The Effectiveness and Evolution of Wartime Humor from the Greatest Generation to the Y-Generation
Propaganda, as defined by Michael Shull and David Witt is the “methodical spreading of ideas in the promotion of some cause, group or nation.”[i] What better way to spread an idea than through mass media? Today we see this taken to the nth degree in the form of the internet, but in middle twentieth century the choices for dissemination of ideas was considerably more limited. This paper focuses not only on the use of movies as propaganda, a means to influence public attitudes, but specifically addresses the use of humor in those films and the ways in which that humor had evolved over the period between about 1940 to 2009.
It is widely accepted that belittling, dehumanizing and laughing at a rival or enemy culture helps one’s own culture overcome both its doubts about the justice of a war and the fear of defeat.[ii] If this assumption is true, then comedy is an ideal method for indoctrinating a culture. Perhaps one of the best places to look for information about the effectiveness of using humor to influence people lies in the advertising industry. Betsy Gelb, Associate Professor of Marketing and George Zinkham, Assistant Professor Marketing at the University of Houston explore the available research to answer the question of “how humor influences responses to a communication.”[iii] What they find is that humor has a greater effect on “brand choice” if a positive relationship already exists.[iv] If, on the other hand, no such relationship exists, multiple exposures to both the “brand” and the humor are necessary to develop a positive relationship.[v] There is a problem though. Gelb and Zinkham found that humor and “product recall” might be negatively related, with humor actually distracting from the product. This creates a need for the marketer (propagandeer) to expose his subject to his product multiple times.
This essay attempts to briefly explore the evolution of humor in films related to World War II from a period beginning just before the United States enters the war to contemporary times. It split into several, admittedly arbitrary periods. Pre-war is any movie released before the attack on Pearl Harbor. Wartime is any movie released between the declaration of war and the surrenders of Germany and Japan. Post war is any period between the end of WWII and the end of the Vietnam War, approximately 1975. Finally, a contemporary period spanning the remaining years.[vi]
The earliest known, American produced parody of Adolph Hitler comes to us in the form of the Columbia Pictures short film, You Nazty Spy! starring Moe Howard, Larry Fine and Curly Howard, The Three Stooges. The short released just before Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator in 1940, a period when the United States was not only still at peace with Germany, but also was a period in which Germany found a fair amount of support from Americans. You Naztzy Spy! was also released well before the enactment of the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, which would inspire later recruitment focused movies.[vii] As such, its message is less about inspiring the masses and more about ridiculing the Third Reich and their associates. It is pure farce, low comedy highlighting the usual Three Stooges gags.
On the other hand, The Great Dictator with Charlie Chaplin was serious comedy. Even high comedy with the purpose of ridiculing not only the Third Reich, but the masses of officials, businesspersons and even religious leaders defending Germany as a “Christian” nation. These same leaders vehemently, even maliciously criticized Chaplin’s production of the movie.[viii] The controversy surrounding the movie delayed its release for fear of public reaction.[ix] Chaplin did not care; he wrote, directed, starred in and even funded the movie. When released, the movie was a hit with the public.
Chaplin lampooned Hitler and Mussolini and addressed Nazi Germany’s official anti-Semitism. While no public reaction from der Fuehrer was ever recorded, Hitler did ban the film in Germany and German occupied nations.[x] Chaplin’s impassioned plea in the deservedly famous speech at the end of the The Great Dictator is as applicable today as it was in 1940.[xi] To quote Chaplin, “The Great Dictator is my first picture in which history is greater than The Little Tramp.”[xii] Chaplin’s son, Sydney Chaplin confirms his father saying that if he had known the extent of evil of the Nazi empire, he could never have made this movie.[xiii] For better or worse, we are fortunate that this was not the case; Chaplin set out to convince America to take a stand for what was just, and as Brownlow puts it in his documentary, “…his only weapon, his absolute weapon, was laughter.”[xiv] The humor in The Great Dictator is distinct from the humor in You Natzy Spy in that Chaplin did not just ridicule, he explored the pain of living in a post Kristallnacht Germany.
Buck Privates, directed by Arthur Lubin, is the first of a series of three pre-Pearl Harbor movies starring the comedy duo Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. The movies also features the Andrews Sisters, and Shemp Howard working on his solo career. The main characters, a pair of scam artists selling unlicensed ties, find themselves caught by the cops, hilarity ensues when they mistakenly line up at a movie theater showing, according to one bystander You’re In the Army Now. Oblivious to the evidence right in front of their faces, the two scoundrels accidentally enlist.
