One of the best-known sketches, first performed on Caesar's Hour, is known as "The German General." In it, Howard Morris plays a German military valet who helps "mein general" get dressed in his class-A uniform. The two don't speak in English, or German; rather this is the great example of "double-talk," that remarkable gift that comics have of speaking in what sounds like a real language but is ultimately just gibberish. The punchline for the sketch SPOILER ALERT is a tad too quick, but pay attention, and you'll see that the general is not preparing for a staff meeting but SPOILER ALERT! instead he is the doorman at the hotel where he stays.
The sketch, Caesar once told an audience, was based on the classic German silent film The Last Laugh, F.W. Murnau's exemplar of what Alfred Hitchcock would call "pure cinema." In that film, a doorman in a posh city hotel lives in a working-class neighborhood, where he is treated like a man of great importance -- mainly because of the uniform he must wear. He carries himself with an almost-regal bearing as he acknowledges his neighbors. When he is demoted to washroom attendant, he's so afraid to return home that he steals the uniform they took off his person so that he can maintain the pretense. It is a beautiful, heartbreaking film.
Watching Morris and Caesar in this sketch, a few things strike me:
The interaction between Morris and Caesar is brilliant. Morris keeps up with Caesar's hilarious double-talk. At this point in their careers, they knew each other very well -- and trusted each other when one of them -- okay, when Sid -- would adlib. (Double-talk is really a form of adlibbing anyway.)
Though it's been only ten years since the end of the war, and the revelations about the Holocaust, the Germans still provide a source of humor for these Jewish-American comics. (When Brooks accepted his Tony award for The Producers, he said, "I'd like to thank Hitler for being so funny.") The ridiculousness of the preparations to dress the general -- especially for such a working-class job -- mock the obsession for order, for discipline, and for the will to dominate.
This leads me to another observation about homosexuality and fascism.
Morris's attendant clearly relishes his subservient place. He speaks in a rather high-pitched, if not exactly effeminate, voice, a tone that is great contrast to the German shepherd commands of Caesar. At times he seems to frolic as he dresses his commandant. After the general is all dressed, he turns to the mirror and speaks the famous lines from Disney's Snow White, and Morris hides behind the general to speak in an exaggerated high-pitched voice to affirm how great the general looks. Notice also the way he carefully brushes off the medals. The body contact the two have, as Morris nearly chokes the general for pinching the collar right on the general's neck, is very subtly erotic. In many different pop culture expressions, homosexuality and fascism are closely linked (despite the fact that Hitler tried to lock up homosexuals). You can see the connections in Kenneth Anger's avant-garde classic Scorpio Rising, in Wolfgang Peterson's Das Boat, and in Oliver Stone's JFK.
But having suggested this relationship be a bit counter to the contemporary social mores, I should also note that it's all played for laughs. This is what is often done to cultural minorities in terms of media and pop cultural representation: make fun of the outsiders. The homo-erotics of Morris's dressing the general are ignored in favor of the hilarious nonsensical banter between Morris and Caesar. It's all for the laugh, and of course writing about the sketch in those terms emphasizes the comic jabs at Germans, not homosexuals. But when examining noted cultural works of a long-gone age, it's important to consider possible counter-readings, in order to expand the conversation.