is an excerpt, which Chaplin wrote for the film’s antagonist, occasioned by the autocrat Adenoid Hynkel’s change of heart on considering the social destruction he’d wrought:
… I don’t want to be an emperor. … I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone if possible—Jew, Gentile, black, 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. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical; our cleverness, hard and unkind.
… 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 misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. …[L]iberty will never perish.
…You, the people, have the power—the power to create machines, the power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure. Then in the name of democracy, let us use that power.
Let us all unite.
Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill their promise. They never will!
Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people!
Now let us fight to fulfill that promise! Let us fight to free the world! To do away with national barriers! To do away with greed, with hate and intolerance!
Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness.
…[L]et us all unite!
When World War II ended, five years after his remarkable film, Charlie Chaplin confronted the “disgusting Jew acrobat” claim in the pages of Hitler’s Juden Sehen Dich An. When asked if, in fact, he was Jewish, Sir Charles Chaplin—knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1975—responded, “I’m afraid I don’t have that honor.”
—Thomas Adcock is America correspondent for CulturMag