More Than Slapstick Comedy: Political Satire from “The Three Stooges”

Naztyspy_lobbyThis is a poster for You Nazty Spy!. The poster art copyright is believed to belong to the distributor of the film, Columbia Pictures, the publisher of the film or the graphic artist. Further details: Original lobby poster for You Nazty Spy (1940). {Wikipedia}

In 1939 Jules White and Columbia Pictures created “You Nazty Spy,” the first satire of the Hitler regime. It debuted some nine months prior to Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator.” The Stooges made a total of eight comedies dealing with war themes.

You Nazty Spy! is the 44th short subject starring American slapstick comedy team The Three Stooges. The trio made a total of 190 shorts for Columbia Pictures between 1934 and 1959.

stooges_hitlerThe Stooges, especially Moe Howard and Larry Fine, were quite active in the war efforts in America. They sold war bonds, and Moe even acted as an air-raid warden for his community in Beverly Hills. Moe and his brother Jerome (Curly)  were raised by European immigrants in a small Jewish community near Brooklyn, New York. Larry was also of Jewish extraction and was known to follow European events quite closely.

In 1922, the Stooges got their start as back-ups for Ted Healy, a popular vaudeville comedian. In the beginning, Moe and his brother Shemp assumed the role as the “shtick” of Healy’s jokes. Larry Fine joined the group in 1925; in 1932,  Shemp left the group, and Moe’s kid brother “Curly” assumed Shemp’s role.

Although extremely shy in real life, Curly was the most popular of the group. He was married four times. Jerome suffered a stroke in May 1946 and was forced for health reasons to leave the group. Shemp returned to the trio and remained part of the group until 1955. Joe Besser was the third member from 1955-1957. “Curly Joe” DeRita joined Larry and Moe in 1957 and spent 12 years with the group.

s_NF_You_Nazty_Spy_2015-08-07_10-09-10Plot of “You Nazty Spy”
In the fictional country of Moronica, three munitions manufacturers—Messrs. Ixnay (Richard Fiske), Ohnay (Dick Curtis) and Amscray (Don Beddoe)—decide their country is in need of a change. They decide to implement a dictatorship, oust the king, and go about finding someone stupid enough to be a figurehead leader. Ixnay volunteers the three wallpaper hangers  working in his dining room—the Stooges.

Ixnay presents Moe Hailstone, Curly Gallstone, and Larry Pebble with the offer to run Moronica. Moe is instituted as the leader (the Adolf Hitler role), with Curly as Field Marshal “Gallstone” — paralleled as Field Marshal “Herring” in this film’s 1941 sequel, I’ll Never Heil Again (both times as representations of Hermann Göring), and Larry as Minister of Propaganda Pebble (a representation of Joseph Goebbels). After his takeover, Hailstone proceeds to give a speech to the masses, cueing Larry to display signs reading “CHEERS,” “APPLAUSE,” and even “HISS.” Moe “bonks” Larry after Larry accidentally raises the cue card for “HISS” at the wrong time during one of Hailstone’s speeches. (In this scene Curly is clearly mimicking Benito Mussolini.)

However the daughter (Lorna Gray) of the overthrown king pays Hailstone a visit, going by the name Mattie Herring (a spoof of World War I spy Mata Hari). The Stooges suspect she is a spy afterwards and attempt to execute her. Then, Larry cuts a round table while a dancer arrives and tells them the delegates are here for the round table meeting. The meeting goes wrong when Curly knocks out the first two delegates. While Moe and Curly attempt again to attack the delegates with golf balls, Larry is beaten up by the delegates. Moe joins the fight as Curly knocks the delegates out and declares victory. Later, the king’s daughter gathers a huge mob to storm Hailstone’s palace. The trio quickly abdicate, and flee into a lion’s den. The lions inside spot the Stooges and chase them to their doom; the lions are seen leaving their secluded area wearing the trio’s clothes, with one burping.

