#110 (tie) – The Lady Eve (1941), dir. Preston Sturges

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Paradise regained. Henry Fonda doesn’t stand a chance when confronted with the forward charm of Barbara Stanwyck in the farcical romantic comedy The Lady Eve.

Things have been rather serious here at Fan With a Movie Yammer of late. Deep, arty examinations of the soul, destitute farmers suffering without escape, and hell, even the more comedic flicks were filled with war, oppression, murder, and Nazis. So thank goodness for The Lady Eve (1941), writer/director Preston Sturges’ screwball comedy of sexy banter and undignified pratfalls. Sturges was one of the first auteurs in Hollywood, putting out a string of smart comedies that he both wrote and directed — an unusual combination during the days of the studio system. In The Lady Eve, Henry Fonda stars as a reedy, awkward snake expert who happens to be the heir to a brewing fortune. Barbara Stanwyck is a grifter who charms Fonda in order to rip him off at the card table, but ends up inadvertently falling for the big dork. As is the case in pretty much every romantic comedy, misunderstanding and pride cast our two leads asunder, but what sets The Lady Eve apart from its ho-hum rom-com brethren is its willingness to be positively ludicrous. It also doesn’t hurt that Stanwyck’s forceful con artist and Fonda’s dopey scientist have a lopsided chemistry that burns with sexual tension. (94 min.) Continue reading

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#144 (tie) – The Great Dictator (1940), dir. Charlie Chaplin

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Schweinehund! Charlie Chaplin sticks it to the Fascists in the guise of Adenoid Hynkel, a petty, antisemitic dictator with a rather obvious inspiration. With World War II raging, The Great Dictator savages the demagogues of the day and makes the case for collective effort to make a kinder, better world.

It is a strange twist of fate that one of the most beloved and one of the most reviled men of the 20th century both sported the same iconic, if unflattering, bit of lip hardware. Charlie Chaplin donned the toothbrush mustache as essentially clown makeup, providing his Little Tramp character a trait every bit as essential as his derby and cane. Adolf Hitler certainly had an iconic appearance of his own, but chances are he didn’t find his stache to be particularly amusing. Chaplin, however, felt otherwise about the German Fuhrer, having apparently been inspired to parody Hitler after finding the overblown Nazi propaganda of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will to be laugh-out-loud ridiculous. Chaplin began filming The Great Dictator (1940) in September 1939, just as World War II kicked off, but it should be noted that this was an American film and the United States was still more than two years away from entering the war. In this regard, Chaplin was flying directly in the face of American isolationist sentiment and taking head on the Fascist forces and growing antisemitism of Europe. And in doing so he demonstrates one of the true powers of comedy: the mighty don’t necessarily mind being feared or hated, but to be made ridiculous… that hits where it hurts. (124 min.) Continue reading

#144 (tie) – The Wizard of Oz (1939), dir. Victor Fleming

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And your little blog too! Dorothy’s adventure with the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion represents one of the most enduring children’s classics to ever come out of Hollywood. But how does The Wizard of Oz hold up to adult eyes?

It’s very difficult to open a yammer on The Wizard of Oz (1939) without resorting to lame jokes about not being in Kansas or otherwise heading somewhere over the rainbow — so we’ll just skip that and get to it. Now a beloved musical and children’s film, The Wizard of Oz was actually a tumultuous production that burned through a number of directors and stars before largely failing at the box office upon its initial release. But the movie slowly gained traction through airings on television, moving from cult status to bona fide classic in subsequent decades. As you likely know, the movie tells the adventures of farmgirl Dorothy Gale, who travels through the magical land of Oz with a scarecrow, a tin man, and a lion as they seek the assistance of the titular wizard. Of course, there’s a wicked witch and some flying monkeys to contend with along the way. The movie is an unusual one for the Sight & Sound list, which is often so vigorously serious and adult with regard to its selections. The Wizard of Oz is very much a children’s film, abounding with broad performances, outrageously vibrant costumes and sets, goofy (but unshakable) songs, and a decided lack of nuance or subtlety. But there is a definite charm and energy to the film that makes it worthy of the declaration in its opening credits: “to the Young in Heart …we dedicate this picture.” (101 min.) Continue reading

#117 (tie) – Trouble in Paradise (1932), dir. Ernst Lubitsch

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Francs, but no francs. Kay Francis’ widowed heiress and Herbert Marshall’s suave thief are two-thirds of a love triangle in Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, one of funniest and most sophisticated romantic comedies ever to come out of Hollywood.

