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Hollywood and tyrants: How filmmakers take on the powerful

Charlie Chaplin in <em>The Great Dictator. </em>
Roy Export SAS
Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator.

In film lore, movie moguls are nearly always pictured as tyrants, directors as dictators, producers as despots, so you'd think I'd be used to the notion of authoritarianism by now.

But this era of political autocrats has me rattled, not least because it will inevitably result in a raft of strongman movies in a couple of years.

Apparently, it has Jon Stewart rattled, too, at least judging from the speech he gave at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts when he was presented with the 2022 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

The banana peel in the coal mine

"Comedy doesn't change the world," he told the audience, "but it's a bellwether. We're the banana peel in the coal mine. When a society is under threat, comedians are the ones who get sent away first. It's just a reminder to people that democracy is under threat. Authoritarians are the threat to comedy, to art, to music, to thought, to poetry, to progress, to all those things."

True enough, and it has me pondering how the arts have dealt with authoritarians through the years.

In Shakespeare's day, you had to be a fool to speak truth to power. King Lear's Fool, for instance, mocked the king's decision to give away his kingdom to his daughters. He'd been granted a dispensation to say what he wanted because no one took him seriously. He served at the pleasure of the crown.

Offstage, of course, so did Elizabethan playwrights. The spiritual descendants of those playwrights now work in the film industry, and at least in Hollywood, they don't have to worry much about catering to tyrants (unless you count studio bosses).

Casting a jaundiced eye on those who wield power

For the most part, depicting authoritarians as monsters is so axiomatic, it's become Hollywood's default position, whether absolute power is being wielded by Ian McDiarmid as a Sith lord, by Donald Sutherland as a despot who stages Hunger Games, or by Meryl Streep as a fashion editor whose iron fist comes sheathed in a velvet glove.

Casting a jaundiced eye on those who wield power has a long history in Hollywood, dating back at least to the 1930s when Charlie Chaplin caught a screening of the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will.

The film's effectiveness at portraying Adolph Hitler as almost God-like terrified most observers, but Chaplin reportedly cracked up at director Leni Riefenstahl's excesses. As his Little Tramp already had the toothbrush mustache, he figured two could play at this game, and in his satirical 1940 comedy, The Great Dictator, he mocked the German Fuhrer by speaking German-accented gibberish as Adenoid Hynkel, the "Phooey" of Tomania. (He also played a lowly barber who was the Phooey's virtual twin.)

Mocking strongmen in an era of strongmen

Chaplin said in his autobiography that he couldn't have made the film funny if he'd known, then, the full extent of Nazi evil. But ridiculing Hitler as a clown, worked for audiences.

Chaplin wasn't the first comic to mock strongmen in an era noted for the likes of Hitler and Benito Mussolini. The Three Stooges had just released a short called You Nazty Spy. And seven years earlier, in 1933, the Marx Brothers comedy Duck Soup had cast Groucho as goofy tyrant Rufus T. Firefly in a satirical look at how nations were dealing with theGreat Depression.

And astonishingly, that same year the entirely serious drama Gabriel Over the White House offered an approving look at a president played by Walter Huston (John Huston's father, Anjelica Huston's grandfather) who thought tyranny was the ideal way to lift the U.S. economy.

The film was financed by right-wing newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, and admired by no less a progressive than President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And though, under the guise of wanting the greatest good for the greatest number, it was essentially preaching fascism, it made a tidy little profit at the box office.

Taming despots while Nero fiddled and Rome burned

After World War II, this notion of a benign dictatorship couldn't play anymore for most audiences. And Hollywood fell back on time-honored notions. None more time-honored than that of Roman emperors persecuting Christians. For instance, Peter Ustinov's vainglorious Nero in 1951's Quo Vadis.

In the 1950s when Hollywood needed a despot tamed, it called on Deborah Kerr. Ustinov's ridiculous Nero was a lost cause, so while he fiddled and Rome burned, Kerr set about taming Robert Taylor's jerk of a Roman general, just as she would, a few years later, do her best to tame Yul Brynner's petulant Siamese monarch in The King and I.

Darkness and real-life dystopias

These were hardly realistic portrayals, but over the next few decades, filmmakers increasingly gave us films about the ousting of tyrants that were realistic: the struggle against Greece's military Junta in the film "Z," the wrenching last months of Argentina's military dictatorship in the Oscar-winning The Official Story, and a feel-good film called No about the Chilean campaign to oust Augusto Pinochet.

But perhaps no film about a despot hit harder than one set in the east-African nation of Uganda. In The Last King of Scotland, Forest Whitaker won a Best Actor Oscar playing the corrupt general turned brutal dictator Idi Amin, taking audiences from his populist early days all the way to the paranoid reign of terror that earned him the moniker "the Butcher of Uganda."

Can comedy survive this new moment?

What nearly all these films have in common is a conviction that authoritarians must ultimately fail. In fact, way back in 1940, that's the sentiment that Charlie Chaplin used to end The Great Dictator. After clowning for two hours, and even dancing a world domination pas de deux with a balloon globe, he addressed the camera as the lowly barber who had, in an unlikely plot twist, switched places with the "Phooey."

And in his own voice, without any comic flourishes at all, Chaplin spoke for several minutes from the heart, about shared humanity, holding fast to ideals, and uniting in the name of democracy.

It's hard to imagine today how audiences received this speech in the run-up to World War II. Critics wrote that its lack of comedy broke the film's spell, but it's undeniably arresting as a capper to what became Chaplin's biggest commercial success.

And it's something I thought about when I heard Jon Stewart's acceptance speech for the Mark Twain prize — which you'll be able to watch for yourself on PBS on June 21st.

Stewart has built his career on directly and sincerely addressing his audience, leaving jokes aside at times, and posing queries like the one he posed — and answered — early in his remarks:

"Is comedy gonna survive in this new moment. I've got news for you. Comedy survives every moment."

Even, we all have to hope, moments where madmen run the show, and laughs catch in your throat.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.