1940: it was a political year

Charlie Chaplin The Great Dictator 1940_2

This post is part of the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, hosted by Once Upon A Screen, Movies, Silently and Silver Screenings. Make sure you take the time to read all the other posts which have been posted in three parts: The Silent Era, An Uncertain World, and The War Years.

1940 was a year shaped by politics. Europe was at war again, just 20 years after ‘the war to end all wars’ had killed more than 8.5 million people and saw population displacement on an unprecedented scale. Although America didn’t join the fray until December 1941, war, politics and conflict were at the forefront of director’s minds. A number of films with political leanings or political-inspired content were released, garnering commentary, controversy and, in the case of Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, considerable box office takings (according to Wikipedia, it was the third largest grossing film in the US, beaten only by Boom Town and the catchily-titled North West Mounted Police).

Charlie Chaplin, The Great Dictator 1940_3

Chaplin directed, scored, produced and starred in The Great Dictator, which was his first all-talking film and came five years after his last silent (Modern Times, released in 1936). Anti-fascist, scornful and satirical, The Great Dictator was an obvious criticism and caricature of Hitler and the Third Reich, openly mocking Nazis as ‘machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts’. Playing a dual role, Chaplin played on his own comic persona, tweaking it to mimic Hitler. The intertwined characters – a nameless Jewish barber and the cruel, despotic dictator Adenoid Hynkel for whom he is mistaken – are two of Chaplin’s best and his closing speech, which denounced dictatorships and promoted democracy and personal freedom, is one of his finest on screen moments.

Charlie Chaplin, The Great Dictator 1940_1

Chaplin-as-Hitler looked, of course, a lot like Chaplin-as-Tramp. It’s hard to imagine a less political figure, and even harder to understand how audiences were able to reconcile his loveable character with a clownish representation of a man able to order mass genocide. At the time though, neither Chaplin nor the American audience were fully aware of the atrocities that had (and were still) occurring across Germany and Poland. In his autobiography, published in 1964, Chaplin himself commented that:  “Had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator, I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis.”

Arguably the most successful film to parody Hitler, The Great Dictator wasn’t the first film released in 1940 to do so. That honour belongs to the American slapstick comedy trio the Three Stooges, who released You Nazty Spy! in January. The 18-minute short, starring Moe Howard (Moe Hailstone, obviously Hitler), Curly Howard (Curly Gallstone or Goering) and Larry Fine (Larry Pebble or Goebbels), is set in the fictitious country of Moronica where three men plot to overthrow their king and appoint a dictator. What follows is a classic slapstick tale of mayhem, and the trio are eventually run out of office and eaten by lions.

you nazty spy 1

It’s important to consider not just the political background but the filmmaking rules that were then in existence: the Hays code, for example, prohibited filmmakers from overt political or satirical messages in films, but, as a short, You Nazty Spy! was certainly subjected to less censor attention and the Stooges escaped reprimand. Chaplin didn’t fare as well, Roger Ebert even went so far as to suggest the film actually caused Chaplin great difficulties, and that it would indirectly lead to his long exile from the United States. Of course, that was all in the future. In 1940, The Great Dictator was a useful propaganda tool that skirted around the Hayes code, to create one of Hollywood’s most powerful political satires.

In January 1940, several American political figures had already expressed dissatisfaction with the Hollywood system. Senator Burton K. Wheeler, an avowed isolationist, accused the movie industry of producing pro-war and pro-military propaganda, no doubt a statement prompted by Anatole Litvak’s Confessions Of A Nazi Spy, released in May 1939. As You Nazty Spy! and The Great Dictator would surely have only strengthened the argument for war, they played straight into Wheeler’s theory. Other Senators and Congressman were concerned about the proliferation of communists in Hollywood and their potential influence over the American movie-going public; these worries were to lay the foundation for the Hollywood blacklist and the HUAC hearings in the mid 1940s.

