Satirizing Dictators Is Nothing New — Just Ask Charlie Chaplin The Interview is hardly the first time a dictator has been portrayed on the big screen — Bugs Bunny, Mel Brooks and South Park have all taken aim at fearsome world leaders.
NPR logo

Satirizing Dictators Is Nothing New — Just Ask Charlie Chaplin

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/372463647/372623636" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Satirizing Dictators Is Nothing New — Just Ask Charlie Chaplin

Satirizing Dictators Is Nothing New — Just Ask Charlie Chaplin

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/372463647/372623636" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Now the movie that apparently inspired this cyberattack is "The Interview," which parodies a dictator - certainly not the first time that's happened in Hollywood. Sony's CEO Michael Lynton underscored that when he spoke to NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MICHAEL LYNTON: Political satire has a long tradition in film. And we saw it in that vein.

GREENE: That tradition, as NPR's Mandalit Del Barco reports, goes way back.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: In 1918, Charlie Chaplin wrote, directed and starred in "Shoulder Arms." The World War I comedy lampoons Germany's Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II. It was released just after Armistice Day. Decades later, during World War II in 1940, Chaplin made an even more ambitious film, his first talkie about Adolf Hitler.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GREAT DICTATOR")

CHARLIE CHAPLIN: (As Adenoid Hynkel) (Speaking German).

DEL BARCO: In "The Great Dictator," Chaplin parodies Hitler as a ruthless dictator named Adenoid Hynkel.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GREAT DICTATOR")

CHAPLIN: (As Adenoid Hynkel) (Speaking German).

LEONARD MALTIN: He plays Hynkel as an egomaniacal buffoon who seeks world domination and in a very famous scene toys with a giant globe of the world that's a balloon.

DEL BARCO: Movie reviewer and film historian Leonard Maltin says "The Great Dictator" was a box office success.

MALTIN: It may well have been cathartic for people to go to the movies and be able to laugh at your enemy - laugh in his face as it were.

DEL BARCO: By some accounts, Chaplin was already on a Nazi extermination list, though Hitler was a great admirer of Chaplin's and is said to have watched the movie and wept. But Charlie Chaplin wasn't the first to lampoon the Fuhrer. Several months before "The Great Dictator," the Three Stooges made fun of him in their comedy short "You Nazty Spy."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "YOU NAZTY SPY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Why you...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) See this?

MALTIN: This is broad, burlesque fun of Hitler. This is not deep, searching satire. It's parody, but again it's saying to the American public, this dictator is a fool and not to be taken seriously.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DONALD DUCK, DER FUEHRER'S FACE")

CLARENCE NASH: (As Donald Duck) Heil Hitler.

DEL BARCO: Donald Duck also lampoons Hitler's Nazi regime in the 1943 cartoon "Der Fuehrer's Face." And in 1945, Bugs Bunny plays both Hitler and Russia's Joseph Stalin and the cartoon "Herr Meets Hare." Hollywood made many anti-Hitler propaganda films while the country was actively at war, says Maltin.

MALTIN: There was no fear of reprisals. We were already in combat. So you could say pretty safely there was no risk. What? You're going to antagonize them more?

DEL BARCO: Decades after the war, Mel Brooks made merciless fun of Hitler on stage and on screen with his hit "The Producers."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE PRODUCERS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) (Singing) Heil myself, raise your hand. There's no greater dictator in the land.

DEL BARCO: Last week, Brooks told late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel there was a big difference between "The Producers" and the new film "The Interview."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE!")

MEL BROOKS: I waited till Hitler was dead.

JIMMY KIMMEL: Yeah.

DEL BARCO: Leonard Maltin notes there have been many movies done after the fact.

MALTIN: The rarity is to have the nerve to step up and do this while those dictators are still in power.

DEL BARCO: In 1993, Iraq's Saddam Hussein got his turn on the big screen in the Rambo parody "Hot Shots! Part Deux." And perhaps most relevant to today's news, "Team America: World Police" took on Kim Jong Il while he was ruling North Korea. The all-marionette comedy portrays the supreme leader as a lonely puppet.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE")

TREY PARKER: (As Kim Jong Il) (Singing) I'm so lonely, so lonely, so lonely and sadly alone.

DEL BARCO: He ends up getting impaled. "Team America" co-writer Matt Stone spoke to Fresh Air in 2004. He said that he and co-writer and director Trey Parker were inspired by the old World War II Bugs Bunny cartoons.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

MATT STONE: Making fun of Hitler was psychologically empowering. You know, and this was, like, Bugs Bunny putting on a little helmet and pretending to be a World War II soldier to, you know, take Hitler and make him into a cartoon character and hit him over the head with a hammer. That's what we tried to do with terrorism and with Kim Jong Il in this movie.

DEL BARCO: That brings us up to "The Interview" in which current North Korean leader Kim Jung Un's head is exploded. Before the movie was canceled last week, star and director Seth Rogen talked to TV's Stephen Colbert.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COLBERT REPORT")

STEPHEN COLBERT: Did you think about changing his name at all? Like calling him, like, you know, Phil Jung Un?

(LAUGHTER)

SETH ROGEN: We actually did, yes. We did, and then we thought, like, whose feelings are we trying to spare by doing that?

COLBERT: Right.

ROGEN: Kim Jung Un? (Laughter).

DEL BARCO: Sony says its looking for other platforms to release "The Interview," but if history is any indication, audiences might only be able to see Kim Jung Un killed on-screen only long after he's out of power. Mandalit Del Barco, NPR News.

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.