The film takes direct stabs as Hitler’s Germany. For example, the Stooges are paper hangers, and Hitler supposedly had been employed as a wallpaper hanger prior to leading the Third Reich. There are also “hits” at the Nazis’ burning books, storm troopers, a swastika formed by two snakes, and “concentrated” camps.

Details of the Film: 

Directed by Jules White
Produced by Jules White
Written by Felix Adler and Clyde Bruckman
Starring Moe Howard, Larry Fine, Curly Howard, Richard Fiske, Lorna Gray, Dick Curtis, Don Beddoe, Floreine Dickson, Little Billy, John Tyrrell, Bert Young,
Joe Murphy, Eddie Laughton, and Al Thompson
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Release date  January 19, 1940
Running time 17′ 59″


The film satirized the Nazis and the Third Reich and helped publicize the Nazi threat in a period when the United States was still neutral about World War II, and isolationist sentiment was prevalent among the public. During this period, isolationist senators such as Burton Wheeler and Gerald Nye objected to Hollywood films on grounds that they were anti-Nazi propaganda vehicles designed to mobilize the American public for war. According to the Internet Movie Database, You Nazty Spy! was the first Hollywood film to spoof Hitler. It was released nine months before the Charlie Chaplin film The Great Dictator, which began filming in September 1939.

At the time the Stooges filmed You Nazty Spy! the United States was still very ambivalent about entering World War II. Isolationist sentiment ran rife across America and many feared making any film about Hitler and the Third Reich might stir up anti-Nazi feelings among the public. Many senators, such as Burton Wheeler and Geraldine Nye, were also severe isolationists who objected to any anti-Nazi movies on the grounds that they were propaganda designed to mobilize American fervor for war.

While the Three Stooges are often looked down upon by the “elites” and many film intellectuals, one must be fair and give them at least some credit for their courage in taking on the unpopular subject almost two full years before the U.S. entered World War II.

Filmmakers of the era were under pressure not to bring the events upon the European continent to the attention of the American public. This campaign was led by Senators Bennet Clark of Missouri and Gerald Nye from North Dakota. A Senate subcommittee probed “propaganda.” The Hays code discouraged or prohibited many types of political and satirical messages in films, requiring that the history and prominent people of other countries must be portrayed “fairly”; but short subjects may have been subject to less attention than were feature films.

This classic 18-minute comedy short is probably the Stooges’ greatest satirical foray. With typical Stooge humor, the short is crammed full of Jewish/Yiddish expressions (all three Stooges were devout Jews -Curly reportedly even had his own favorite velvet yarmulke he liked to wear when he went to temple). “Beblach!” is said several times (a Yiddish expression that means “beans”). “Shalom Aleichem” is used, a Yiddish expression that literally means “peace be with you” and casually means “pleased to meet you.”

In one scene. Moe orders a “blintzkrieg.”

“Oh, good,” replied Curly, “I just love blintzes, especially with sour krieg.” Blintzes with sour cream is a popular Ashkenazi Jewish dish (all the Stooges were Ashkenzai Jews).

The satire continues as Curly is ordered to shoot the film’s woman spy, Mati Herring. “Let’s go shoot the works,” says Curly, happily. This was reputedly a sly reference to Hermann Goering’s morphine addiction and his shooting himself up with a needle.

Interestingly, Larry had an accident before shooting You Nazty Spy! and can be seen clearly limping in one scene. This perfectly fits Larry’s playing Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, who limped noticeably because of his club foot.

A few sly sexual references did manage to slip by the then-powerful Hayes Office and its resident censors. As Moe recommends a book burning, Curly refuses to burn his “little red book,” filled with notes and comments about his various women. “Ruby Clutch has car -often runs out of gas, oh oh oh, G” (her bra’s size), “Tessie Oomph 2-69,” “Eunice- 110 Goodnecking Place.” Although very mild sexual jokes by today’s “anything goes” standards, these were actually very racy by 1940’s standards. Moe reads Curly’s red book notes, quoting “Woo woo woo.” Curly replies “Woo woo woo” very lasciviously (Curly was reputedly a womanizer in real life).

