Thursday, March 21, 2013

NAZTY NUISCANCE (1943)


When last we saw Adolf Hitler, he was being tortured by Satan's minions in the finale of The Devil with Hitler, Hal Roach's 45-minute "Streamliner" comedy. Either there was overwhelming demand for another Hitler farce or Roach's writers were unable to come up with anything new, because two years later came Nazty Nuisance, another slapstick epic featuring the axis punching bags getting their comeuppance, only this time by American soldiers and an orangutan. With a logline like that, you wouldn't expect it to be the 1943-model of Zero Dark Thirty, but that's exactly where it leads to. But more on that later.

Even though their characters were killed off in their previous appearance, Bobby Watson and Joe Devlin repeat their landmark roles as Hitler and Mussolini, making this perhaps Hollywood's first prequel. Johnny Arthur replaces George E. Stone as their Japanese counterpart Suki-Yaki. (What, two years since the first movie and the writers still hadn't heard of Hirohito?) Once again, Der Fuhrer is trying to double-cross his fascist friends, this time by signing a worthless peace treaty with Chief Paj Mab, the ruler of Norum (pronounced "No room"), an island in the Pacific. Mussolini and Suki-Yaki tag along to keep an eye on things. Only when a clever group of American seamen are washed-up on Norum are things set to right via a phony magic act.

Clearly, anyone expecting another The Devil with Hitler won't be getting their money's worth here. As movie follow-ups go, Nazty Nuisance isn't even The Godfather 3, and that featured Sofia Coppola in a major role. The problem, as usual in these kinds of situations, is the idea itself. Nazty Nuisance lacks not only the bizarre story of its predecessor, but an exact title as well. The posters say That Nazty Nuisance. The movie credits read simply Nazty Nuisance. Maybe somewhere there's a preview where it's called Nuisance.

Ma, he's making eyes at me...
Striving for the bloodcurdling verisimilitude that The Devil with Hitler by and large avoided, Nazty Nuisance opens with a scene featuring Hitler meeting with his inner circle. Unfortunately, the prop man must have been at lunch, since the opening tracking shot is disrupted by a very obvious bump by something on the floor. In his brief role, former Laurel & Hardy director/gagman Charley Rogers actually bears a resemblance to Josef Goebbels. Had the movie focused on Hitler's gang, it would've made for a more interesting satire. But then it wouldn't have been a cut-rate Hal Roach movie.

Almost the real things.
Joe Devlin's Mussolini, as usual, doesn't disappoint -- he looks more like Il Duce than Il Duce -- and gets cheap laughs pretty easily through sheer, idiot bluster. Unfortunately, after George E. Stone's outrageously insulting "yellowface" Suki-Yaki in The Devil with Hitler, Johnny Arthur's attempt at realism is something of a letdown. Your definition of realism, however, may have to do with your ethnic background.

Frank Faylen (right)  puts the double-whammy
on Johnny Arthur.
On the other hand, it's always a treat to see Frank Faylen (Address Unknown) as your stereotypical  down-to-earth American -- here, Seaman Benson, who disguises himself as a magician in order to entertain, then capture, the axis leaders. One of those great utility actors, Faylen was believable in comedies, dramas and whatever Nazty Nuisance is.





Benson messes with the three despots by making them physically ill at dinner. I admit, without shame, to have found Hitler's reactions -- pop-eyed from eating a stew filled with hot pepper, pretending to enjoy a glass of kerosene substituted for wine -- hysterically funny. Having been laid low with an intestinal flu at the time, my only excuse is that my defenses were down. Yet that photo on the right still makes me laugh every time I look at it. So, yes, it is funny whether I'm sick or not.

Three men and a monkey.
Once the orangutan turns up, it's every homo sapien for himself. Benson initially convinces Hitler and Mussolini that he's turned Suki-Yaki into the simian, who proceeds to get drunk on a flask of wine. Naturally, this leads to a pillow fight involving the remaining two axis leaders and Hitler's aide, all of who are dressed in their long-johns -- a comedy standby when you run out of other ideas. Come to think of it, so is drinking kerosene. Did people really keep cans of that stuff lying around the kitchen back then?

"Don't worry,  Code Pink will bail us out."
The bad guys return to their submarine, only to discover that it's been taken over by the American sailors -- and here's where it starts to resonate with today's unsuspecting audience. Locking them in an airtight area aboard the sub, Seaman Benson is ready to go all Abu Ghraib when he hears Hitler boasting of the German navy torpedoing a refugee ship and machine-gunning the lifeboats. But the Captain stops him, reminding him, "It's against the rules of international warfare. Prisoners of war have gotta be treated with respect." I had to rewind to make sure this guy's name wasn't Eric Holder.

Once the Captain is out of earshot, though, Benson engages in psychological torture, making the prisoners believe that the sub is sinking to the bottom of the ocean. Frightened like little girls, the three quickly blame each other for their predicament, driving them to physically abuse each other without Americans getting involved. Memo to CIA: That's the way it's done.

You'll believe a fascist really can fly.
Benson avoids being frogmarched to a court-martial only because the sub really does blow a gasket. The crewmen help the axis "escape" by shooting them out of the torpedo launcher. (The Captain reluctantly allows Benson to kick Hitler in the rear before the hatch closes.) The sight of them flying out of the sub is provided by the Roach animators, who hadn't improved one iota since they created a mouse for Laurel & Hardy's Brats in 1930. The fascists land heads-down in the sand, their legs kicking like mules above them... and that's where the movie stops, the Streamliner having reached its required 45-minute mark. The studio was probably hoping the critics would demand another follow-up just so they could refer to Hal Roach's Hitler Trilogy.


Admitting that The Devil with Hitler is better than Nazty Nuisance is like preferring ballpark franks to dirty water hot dogs. Really, what can one say about a movie where the comic highlight is Mussolini getting socked in the face with a pillow wielded by a drunken orangutan? And yet, overall the movie plays pretty well in my memory. Even the sets, no more believable than a grade-school play, provide a pleasant reverie. I'm a sucker for such things.

The cast went on to other, though not necessarily bigger and better, things. Joe Devlin put his Mussolini to use in two other comedies throughout his 30-year career. Johnny Arthur racked up over 100 roles but, like Devlin, his most familiar character was the reliable Uncredited.  

Bobby Watson portrayed Hitler, sometimes in dramas, nine times. He made his final movie, Vincent Minnelli's The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, in 1962, playing -- well, whaddaya know -- Hitler. He was 74, almost 20 years older than Der Fuhrer at the time of his death. By then, the actor was billed as Robert Watson -- as if trying to escape a past that Hollywood would never let him forget.


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