The movie, while clearly slapstick, it is also obviously designed to glorify service in the Army and encourage recruitment. Lubin wastes no time in throwing us into a parade and goodbye party with pretty girls (Camp hostesses) giving out free cigarettes, apples, and other treats.[xv]
The usual tropes are here, starting with the Andrew Sisters singing You’re a Lucky Fellow, Mr. Smith, a patriotic song about the glories of being born free in the United States, ending with the new recruits taking up the song and marching off to the trains and to their life in the service.[xvi] This breaking into song is a popular modus operandi for movies of the period and is used repeatedly in Buck Privates. The black car steward joining in the song responding “Yes’m, I’m Uncle Sammy’s fair haired boy…” in a “black” patois smacks of the ingrained racism that people of the time took for granted, but would today likely result in outrage.[xvii]
In the Navy, released that same year is essentially more of the same with running gags, music (sometimes even overtly racist music; Gimme Some Skin, My Friend is a real head-shaker), and a romantic sub-plot. It was, like Buck Privates, essentially an 86-minute long recruiting film to promote service in the Navy.[xviii]
Different from their predecessors, which largely were meant to humiliate and entertain at the expense of a certain Austrian corporal, Buck Privates and its two companion movies are only incidentally comedies (which is not to say that there are not enough laughs). They are effectively early pieces of peacetime (though prophetic) military propaganda designed to inspire and support the recently established peacetime draft. Abbott and Costello’s running gags keep the audience’s attention, or perhaps even distract the audience from the notion that the movie is really a showcase of military indoctrination.
However, the world and Hollywood changed on December 7, 1941 when aircraft of the Imperial Japanese Navy infamously attacked targets in and around Pearl Harbor, Hawaii throwing the United States into the Second World War. The government’s attempts to secure cooperation from Hollywood in promoting the war resulted in Hollywood producing a number of wartime comedies.[xix] The first was apparently a movie by director Edward F. Cline entitled Private Snuffy Smith, released in January 1942. Snuffy Smith, a hillbilly character who first appeared in comic strips in 1919 and as a comic strip, is still in production, making it one of the longest running comic strips today.[xx] Director Roy Mack later released a second Snuffy Smith movie, Hillbilly Blitzkrieg in August that same year.[xxi] The first movie’s humor was simple, even grotesque, obviously playing on the popularity of the character, more than being a developed script. As such, the almost non-existent plot is distracting, taking away from the movie as a whole.
The challenge of movies up to this point is that their focus is not to be comedic, but to inspire patriotism and support for the war effort, being a comedy it seems was simply a vehicle to attract audiences. It seems that based upon our tiny sample here, that for truly comedic WWII movies, the public would have to wait until after the war.
Catch-22, based on the novel written by Joseph Heller in 1953, is the story of a B-25 bombardier, Captain John Yossarian as he deals with the challenges of maintaining his sanity in the Italian theater of operations during WWII. The title itself is satirical, referring to a situation in which a desired outcome or solution is impossible to attain because of a set of inherently contradictory rules or conditions. The movie, directed by Mike Nichols, and released in 1970 is irreverent, showing the aviators of the 256th Bomber Squadron as shiftless, paranoid, sarcastic and, in the case of some, opportunistic mercenaries.
This pattern of sarcastic, even black satire is seen throughout war movies released during this period. Kelly’s Heroes (1970) portrays a U.S. Army unit in less than honorable terms. The movie puts satirical characters in a serious situation, the planning of a bank heist behind German lines. Kelly’s Heroes finds its humor in the cast of characters, more than the situation they are in; Oddball (and really his whole crew) – drugged up, checked out, sexually ambiguous hippies – or, to quote Big Joe, “Oddball! He’s a Freak!” Crapgame – the swindler. General Colt – the oblivious dolt. All led by Kelly, a disgraced former office, demoted to sergeant who, disgruntled at his lot leads this collection of misfits. Is it possible, even likely that these characters reflect public opinion of soldiers at the time?
MASH (1970), portrays the exploits of three womanizing, alcoholic, rule-breaking, anti-Army combat surgeons.[xxii] While this movie is outside the WWII genre, it further illustrates the change in tenor of the time. A change that was not necessarily welcomed, in one review in the journal Daedalus, the author, identified in the review only by the initials S.R.G. says; “…Since books not worth reading are not worth reviewing and Catch 22 is worthless, my review needs justification.”[xxiii] S.R.G. concludes his scathing review saying, “If Mr. Heller wishes to be a humorist, let him relax. There is more humor, even more satire, in a strip of the cartoon “Peanuts” than in the whole of Catch-22.”[xxiv] In comparison, Pinsker Sanford, in the Sewanee review called Catch-22 profound in that in the story the enemy no longer wore the uniform of the Nazi or the Italian soldier, but instead wore the greens and khakis of the American service member.[xxv] Pinsker states that Catch-22 has become a piece of classic American humor in a way that the vast majority of the wartime pictures have not.[xxvi]
Even so, by 1970, 7 years after S.R.G. wrote his review, the movie brought in $24,911,670., ranking it as the tenth highest grossing picture that year.[xxvii] M.A.S.H. brought in $81,600,000.[xxviii] Kelly’s Heroes (1970) brought in a paltry $5,200,000.[xxix] It seems that demand for this sort of humor existed, regardless of the genre the movie depicted.
