In 1940, the Three Stooges stuck two fingers in Adolf Hitler’s eyes. Now, James Thompson of Greenbelt, Md., wants the Library of Congress to give the Three Stooges two thumbs up.
“Every year I look to see if it’s been added, and it isn’t,” said Thompson, a retired employee of Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.
So he’s doing something about it. On Tuesday evening Thompson rented out the Old Greenbelt Theatre and offered a free screening of four Stooges films, including “You Nazty Spy!” and 1941’s similarly themed “I’ll Never Heil Again.” About 120 people came. Thompson made sure most left with a flier on how to nominate a movie to the registry.
“ ‘You Nazty Spy’ and ‘I’ll Never Heil Again’ are pure satires,” he told me before the screening. “They aren’t your typical pie in the face, poke in the eye, slap to the head. These two films are verbal and visual gems.”
High praise, indeed, but what cinches it for Thompson is the timing. “You Nazty Spy!” was released in January 1940, 23 months before the United States entered World War II. It was also 11 months before Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” was released. Chaplin’s critically acclaimed Hitler spoof was named to the registry in 1997.
“I feel this film is better than Charlie Chaplin’s,” Thompson said.
And it’s special because the team that created “You Nazty Spy!” — the trio of actors, the director and writers — were Jewish. They had skin in the game.
There’s nothing subtle about the 18-minute film. The Stooges — Moe Howard, Larry Fine and Curly Howard — play hapless paperhangers pressed by greedy arms merchants into taking control of the country of Moronika. Moe becomes the dictator Moe Hailstone. With the addition of an electrical tape mustache — and his bowl haircut parted in the middle — he’s the Führer’s spitting image.
The country’s motto is “Moronika Uber Alles,” and its symbol is a pair of snakes twisted into a swastika. The film includes references to book burning and goose stepping, and it lampoons fascism’s inherent violence. When a suspicious peasant is brought before Moe, the dictator barks, “Put him in a concentrated camp!”
The film is a reminder that plenty of people knew how bad Nazi Germany was from the very beginning.
A lot of the wordplay is inscrutable to a modern audience, depending as it does on knowledge of long-ago fads and celebrities. But some is timeless. Gary Lassin — curator of the Stoogeum, a Pennsylvania museum of Three Stooges memorabilia — scrutinized the comedy team’s 190 short films and found that at least 38 of them contained a Yiddish term or expression.
Thompson isn’t Jewish, or even very religious. His gods and prophets are the comic actors of an earlier generation.
“I was 3 when I started watching the Stooges,” he said. He has DVDs of all their work, along with collections of Abbott and Costello, and “everything that’s been officially released by Jerry Lewis.”
One Stooges movie is already in the National Film Registry: “Punch Drunks,” from 1934.
“That’s the one where whenever Curly hears ‘Pop Goes the Weasel,’ he gets violent,” Thompson said. “He becomes a boxer and” — spoiler alert — “when he’s losing the fight Larry drives a truck through the wall playing ‘Pop Goes the Weasel,’ and Curly defeats his opponent.”
Thompson said it cost him $200 to secure the rights to screen the films for an audience. He also made a donation to the nonprofit theater. I asked what motivated his nyuk nyuk activism.
“The rise of anti-Semitism in the country, the mass murders at the Jewish synagogue, the white supremacy murders at the Christian church in the south and the rise of the neo-Nazi movement, it all just got to me,” he said. “It’s sort of my mission at the moment. With the things going on in our country the last couple of years — the violence, the hatred, seeing the Nazi flag carried alongside the flag of the United States — this is my way of speaking out.”
Over the weekend, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom synagogue on 16th Street NW put down his pen and leaned back. He had written the last of the 304,805 letters that make up the Torah, a task he started in September.
Now the Torah — handwritten on animal skin — is with a rabbi in Brooklyn who will check it for mistakes before it is sewn together and returned to the congregation.
Said Herzfeld: “When we gave it to this very skilled scribe, he said the two nicest words I ever heard: ‘Not bad.’ ”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.