By Cynthia Citron
At first he was seen as a joke. Then, as he continued his campaign of insults and threats, outrageous proposals, and the promise to make his country great again, his countrymen rallied around him and Hitler became the elected dictator of Germany.
At the same time, one of the most popular figures in America was actor/comedian Charlie Chaplin and his “Little Tramp.” Having continued to present that character in silent movies long after “talkies” had become a staple, he decided to put the Little Tramp aside to make a talking film that he wrote, directed, produced, and starred in. It was called “The Great Dictator” and it became his biggest commercial success.
Released in 1940, before America entered the Second World War, the film was a comedy/satire about Hitler and his fascist allies.
But that’s not the story I want to tell you about. A new play called “The Consul, The Tramp and America’s Sweetheart” is currently making its West Coast Premiere at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills. Written by John Morogiello and directed by Jules Aaron, it deals with the conflicts that Chaplin had to surmount in order to make his film.
As one of the prime members of United Artists, a collection of independent producers who had banded together to make and distribute their own films, Chaplin was surprised to find the other partners adamantly objecting to “The Great Dictator.” (Although apparently not too surprised, as he had been shooting it in secret.) Its plot dealt with a dictator named Adenoid Hynkel and his nefarious colleague Benzino Napaloni and a Jewish barber who is a Hynkel look-alike. And because Chaplin plays both Hynkel and the barber, he gets a chance to spoof the villain, make fun of him, and deliver an impassioned speech about democracy when he is mistaken for the Fuhrer.
But when Morogiello’s play begins, Mary Pickford (Melanie Chartoff), who heads the studio, and her young secretary, Miss Hollombe (Laura Lee Walsh) are being chastised by George Gyssling (Shawn Savage), the angry and sardonic Consul from Hitler’s Germany. It seems that Hitler has heard about the script that Chaplin has written and is apoplectic about it. And on his behalf the ardent Nazi Consul is berating the two women.
When Pickford attempts to placate the Consul he responds with a threat to banish all American films from the German market, which would entail significant losses for United Artists and other studios in Hollywood.
And so, like the artists who capitulated to the threats of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s, Mary Pickford panics.
Calling Chaplin to her luxurious office, (beautifully designed by Jeff G. Rack), she waits impatiently for him to arrive. In the meantime, she bestows pithy bits of wisdom on her worshipful secretary, who takes notes on everything she says. And Chaplin, when he shows up, improvises a series of comical dances as he flirts with the dazzled Miss Hollombe.
But Pickford, who turns into Chaplin’s friendly nemesis, is not amused by his antics and tries to convince him to abandon his film. When he refuses, she decides to call the other principals in the company to vote on the issue. Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith, the other two of the four founders, plus Joseph Schenck, who became the company’s second president, all respond with a firm “Shut it down!”
Later, when the Consul returns, he reveals that the only people who refuse to accede to his demands are the Warner brothers. He also demands that Pickford fire Miss Hollombe because he has determined that she is Jewish. And Pickford does.
At the climax of this absorbing and well-performed production Chaplin declaims the emotional five-minute speech that he incorporated into “The Great Dictator” as his plea against war and fascism. Stanton, as Chaplin, delivers it flamboyantly, a little over the top, but still appropriate and moving to this very day. In part, it pleads:
“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. Soldiers! in the name of democracy, let us all unite!”
“The Consul, The Tramp and America’s Sweetheart” can be seen Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm through December 18th at Theatre 40, in the Reuben Cordova Theatre, 241 South Moreno Drive in Beverly Hills. Call (310) 364-0535 for tickets.