As Moe makes a speech a la Hitler, he sneaks in another Yiddish sexual semi-obscene expression in “In pupik gehabt habit,” which translates to “I’ve had it in the belly button.”

Interesting Facts
**The title is supposedly a parody of comedian Joe Penner’s catchphrase “You Nasty Man!”
**Moe Howard became the first American actor to portray/imitate Adolf Hitler in this film.
**Both Moe Howard and Larry Fine cited You Nazty Spy! as their favorite Three Stooges short.
**You Nazty Spy! was followed by a sequel, I’ll Never Heil Again, in 1941. **Moronika would also appear in Dizzy Pilots.
**There is a historical pun when Larry says, “If I take Mickey Finlen, I better be rushin’.” Curly replies, “Then quit stallin’.” This is a reference to Finland, the Soviet Union, and Joseph Stalin, who was the leader of the Soviet Union.
**Larry Fine injured his leg shortly before filming and can be seen with a limp throughout the short. Fortunately, this was appropriate for his role as a parody of Joseph Goebbels, who walked with a limp due to a club foot.
**The names of the munitions manufacturers are Pig Latin for “Nix” (a slang term of that era), “No,” and “Scram,” which in turn were known by the audience as slang in their Pig-Latin form.
**The parody of the Nazi banner with two snakes in the form of a swastika says “Moronika for Morons” which is a play on the Nazi slogan “Deutschland den Deutschen” (Germany for Germans).
**The Stooges—all Ashkenazi Jews—occasionally worked a word or phrase of Yiddish into their dialogue. In particular here, the Stooges make several overt Jewish and Yiddish cultural references:
**The exclamation “Beblach!” used several times in the film is a Yiddish word meaning “beans.”
**”Shalom aleichem!”, literally “Peace unto you” is a standard Hebrew greeting meaning “hello, pleased to meet you,”
**Moe: “We’ll start a ‘Blintzkrieg’ (Blitzkrieg)”. Curly: “I just love blintzes especially with sour krieg.” This is a reference to the Ashkenazi Jewish dish blintzes with sour cream.
**In Moe’s imitation of a Hitler speech, he says “in pupik gehabt haben” (the semi-obscene “I’ve had it in the bellybutton” in Yiddish). These references to the Nazi leadership and Hitler speaking Yiddish were particularly ironic inside jokes for the Yiddish-speaking Jewish audience.
**In addition to the “Mata Hari” reference, the name of the female spy Mati Herring is a play on the Yiddish and German name of soused herring, matjeshering.
**When Mr. Ixnay informs the Stooges of how to overthrow Moronika’s monarchy, and suggests that the takeover of Moronika start with a “putsch,” it refers to the historical Beer Hall Putsch, the real-world Nazi party attempt at a power grab in the Weimar Republic of 1923. Curly’s humorous response to Mr Ixnay’s suggestion, to explain it to Moe and Larry, was that “You ‘putsch’ your beer down, and wait for the pretzels.”
**Curly “Gallstone”‘s red book of women’s addresses and phone numbers has the rather overt sexual references “Ruby Clutch” “oh, oh oh! G” (bra size) and the unread “Tessie oomph 2 69,” which were ignored by the censors. This was a key dig at the attempt to censor The Great Dictator then in production by Charlie Chaplin. (Curly was also noted in his personal life for being a womanizer.)
**Curly Gallstone says to Mati Herring when he takes her out to shoot her “Let’s go shoot the works.” Hermann Göring was known to be a morphine addict; this was a slang allusion to the intravenous injection of morphine.
**A colorized version of this film was released in 2004. It was part of the DVD collection entitled Stooged & Confoosed.
**You Nazty Spy was also the first Stooges’ short to bear a new opening title sequence, with the “Torch Lady” on the left-hand corner, standing on a pedestal where each step has printed out “Columbia,” “Short Subject” and “Presentation,” and the opening titles and credits are inside a box with rounded edges. This format will remain in effect through Booby Dupes, which was Stooges’ 84th short for Columbia. 

Information via 

Alt Film Guide 


New York Post

The Three Stooges Online Filmography


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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