The trend for dark humor continued through to contemporary times. 1941 (1979) directed by Stephen Spielberg and starring Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi and Toshiro Mifune to name just a few, grossed over $94 million.[xxx] Lambasting the west coast fear immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor, 1941 is an example of the humor that the public had come to expect from a cast largely populated by Saturday Night Live veterans. Irreverent, even disrespectful, the style is modern slapstick. It is however, slapstick aimed internally at America and not at some foreign or alien source. Comparisons to National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), which shared much of the same cast, are inevitable. Additionally it is difficult to not make comparisons between 1941 and the numerous recruiting movies of the WWII era. There are inept soldiers defending the country, chasing after women, running from authorities, an Andrews Sisters analogue singing at the USO, and even a choreographed dance/fight bit. The only truly noticeable difference seems to be the demise of the straight man.[xxxi] It seems that we have come full-circle.
I started to exclude Inglorious Basterds (2009) from this essay, but it was the most recent WWII related “comedy” available. Additionally, the movie received eight Academy Award nominations including nominations for best director and best screenplay.[xxxii] Christopher Waltz took home the best supporting actor award for his portrayal of the gloriously evil, Jew hunting S.S. Col. Hans Landa.[xxxiii] This makes it hard to ignore. Is it really comedy though?
The writer and director, Quentin Tarrantino describes the movie as a “Spaghetti Western set in France during World War II”. Neither he, nor Weinstein Films bill the movie as a comedy. Additionally, as a comedy, compared to most of the other movies we have looked at, it does not stand up. There is no singing and dancing, no glorification, or criticizing of patriotism. Unlike 1941, which seemed to do away with the straight man, in Inglourious Basterds everyone is a straight man. This movie clearly sits outside the pattern we have established thus far. So, what makes Inglorious Basterds a comedy? Basterds is largely comedy of the extreme, more akin to The Great Dictator than to any of the other films that come between. Unlike the Stooges, or Abbott & Costello, or even Capt. Yossarian of Catch-22, the Basterds, Hans Landa and Shosanna are taken only to the extreme to put them outside the norm yet not so far outside the norm as to be unbelievable, or even unlikely. Like the Brad Pitts’ War Daddy from the movie Fury, Lt. Aldo Raine is a man driven without resorting to overt patriotism/anti-patriotism. Both men are capable of committing acts of extreme brutality; both men are driven by a hatred for Nazis (or, in Lt. Raine’s case, Natzis – yet another circle fully closed. Intentionally? Maybe, given who the writer/director was), both men have standing orders for their crew to kill every German they see. Yet no one could confuse the two characters if placed side-by-side. Whereas Wardaddy can be seen regretting his actions in rare, solitary moments, Lt. Raines shows absolutely no regret for his actions, seems bored and irritated with the whole endeavor and in the final scene of the movie even admires his own handiwork in the form of his trademark swastika carved into Col. Landa’s forehead. This is comedy, which on the surface, is not meant to inspire, or anger, or change the way we think. Basterds is comedy meant to make us uncomfortable, and in making us uncomfortable subtlety inspires us, angers us and makes us change the way we think. Tarrantino wields comedy like a scalpel, in the vein of the clearly graceful and balanced Charles Chaplin, instead of the bludgeon of the Stooges or Abbott and Costello.
With one exceptional outlier, we have come full circle here, starting with You Natzy Spy! and The Great Dictator meant to ridicule and belittle the enemy, leading into the recruitment drive comedies of the war-era, and then into the post-war comedies poking fun at the establishment, to movies wherein the comedy is so refined that the audience does not even really understand on a conscious level why they are laughing. With the rare exception, war comedy has evolved from the ridiculous through the subtle, finally evolving into something only barely recognizable as humor.
Is humor an effective means to influence people? The only answer this essay can give is … possibly. As with any complex topic, there are numerous schools of thought. If Betsy Gelb and George Zinkham’s conclusions are correct and raw humor is a distraction instead of an enhancement, then it is possible that comedies akin to Inglorious Basterds will have greater effect on audiences than any number of Abbott and Costello movies.