If there’s one problem with silent films it’s that it is pretty much impossible to be witty looking. Without sound you can be funny, but you can’t be witty. Likewise, you can be glamorous but not debonair; ingenious but not coolly analytical; in love but unpoetically so. American sound comedies of the 1930s seemed to be hell bent on changing all of that — their characters don’t talk so much as verbally machine gun — and the man who pretty much defined the sophisticated end of stylish movie repartee was German-born director Ernst Lubitsch. After scoring successes with German silent comedies and historical dramas, Lubitsch moved to Hollywood in 1922. At the advent of the sound era he became one of the principal directors and innovators of a newly developed genre: the movie musical. And in the 1930s and 40s he crafted some of the most impeccable screen comedies ever made — three of which are on the Sight & Sound list. Trouble in Paradise (1932) is arguably his greatest triumph, bringing a suave sophistication, irreverent amorality, and a forthright attitude towards sex that manages to be provoking and ridiculous but mature and considered. It was also too risque for the powers that be, and Trouble in Paradise was not allowed to be screened after the Production Code was imposed in Hollywood in 1935. As a result, one of the finest Hollywood comedies of all time has unfairly become one of the least seen. (83 min.) Continue reading

#110 (tie) – Bringing Up Baby (1938), dir. Howard Hawks

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Since my Baby left me… Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, and George serenade a roof-bound leopard in Howard Hawks’ madcap comedy Bringing Up Baby.

In the 1930s a new fast-paced and borderline insane form of movie laugh-making came to the fore in Hollywood: the screwball comedy. Rather than falling into the established pattern of wild comedic characters and suffering straight men, everyone is ridiculous in screwball comedy. For you non-baseball fans out there, a screwball is a little-used pitch that moves in the opposite direction to the more commonly thrown curveball, which lead to the term being taken up to refer to eccentricity. Often considered the peak of the screwball form is Howard Hawk’s Bringing Up Baby (1938), featuring Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. And the situation in Bringing Up Baby is indeed eccentric, with Grant playing a nervous paleontologist trying to secure a grant for his museum and Hepburn as a confident but supremely ditzy heiress who tricks Grant into helping her transport the tame leopard Baby to her aunt’s house. The film is even more ludicrous than that sounds, with Hepburn’s lovestruck loon, in particular, serving as one of the most brazenly ridiculous characters to be found in classic comedy. That’s a pretty impressive feat, considering that she co-stars with a very naughty dog and a real, live jungle cat. (102 min.) Continue reading

#144 (tie) – Napoleon (1927), dir. Abel Gance

Napoleon (1927)

Able was I… Napoleon surveys the rain-soaked aftermath of his assault on a British garrison during the siege of Toulon in Abel Gance’s silent epic on the youth and early career of the famed French military commander and emperor.

For a time he was the most feared and powerful man in the world, he gave his name to an era of history, and he was a character in both War and Peace and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. But before he would command hundreds of thousands of troops and be crowned an emperor, he would first need to win a snowball fight. At least that’s how it all starts in director Abel Gance’s 1927 silent epic Napoleon. The massive, sprawling film spends over five hours (in the version we watched) documenting the early years of Napoleon’s rise to power, beginning with his days at school and moving through the first years of the French Revolution, the siege of Toulon, the Reign of Terror, Napoleon’s courtship of and marriage to Josephine, and his invasion into Italy. The film features a remarkable array of cinematic techniques and innovations to tackle the incredibly complex story of not just a remarkable man but also the fate of a nation in transition. Perhaps Gance’s most famous innovation in Napoleon was the first use of a widescreen format, which he accomplished by utilizing three cameras which would simultaneously film scenes that would then be projected onto three linked screens. Unfortunately unavailable on DVD, Napoleon is tricky to track down but it presents truly remarkable spectacle on a scale most movies can only dream of. (310 min.) Continue reading

#110 (tie) – L’Age d’Or (1930), dir. Luis Buñuel

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Stone cold crazy – Lust overwhelms actress Lya Lys’ character as she gets over-affectionate with a marble toe in the surrealist Buñuel/Dalí feature film L’Age d’Or.

Director Luis Buñuel and famed artist Salvador Dalí had a surprise success when they collaborated to produce the silent surrealist short Un Chien Andalou in 1929. That film utilized the logic and imagery of dreams to create a 16 minute string of fractured, meaningless moments punctuated by confrontational bursts of violence, lust, and absurdity. Using the short as a springboard, Buñuel and Dalí attempted to pull together a more ambitious film for their second and final collaboration: L’Age d’Or (The Golden Age, 1930). Not only is L’Age d’Or a full length feature film, but it is also an early sound movie — in fact, it is the oldest sound movie in the Sight and Sound Top 250. Unlike Un Chien Andalou, L’Age d’Or has a plot of sorts, or at least something reasonably resembling an overall story, but it is ultimately a fool’s errand to try to make sense of the film’s internal logic (or for us to bother writing up a summary), as it is also loaded with dream imagery, strange manipulations of time, and scenes meant to do nothing but shock and confuse. (62 min.) Continue reading