How the World Came to Believe That the Three Stooges Were on Hitler’s Death List
Adolph Hitler’s infamous “Death List” wasn’t without star power. Included among it was Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, H.G. Wells, Virginia Woolf, and at least according to sources like Mental Floss and Empire, Moe Howard, Curly Howard and Larry Fine, aka The Three Stooges.
The oft-repeated story says that, because of the 1940 short You Nazty Spy! — where Moe dressed as Hitler and the Nazis were lampooned — Hitler placed The Three Stooges on his list of high-profile targets. In reality, it seems that the rumor was the product of a rather notorious supermarket tabloid. But that doesn’t mean You Nazty Spy! wasn’t a brave, landmark piece of satire that was surprisingly layered for the proudly lowbrow Sultans of Slapstick.
Per the late Don Morlan, a professor of communications at the University of Dayton, You Nazty Spy! was first dreamt up by frequent Stooges director and head of Columbia Pictures’ Shorts Department Jules White. In the fall of 1939, he walked into his brother Sam’s office at Columbia and proclaimed that he was going to make a Stooges movie about Hitler, who had just invaded Poland. Sam expressed concern about how to make such a dire situation funny, to which Jules promised, “I’ll make it funny.”
As the Wright Museum’s Daniel Schroeder explained in his lecture “The Three Stooges Take on the Axis Powers,” it was a Hollywood rule at the time not to depict foreign heads of state in American films for fear of upsetting those world leaders. Moreover, public sentiment in 1939 was strictly isolationist. Two decades after the end of World War I, the shadow of the Great War still loomed large and Americans had no desire to intervene in another European conflict.
As a result, Hollywood played it safe by generally not taking a stand on the burgeoning war. There was a financial aspect to all of this, too, as American films made a lot of money overseas. To ensure that U.S. movies didn’t offend other nations, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America — also known as the Hays Office — played a heavy hand in regulating the content of American pictures, wrote sociology professor Lynn Rapaport in her essay “‘Hang Hitler!’ — The Three Stooges Take Potshots at Nazis” from the book Stoogeology.
Despite this — and the skepticism of his brother — Jules White proceeded with You Nazty Spy!, bringing it to the Stooges, who he believed would be game. For one thing, as Schroeder explains, the Stooges had just completed a European tour, and they saw some of the horrors that had their fellow Jews running scared overseas. Plus, Moe was an outspoken critic of Hitler and was known to do an impression of the German dictator.
You Nazty Spy! was written by regular Stooge scribes Felix Adler and Clyde Bruckman, and it began filming on December 5, 1939. Seven days later, filming was completed and it arrived in theaters on January 19, 1940. As Morlan explained in The Three Stooges Journal, this was an accelerated schedule for a typical Stooges short, most likely because of its topical nature.
In it, Moe plays Hitler stand-in “Moe Hailstone”; Curly plays “Curly Gallstone,” a parody of German military leader Hermann Göring; and Larry was propaganda minister “Larry Pebble,” a takeoff on Joseph Goebbels. They begin the short as wallpaper hangers when the leaders of the country “Moronika” decide they need a dictator and they hand Hailstone the job. From there, Hailstone delivers some very Hitler-esque speeches, declares some books to be burned and sends his political enemies to a “concentrated camp.” (In the end, all three of them are fed to lions.)
There are other pokes at the Nazis as well: Moronika’s symbol is a swastika made up of two snakes, Moe dons Hitler’s characteristic mustache for a few seconds and the German stormtroopers are clad in raincoats. The title of the short is an obvious play on the word “Nazi,” and the Stooges originally worked as wallpaper hangers because it was commonly believed that Hitler had been a wallpaper hanger. (Mel Brooks’ The Producers had a similar reference: “I was just a paper hanger, no one more obscurer”).
Despite its political nature, when You Nazty Spy! arrived in theaters, it was met with virtually no opposition. In Rapaport’s essay, she noted that actress Mattie Herring, who appears in You Nazty Spy!, said the short created a stir because “none of the studios had done that kind of thing at the time.” The latter was true — Moe Howard was the first American to satirize or portray Hitler on screen — but little evidence suggests the short created any kind of uproar. Morlan theorized it escaped controversy for a couple of reasons: 1) Columbia Pictures wasn’t a frequent target of the Hays Office; and 2) the Stooges’ were considered too slapstick to be considered important.
Michelle Squiccimara, registrar at The Stoogeum in Ambler, Pennsylvania tells me, “While Charlie Chaplin would face opposition for satirizing Hitler later for The Great Dictator, Chaplin was viewed as a true ‘artist’ whose work would be taken more seriously. The Stooges, however, were considered to be more ‘low art.’ So it’s unlikely they’d be seen as ‘taking it to the Nazis’ in any significant way, even if they did do it before Chaplin.” (FWIW: You Nazty Spy! was likely seen by way more people than The Great Dictator as Three Stooges shorts were incredibly popular and played before a wide array of movies.)
In terms of critical reception, You Nazty Spy! was met with positive reviews both domestically and in England. According to Moe’s daughter, it was the lead Stooge’s favorite short out of all 190 films they made, and that getting to play Hitler was the closest he ever got to his dream of being a respected dramatic actor. In 1941, the Stooges played the same characters in a sequel called I’ll Never Heil Again, which premiered five months before the U.S. was dragged into World War II because of the attack on Pearl Harbor. (Yes, their characters were eaten by lions in the first short, but the Stooges could hardly be bothered by such questions of continuity).
Despite the popularity of You Nazty Spy!, there is no evidence that Hitler saw the short as well as no evidence that the Stooges did indeed end up on his dreaded “Death List.” Author Bill Niven, who has authored several books about the Nazis, including Hitler and Film: The Führer’s Hidden Passion, says, “I do not recall any reference to the Three Stooges in the archival material or the secondary literature I read through when doing my book. Even the rumor that Hitler had it in for Chaplin is unsubstantiated.”
Squiccimara at the Stoogeum agrees, and believes the source of the rumor to be notorious supermarket rag The Weekly World News. Back in 1992, after Morlan wrote his paper in an effort to credit the Stooges with beating Chaplin to the punch of satirizing Hitler, The Weekly World News ran a misleading story entitled “Why Hitler Hated the Three Stooges.” While the article didn’t mention Hitler’s Death List, the title was misleading enough to give birth to a rumor that persists to this day.
In the history books, of course, it will go down as the nyuk, nyuk, nyuk period.