Shull, Michael S. & Wilt, David E., Doing Their Bit – Wartime American Animated Short Films, 1939-1945. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, North Carolina, 1987.
Waller, J. Michael (2007-04-23). Fighting the War of Ideas like a Real War (Kindle Location 1379). Institute of World Politics Press. Kindle Edition.
Gelb, Betsy D. and Zinkhan, George M., Humor and Advertising Effectiveness after Repeated Exposures to a Radio Commercial Author(s): Source: Journal of Advertising, Vol. 15, No. 2 (1986), pp. 15-20+34 Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4622089 Accessed: 07/17/2015.
Purcell, Darren Purcell, Scott-Brown, Melissa, and Gokmen, Mahmut, Achmed the dead terrorist and humor in popular geopolitics Source: GeoJournal, Vol. 75, No. 4, New Directions in Critical Geopolitics (2010), pp. 373-385 Published by: Springer. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/41148405 Accessed: 07/17/2015.
Shull, Michael S. and Wilt, David Edward, Hollywood War Films, 1937-1945, an Exhaustive Filmography of American Feature-Length Motion Pictures Relating to World War II. McFarland & Company, Inc., NC. (1949).
Koppes, Clayton and Black, Gregory, Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits, and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies. University of California Press, Berkeley. 1990.
Daedalus, Vol. 92, No. 1, The American Reading Public (Winter, 1963), pp. 155-165 Published by: The MIT Press on behalf of American Academy of Arts & Sciences Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20026763 Accessed: July 18, 2015.
Pinsker, Sanford, Reassessing “Catch-22”. Source: The Sewanee Review, Vol. 108, No. 4 (Fall, 2000), pp. 602-610 Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/27548930 Accessed: 07/18/2015.
Botting, Douglas; Sayer, Ian (2012-01-27). Nazi Gold: The Sensational Story of the World’s Greatest Robbery – and the Greatest Criminal Cover-Up. Mainstream Publishing. Kindle Edition.
The Tramp and the Dictator’: The Laugh Was on Hitler, Susan King. Los Angeles Times, September 30, 2002. URL: http://articles.latimes.com/2002/sep/30/entertainment/et-king30 Accessed: 07/18/2015.
Rose, John, Barney Google and Snuffy Smith. Comics Kingdom, July 18, 2015. URL: http://comicskingdom.com/barney-google-and-snuffy-smith#about Accessed: 07/18/2015.
Charlie Chaplin – The Great Dictator – Full Documentary, directed by Kevin Brownlow, (2002). Source: YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BR7VpE2gpdM Accessed: 07/18/2015.
Buck Privates. Directed by Arthur Lubin. (1941). 8 Movies: Wartime Comedies. DVD.
In the Navy. Directed by Arthur Lubin. (1941). 8 Movies: Wartime Comedies. DVD.
Caught in the Draft. Directed by David Butler. (1941). 8 Movies: Wartime Comedies. DVD.
You Natzy Spy! Directed by Jules White (1940). Source: Dailymotion.com. URL: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xqlsgo_three-stooges-044-you-natzy-spy-colour_fun Accessed: 07/17/2015.
The Great Dictator, Directed by Charles Chaplin (1940). Source: Amazon Prime digital download.
1941, Directed by Stephen Spielberg (1970). Source: Amazon Prime digital download.
Kelly’s Heroes Directed by Biran G. Hutton (1970). Source: Amazon Prime digital download.
Inglorious Basterds (2009), Directed by Quentin Tarrantino (2009). Source: Amazon Prime digital download.
Hillbilly Blitzkrieg, Directed by Roy Mack, (1942). YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=INn-45Kq_lY Accessed: 07/18/2015.
Private Snuffy Smith, Directed by Edward F. Cline, (1942). Archive.org URL: https://archive.org/details/private_snuffy_smith# Accessed: 07/18/2015.
Private Buckaroo, Directed by Edward F. Cline, (1942). Archive.org URL: https://archive.org/details/private_buckaroo# accessed 07/18/2015.
[i] Shull, Michael S. & Wilt, David E., Doing Their Bit – Wartime American Animated Short Films, 1939-1945. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, North Carolina, 1987. 9
[ii] Waller, J. Michael (2007-04-23). Fighting the War of Ideas like a Real War (Kindle Location 1379). Institute of World Politics Press. Kindle Edition.
