Now onstage at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills, THE CONSUL, THE TRAMP AND AMERICA’S SWEETHEART tells a tale suggested by true events in the United Artist office of Mary Pickford that took place with Charlie Chaplin and Georg Gyssling, German Consul in Los Angeles and a Nazi party member, to discuss the upcoming production of Chaplin’s film “The Great Dictator” and whether or not it should even be made. This meeting, witnessed by Pickford’s novice secretary, Esther Hollombe (who turns out to be Jewish), would change all of their lives forever.
Playwright John Morogiello shares, “The story takes place at a time in American history that many of us have conveniently forgotten. The Great Depression’s economic turmoil led to political extremism from the left and the right, and at times felt as through the fabric of our society was coming apart. The rise of an unabashedly liberal president led to the rise of right wing Americans who brought fascist ideas into the mainstream.” Sound familiar? I guess it really is true that those who do not pay attention to history are doomed to repeat it.
In THE CONSUL, THE TRAMP AND AMERICA’S SWEETHEART, we meet Gyssling (handsome and charismatic Shawn Savage) as he visits United Artists head Mary Pickford in an attempt to block filming of “The Great Dictator,” directed by Charles Chaplin. Gyssling was charged by Hitler to dissuade Hollywood from making pictures critical of the Third Reich by threats of banning Hollywood product in the German and Austrian markets, thus his desire to prevent the film from being made. Pickford, of course, knows without the essential European market for UA’s films, the studio will not survive.
Pickford (Melanie Chartoff in another star-making turn) calls her other partners and learns each of them wishes the film to NOT be made. But when Charlie Chaplin (magnificently portrayed both intellectually as well as physically by Brian Stanton) arrives to confront Gyssling and propose why his film must be made, stating, “Democracy, you know. It’s the American way,” a battle of epic proportions is set to take place.
Pickford’s receptionist, Esther Hollembe (Laura Lee Walsh, all wide-eyed innocence with a desire to learn the business from the best to further her career), gives the audience entree to the meetings in Pickford’s office between Hollywood’s first female mogul, a beloved actor and director, and, as it turns out, a Nazi schemer. Or is her entire motivation only rooted in money and her desire to succeed in leading a studio? The suggestion of possible Hollywood complicity with the Nazis remains to this day a subject of intense controversy.
As directed by Jules Aaron who thoroughly presents a very entertaining look at a challenging moment of Hollywood history, each of the character’s motivations and emotions are fully expressed, showing us their individual desires and needs in achieving their dreams. The actors, especially Stanton, make full use of the realistic set designed by Jeff G. Rack.
When the fist fight choreographed by Michele Bernath finally breaks out between Stanton and Savage, audible gasps from the audience greeted each strike and fall as the two chased each other around and over the furniture. During the scene, Savage allows us to see both the businesslike charisma as well as the deep-rooted anger so vital to presenting Gyssling as his true self.
Now I plan to watch “The Great Dictator” to see what all the fuss was about relating to the making of Chaplin’s groundbreaking film, which was also his first “talkie” in which he did not play The Tramp, no doubt confronting audiences with more than just his comic brilliance. Surely there is no doubt which dictator he is playing or how he addresses the “Jewish problem” so much as part of the fascist’s mentality.
And please remember history so we absolutely do NOT repeat it with any minority group, ever!