On January 19, 1940, the short film “You Nazty Spy,” starring the Three Stooges, had its premiere. “You Nazty Spy” was the first American movie to introduce a character that parodied Adolf Hitler – mercilessly. It got away with doing so only because the official censors in the United States, who forbade any “unfair” presentation of foreign countries, spent their time worrying about feature-length films.
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The 18-minute, black-and-white film, one of 190 shorts made by the comedy team between 1934 and 1959, imagines the Stooges – the brothers Moe and Curly Howard, and Larry Fine – plucked from their jobs as paperhangers in the royal palace of Moronica, and made the country’s puppet rulers.
The real power is to remain in the hands of Onay, Amscray and Ixnay, munitions manufacturers who deposed Moronica’s rightful king and elevated the Stooges after seeing that the monarch aspired only to peace.As one of them says, “There’s no money in peace.”
Moe Hailstone is named dictator, and when he unknowingly affixes a black square of fabric under his nose, or pushes back a lock of hair that has fallen over his face and declaims gibberish that sound a lot like German, the resemblance to Hitler is clear. Curly Gallstone is declared Field Marshal Herring (rhymes with “Goering”), and Larry Pebble (sounds like “Goebbels”) is tapped to be propaganda minister.
Potshots at Nazi Germany
The plot is a typical Stooges story, full of puns, head-bopping and eye-poking accompanied by the usual sound effects, and an ending in which the boys are chased by lions into an off-camera chamber, from which only the lions emerge. But the film is chock-full of potshots at Nazi Germany and its dictator, unmistakable references – like a swastika symbol formed from snakes, Hitler salutes and storm-troopers -- that wouldn’t otherwise make it into American movies before the U.S. entered World War II, nearly two years later.
The Stooges also threw in a fair number of Yiddishisms, including a reference to a “blintzkrieg,” and a greeting of “Sholom Aleichem” pronounced by the three in unison.
The Motion Picture Production Code, which was in place between 1922 and 1945, not only limited the sexual images and references that could appear on the screen. It also ordered moviemakers to steer clear of foreign politics, presumably to avoid offending foreign audiences and hurting ticket sales abroad.
In an earlier film, “Dancing Lady,” made by the Stooges in 1933, Curly was filmed completing a jigsaw puzzle and saying, “I’ve been working on this for five weeks, and look what I finally got – Hitler.” Co-star Ted Healy, with whom the Three Stooges had started their career on stage, responds, “What did you expect, Santa Claus?”
In the version of “Dancing Lady” that appeared in theaters, however, Curly's mention of Hitler had been edited out, courtesy of the Production Code Administration.
Six years later, when Warner Bros. announced plans to make a film out of the real-life story of a German spy ring in America uncovered by the FBI in 1938, it encountered resistance not only from the PCA, but also from other Hollywood studios. In the end, “Confessions of a Nazi Spy,” directed by Anatole Litvak, was produced only after the filmmakers had agreed that it would include no mention of Jews or their plight in Nazi Germany.
“You Nazty Spy,” whose title was a tribute to “Confessions,” opens with a disclaimer that reads, “Any resemblance between the characters in this picture and any persons, living or dead, is a miracle,” though it’s not clear if that was included to appease the censors or to mock them.
The U.S. may still have been committed to neutrality in the war, but the Three Stooges kept up their anti-Nazi spirit. In July 1941, they came out with a sequel to “You Nazty Spy.” Called “I’ll Never Heil Again,” it includes a scene in which Field Marshal Herring (Curly) reports to Moe Hailstone on the recent achievements of their forces: “We bombed 56 hospitals, 85 schools, 42 kindergartens, four cemeteries, and other vital military objects.”
Ultimately the U.S. would enter the war on December 7, 1941, not because of anything Nazi Germany had done by that point, but because Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.