October 13, 2019

Play about Chaplin’s ‘Great Dictator’ echoes politics of today

In the late summer of 1939, Europe’s statesmen and generals were worrying about whether and when Adolf Hitler would launch his military to start World War II.

In Hollywood, the gossip mills were grinding about Charlie Chaplin. The beloved tramp of the silent movie era, it was rumored, was embarking on his first speaking role. And not just in any movie, but in a biting anti-Nazi satire called “The Great Dictator.”

Both events, one world-shaking, the other less so, come together in the Theatre 40 production of “The Consul, the Tramp and America’s Sweetheart,” which bears some resemblance to current events in America. It will run through Dec. 18 at the Reuben Cordova Theatre in Beverly Hills.

The title characters are, respectively, Georg Gyssling (played by Shawn Savage), the German consul in Los Angeles, tasked with pressuring Hollywood moguls from making any movies that might reflect badly on the Third Reich (or include Jewish actors); Chaplin (Brian Stanton); and Mary Pickford (Melanie Chartoff), America’s sweetheart of the silent screen and now the most powerful woman in Hollywood as co-founder (with Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith) of the United Artists studio.

There is a fourth character in the play, Miss Hollombe (Laura Lee Walsh), Pickford’s sassy new secretary, who provides for the audience background on ’30s  Hollywood

In the opening scene, gossip columnist Hedda Hopper has just revealed that Chaplin plans to direct and star in “The Great Dictator,” with United Artists as producer and distributor.

Gyssling arrives at Pickford’s office to stop the project. He points out that Germany, including the recently absorbed Austria, is Hollywood’s third-largest market, after the United States and England. Of course, any insult to the Führer would result in a German boycott of all Hollywood films.

Pickford immediately calls in Chaplin, and while the actor and consul exchange a few insults, she phones some other Hollywood moguls, all of whom urge her to kill the project, rather than offend Hitler and lose the German market.

That part of the play touches on the still-controversial issue of whether Hollywood’s studio chiefs and power brokers, predominantly Jewish, were complicit in vetoing anti-Nazi movies during the ’30s to maintain a low profile and continue the screening of their films in German theaters.

To execute the film’s death warrant, the principals scheduled a meeting for Sept. 1, 1939, which turned out to be the day Germany invaded Poland. Though the United States officially was neutral, President Franklin D. Roosevelt let it be known that he expected Hollywood to turn out strong anti-Nazi films to buck up the Allies’ fighting spirit — and nobody was willing to go against the commander in chief.

 “The Great Dictator,” released on Oct. 15, 1940, became a huge critical and commercial success, as well as a high point in Chaplin’s career. His opponent, Gyssling, returned to Germany and was put in charge of anti-American propaganda after the U.S. entered the war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. 

Jules Aaron, the play’s award-winning director, noted in an interview with the Journal that the play would open nine days after the U.S. presidential election, and he pointed to some analogies between the main characters in the 1939 and 2016 settings.

 “The Mary Pickford persona is that of a very smart, very powerful woman, often resented for holding a powerful position usually reserved for men, certainly a problem that Hillary Clinton has had to deal with,” Aaron said.

On the other hand, Nazi consul Gyssling seems unable to censor himself or keep from making nasty cracks (“I’ll wring your little Jewish neck,” he tells Chaplin at one point). In a director’s touch, Gyssling keeps circling Pickford during their encounter, similar to President-elect Donald Trump walking around and in front of Clinton during their second debate.

In that sense, Aaron observed prior to the U.S. election, the play is “unfortunately” still relevant.

John Morogiello, the author of “The Consul” and 28 other produced plays, got the idea for his current drama after reading an article about Gyssling, a regular at Hollywood parties, long after the latter’s death. An ardent fan of old movies, Morogiello said that by the late ’30s, Chaplin felt he wanted to make an impact beyond his film persona as a silent clown and risked his career on his first talkie.

The actual circumstances surrounding the near death of “The Great Dictator” differ from those of the play but in a sense are as dramatic as the playwright’s imagination. All the characters in the play, aside from the secretary, actually existed, but their interactions were rather different.

For one, there never was a meeting between Chaplin, Pickford and Gyssling, Morogiello said. The consul’s job was, indeed, to keep Hollywood from making anti-Nazi films, but in real life, he would have turned to the man powerful enough to censor or abort movie projects — Joseph Breen, enforcer of the movie industry’s Hays moral code and a notorious anti-Semite. One clause in the code forbade any Hollywood film to insult the head of a foreign state, and in real life Breen himself would have confronted Pickford and told her to scuttle any idea of producing “The Great Dictator,” Morogiello said. (In actuality, Breen did not get involved in this particular case.) 

There is one more Jewish aspect in the play, but Morogiello asked it not be revealed so as to not spoil the surprise for audiences.

“The Consul, the Tramp and America’s Sweetheart” runs through Dec. 18 at  the Reuben Cordova Theatre in Beverly Hills. For tickets and more information, visit Theatre 40.