The Great McGinty

Other notable political films released in 1940 include The Great McGinty and Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent. The former, written and directed by Preston Sturges, was a witty and satirical look at corrupt American politics and starred Brian Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff. In the film, Dan McGinty (Donlevy) recalls his rise from obscurity to state governor as the result of a crooked election. Dishonest Dan only gets his comeuppance when, prompted by his wife, he is tempted to be honest.

Foreign Correspondent 2

Foreign Correspondent

The ever-productive Hitchcock released two films in 1940, Rebecca (an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s novel of the same name) and Foreign Correspondent, a fast-paced spy thriller. It tells the story of likeable but naive American reporter, played by Joel McCrea, who is sent to Europe just before the outbreak of WWII, where he meets a peace activist and accidentally becomes involved chasing spies. Hitchcock actually re-shot some of the final scenes of to include a rousing speech urging America to join the war effort, and the film was heavily marketed as a pro-British, anti-German picture.

Tom and Jerry Puss in Boots 1

It would be remiss to conclude a history project without mentioning a few other important events that occurred during the year. Perhaps, in response to the threat of war, it was a good year for animation; the more fun and caper filled the better. Cartoon cat and mouse Tom and Jerry made their debut in a short film called Puss Gets the Boot, a high-energy, slapstick-inspired romp that would set the standard for Tom and Jerry forever.

Pinnochio Disney 1940

Also released in 1940 was Disney’s Pinocchio and FantasiaPinocchio was the studio’s second full-length feature and was based on The Adventures of Pinocchio, an 1883 children’s story by Carlo Collodi. Fantasia was a more ambitious affair; a feature-length experimental musical that included ‘visual’ representations of classical music pieces, including Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. Despite the ambition of Fantasia, it was Pinocchio that was the bigger box-office draw. Screwball comedies also fared well, most notably George Cukor’s Philadelphia Story.

Fantasia Disney 1940

1940. It was, all things considered, a pretty good year.

13 thoughts on “1940: it was a political year

  1. Excellent post! You’ve given me lots of things to think about the next time I’m watching one of these films from 1940.

    Also, so glad you included the animated releases that year.

  2. It’s always elucidating when satirists and comics turn their jaundiced eye on the world of politics. Your selection of films was perfect. “His Girl Friday” is another 1940 movie that still works because it doesn’t pull its punches in that arena.

    When my daughter was in high school she used the speech about fanatics from “Foreign Correspondent” as the basis for an essay and scored very nice marks on the project.

    1. Yes, I came very close to including His Girl Friday but decided against it at the last minute. It’s a personal fave, and I thought that might be biasing me to its inclusion!

  3. Great post! I have yet to check the Three Stooges short. All the others are wonderful films.
    I can’t avoid getting mad at how the politicians pointed the war propaganda in movies. I believe cinema and politics are things that should be as far as possible. After all, one is pure art and the other is full of trash.
    Thanks for the kind comment!

    1. Thanks Le! You should watch it when you get a moment – it did make me laugh! I certainly agree with your point about film and politics – if filmmakers can’t make an honest observation, perhaps it’s better not to make one at all!

  4. You’ve showcased some brilliant films from 1940! I just love your critique. I was particualrly interested to learn that Chaplin’s seminal flick was the third largest grossing film of the year. Wow! Btw, your photos from “The Great Dictator” are stunning!

    Lovely to see Hitchock’s contribution to 1940 included in your post, as well as the hilarious Tom and Jerry. 🙂

  5. A good post. I wrote a parody film review of “You Nazty Spy!” in high school. I wonder if I have a copy of that somewhere. You hit a good selection of the highlights of 1940.

    1. Thank you for commenting, and apologies for my tardy reply. It would be amazing to re-read that film review – I wonder if/how your opinions and ideas have changed! Although we’d have to be selective when re-visting past ‘works’, I for one have some shocking fiction that should never see the light of day!

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