[iii] Gelb, Betsy D. and Zinkhan, George M., Humor and Advertising Effectiveness after Repeated Exposures to a Radio Commercial Author(s): Source: Journal of Advertising, Vol. 15, No. 2 (1986), pp. 15-20+34 Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4622089 Accessed: 17-07-2015 16:37 UTC. 15.
[iv] Ibid. 20.
[vi] I thought to divide the contemporary period up further, into Reagan era, and War on Terror Era but the limitations of size of this essay make the current divisions difficult enough to manage.
[vii] Aka: Burke-Wadsworth Act, Pub.L. 76–783, 54 Stat. 885.
Full Text of the Act: http://www.legisworks.org/congress/76/publaw-783.pdf
[viii] Charlie Chaplin – The Great Dictator – Full Documentary, directed by Kevin Brownlow, 2002 Source: YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BR7VpE2gpdM Accessed: 07/18/2015. Mark: 5:34-7:00.
[ix] Shull, Michael S. and Wilt, David Edward, Hollywood War Films, 1937-1945, an Exhaustive Filmography of American Feature Length Motion Pictures Relating to World War II. McFarland & Company, Inc., NC. (1949). 114.
[x] Source: IMDB.com. URL: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0032553/trivia?ref_=tt_ql_2 Accessed: 07/17/2015. In Italy, the film was not seen in its full version until 2002.
[xii] Brownlow, Mark 1:34 – 1:38.
[xiii] ‘The Tramp and the Dictator’: The Laugh Was on Hitler, Susan King. Los Angeles Times, September 30, 2002. URL: http://articles.latimes.com/2002/sep/30/entertainment/et-king30 Accessed: 07/18/2015.
[xiv] Brownlow, Mark: 7:00-7:08.
[xvi] “You’re a Lucky Fellow, Mr. Smith” Mark: 12:42 – 16:08.
[xvii] Mark: 15:07.
[xviii] Interesting aside: In the we did not do our research department, when Pomeroy Watson (Lou Costello) is sent to the fleet, he is sent to the USS Alabama BB-60, he talks of going to Pearl Harbor. The Alabama was not commissioned until 1942 and was an East Coast ship until 1943 stationed out of Norfolk protecting lend-lease convoys bound for Britain and Russia on the “Murmansk run.” Source: Battleship Memorial Park Website, Battleship USS Alabama (BB-60). URL: http://www.ussalabama.com/battleship-uss-alabama/ Accessed: 07/17/2015.
[xix] Koppes, Clayton and Black, Gregory, Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits, and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies. University of California Press, Berkeley. 1990. (vii). An accurate accounting of the numbers of comedies alone does not appear to have been produced and no reliable listing was found.
[xx] Rose, John, Barney Google and Snuffy Smith. Comics Kingdom, July 18, 2015. URL: http://comicskingdom.com/barney-google-and-snuffy-smith#about Accessed: 07/18/2015.
The Bodacious Best of Snuffy Smith: A Barney Google and Snuffy Smith Collection by John Rose was released in January 2013.
[xxi] Source: IMDB.com, URL: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0034854/ Accessed: 07/18/2015.
Hillbilly Blitzkrieg, Directed by Roy Mack, 1942. YouTube URL: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N-2MNiVETCE Accessed: 07/18/2015.
[xxii] While not a part of the WWII genre, M.A.S.H. still illustrates a sea change in the humor in war movies during the Vietnam period.
[xxiii] Daedalus, Vol. 92, No. 1, The American Reading Public (Winter, 1963), pp. 155-165. Published by: The MIT Press on behalf of American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20026763 Accessed: July 18, 2015, 155.
[xxiv] Ibid. 165.
[xxv] Pinsker, Sanford, Reassessing “Catch-22”. Source: The Sewanee Review, Vol. 108, No. 4 (Fall, 2000), pp. 602-610 Published by the Johns Hopkins University Press. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/27548930 Accessed: 07/18/2015. 602-603.
[xxvi] Ibid. 609.
[xxvii] IMDB.com, URL: http://www.imdb.com/search/title?year=1970,1970&title_type=feature&sort=moviemeter,asc Accessed: 07/18/2015.
According to the Westegg.com inflation calculator, $24.911.670 is the equivalent of $149,830,961 in 2014.
[xxix] Box Office Mojo. URL: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=kellysheroes.htm Accessed: 07/18/2015.
[xxxi] Unless we count Toshiro Mifune’s Japanese submarine commander as such, his playing off Slim Pickens – who always plays Slim Pickens – is excellent.
[xxxii] Quentin Tarantino Biography – Film Actor, Screenwriter, Television Actor, Director, Producer (1963–). URL: http://www.biography.com/people/quentin-tarantino-9502086#recent-work Accessed: 07/18/2015.