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Cult Movie Picks - March 2013
Remind Me

Nazty Nuisance

Nazty Nuisance (1943-aka That Nazty Nuisance in all advertising) is the follow-up to The Devil with Hitler (1942), from Hal Roach Studios. The films were four-reel featurettes depicting the comic misadventures of Adolf Hitler and his Axis pals Benito Mussolini and "Suki Yaki." Charles Chaplin had set a high bar with the nuanced satire of The Great Dictator (1940), but with the entry of the United States into World War II all bets were off and Hitler was mocked mercilessly in cartoons (notably Disney's Der Fuhrer's Face [1942] and Warner Bros' Russian Rhapsody [1944], among many others) and comedy shorts (Moe Howard did not have to alter his screen persona much to take on the guise of "Hailstone" in a couple of Three Stooges shorts at Columbia Pictures). Hal Roach's two "Nazty" films may not reach the manic heights of ridicule of these examples, but they managed several effective potshots aimed at the leaders of the "New Odor," and Roach found an actor in Bobby Watson who looked so much like Hitler, he became identified with the role for the rest of his career.

In The Devil with Hitler, Satan takes a trip to Germany to prove that Hitler can do a good deed and is undeserving of becoming the "ultimate devil." Nazty Nuisance is not a direct sequel; it opens as a group of American sailors are adrift in a lifeboat after their supply ship has been torpedoed and destroyed by a German U-Boat. Meanwhile, in his lush mountain headquarters, Adolf Hitler (Bobby Watson) tells Josef Goebbels (Charles Rogers) that a treaty must be signed with the nation of Norom (because only then can it be broken!) Hitler is warned that the leader of Norom will only deal with the top man and that he has a nasty reputation for chopping off the heads of those he disagrees with. Hitler attempts to secretly take a U-Boat to Norom without telling his Axis allies Benito Mussolini (Joe Devlin) and Suki Yaki (Johnny Arthur), but the two promptly show up at the dock and invite themselves. At the same time, the U.S. sailors hit land (in Norom, of course) and Seaman Benson (All-American character actor Frank Faylen) bumps into Kela (Jean Porter). Kela is the assistant to a magician who is set to perform at a ceremonial dinner for Chief Paj Mab (Ian Keith) and his guests. Benson pretends to be the magician in order to get close to the Axis rats and sabotage their dinner.

Nazty Nuisance, like its predecessor, was not a Short Subject (which are normally one, two or three reels long), and it was not a feature-length film. Clocking in at 43 minutes, these films were part of a series of pictures that producer Hal Roach was turning out during the war period in an effort to save his studio from bankruptcy. Roach had been having financial troubles since May of 1938, when he ended his eleven-year relationship with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the studio that had distributed his shorts and features through the glory years of the Laurel and Hardy and Our Gangs series. As one of the major studios, MGM owned their own string of theaters, so there was always a ready venue for Roach's films. Roach signed with United Artists as his new distributor beginning in 1939, but UA was strictly a distribution entity for independent producers--they owned no movie theaters. In his book, A History of the Hal Roach Studios, Richard Lewis Ward explains that, in addition, "while MGM had provided Roach with production advances after 1929, Roach was obligated to arrange his own financing for his UA productions, a situation that would soon place the studio deeply in debt." Roach produced fourteen features for UA between 1938 and 1941, and almost all of them lost money. Even the most critically acclaimed of the group, Of Mice and Men (1939), had trouble finding bookings and competing for screens. Roach felt that if he could produce a number of short films at a low cost--films that were long enough for theater owners to book as a second feature, but short enough that the budget would be little more than that of a two-reeler--he could regain his financial footing. In March 1941, Roach sent out a press release to the industry (without the approval of United Artists) touting their new initiative. As Ward explained, "...the designation used for the new films was changed from the blandly descriptive 'four-reeler' to 'streamliner,' a name that suggested speed, efficiency, and the post-Depression American culture."

Nazty Nuisance was the second outing for actor Bobby Watson as Adolf Hitler. Watson had been a bit player and supporting actor since 1925 and can be spotted in a number of largely uncredited parts as hotel clerks, waiters, sailors, reporters, barkers, and the like in such films as China Seas (1935), Libeled Lady (1936), Captains Courageous (1937), Hollywood Hotel (1937), and dozens of others. His high-profile, dead-ringer look as Hitler in the two Roach Streamliners meant that he would be the go-to guy to portray Der Fuhrer for an entire generation of moviegoers. He was cast in the role in no less than eight other films, both comedies and dramas, in the ensuing years--during the war and also following Hitler's demise. Watson was seen as Hitler in the wartime dramas Hitler-Dead or Alive (1942) and John Farrow's The Hitler Gang (1944). Comedy appearances were generally more common, however; Watson/Hitler popped up in Preston Sturges' The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944) and Billy Wilder's A Foreign Affair (1948), and could be spotted as late as Irwin Allen's all-star The Story of Mankind (1957) and the Danny Kaye picture On the Double (1961). (Perhaps the strangest appearance by Watson as Hitler ended up on the cutting room floor. The RKO film The Whip Hand [1951], as released, was built around a magazine writer on vacation in Minnesota stumbling upon an enclave of Communist spies planning germ warfare at a lakeside retreat. This was a post-production plot change by RKO head Howard Hughes however; as originally filmed and edited, the enclave consisted of a group of former Nazis huddled to protect Adolf Hitler [Watson], still alive and scheming his comeback in rural Minnesota!)

As for Hal Roach Studios, the plan to switch to Streamliners worked, and all of the not-quite-feature-length films turned a profit at the box-office. Nazty Nuisance, for example, was one of the costliest of the Streamliners to produce at $126,000, but it provided a producer's share of rentals of $230,000. The most successful of the short-format films were also war related: a series of service comedies starring William Tracy and Joe Sawyer. The Streamliner experiment came to a halt in 1943, however. The previous year Hal Roach, as an ex-Army Reserve officer, had been called up to active duty. The fifty-year-old Major Roach reported for duty in July of 1942, and with the last eight Streamliners for the 1942-1943 season nearing completion, Roach decided to suspend production at the studio for the duration. The Hal Roach Studios survived the shutdown with income from reissues of old films and from renting out their studio facilities (including to the Army Signal Corps); active production resumed in the television era.

Producer: Glenn Tryon
Director: Glenn Tryon
Screenplay: Earle Snell, Clarence Marks
Cinematography: Robert Pittack
Art Direction: Charles D. Hall
Music: Edward Ward
Film Editing: Bert Jordan
Cast: Bobby Watson (Adolf Hitler), Joe Devlin (Benito Mussolini), Johnny Arthur (Suki Yaki), Jean Porter (Kela - Magician's Assistant), Ian Keith (Chief Paj Mab), Henry Victor (Kaptian von Popoff), Emory Parnell (Capt. Spense), Frank Faylen (Seaman Benson), Ed 'Strangler' Lewis (Paj Mab's Guard), Abe 'King Konh' Kashey (Paj Mab's Guard #2)

By John M. Miller