#144 (tie) – To Be or Not To Be (1942), dir. Ernst Lubitsch

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Where be your gibes now? Jack Benny stars as a pompous Shakespearean actor of the Warsaw stage who finds himself roped into the fight against the Nazis in director Ernst Lubitsch’s dark farce.

The devastation of Poland, Nazis, gross censorship, Nazis, infidelity, Nazis, espionage, Nazis, dead body disposal, and some more Nazis. Certainly doesn’t sound like much of a hoot, but director Ernst Lubitsch knew better. Radio comedy king Jack Benny and screwball comedy veteran Carole Lombard star as a Joseph and Maria Tura, a husband and wife team of actors in a Polish theater troupe. Due to the Nazi blitzkrieg and Maria’s dalliance with a young bomber pilot, the pair become caught up in a life or death ruse to silence a German spy and protect the Polish underground from the Gestapo. That all sounds like the plot of a super serious spy thriller, and that’s kind of the point, as To Be or Not To Be uses the look, beats, and fake facial hair of a wartime spy flick but turns everything on its head into a dark but supremely silly farce. The film was something of a bomb when it opened in 1942; apparently American audiences weren’t quite ready to laugh at the conflict they had just decided to finally join. But the movie has endured, most likely because, like Chaplin before him and Mel Brooks after him, the German-born Lubitsch knew that humor and satire are particularly powerful weapons in undermining the allure of Hitler and his minions. Countless movies since World War II have shown that the Nazis are among the most reliable cinematic villains; To Be or Not To Be demonstrates with aplomb that they can also be some of the best straight men in a comedic blitz. (99 min.) Continue reading

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SASY Wrap #4 – The SASYs Take Wraphattan

And so we soldier on! We here at Fan With a Movie Yammer have now written up discussions on 40 films (40!) from the Sight & Sound list of the top 250 movies of all time. That’s a lot of verbiage, actually by my count we have now posted over 90,000 words of movie yammerin’ across 40+ entries — and as we move along these discussions have definitely gotten longer and more thoughtful. Hopefully that means we are providing extra insight and not extra tedium — but either way, we’re pretty darn pleased. This SASY Wrap will bring together films 31–40 so we can examine them as a group. Unlike previous blocs of 10, this time we really stuck to watching these films chronologically, with nine of the 10 coming from the 1930s and the one outsider coming from 1940. In this entry we should have some things to say about the genius of Jean Renoir, the rise of the American sound comedy, and how very much we are going to miss the 1930s on this blog. But as tradition demands, we begin with our respective rankings of the last 10 films discussed:

S.

J.

1. The Rules of the Game (1939) 1. The Rules of the Game (1939)
2. The Shop Around the Corner (1940) 2. Trouble in Paradise (1932)
3. La Grande Illusion (1937) 3. La Grande Illusion (1937)
4. Partie de Campagne (1936)
4. Partie de Campagne (1936)
5. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939) 5. Duck Soup (1933)
6. King Kong (1933) 6. The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
6. Trouble in Paradise (1932) 7. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939)
8. Duck Soup (1933) 8. King Kong (1933)
9. Modern Times (1936) 9. Modern Times (1936)
10. The Wizard of Oz (1939) 10. The Wizard of Oz (1939)

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#202 (tie) – The Shop Around the Corner (1940), dir. Ernst Lubitsch

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Please, Mr. Postman. Margaret Sullavan’s character checks for a letter from her unknown true love in the charming but down to earth romantic comedy classic The Shop Around the Corner.

We’ve already taken a look at one film by director Ernst Lubitsch here at FWAMY: the effortlessly elegant but wittily raffish romantic comedy Trouble in Paradise. The Shop Around the Corner (1940), however, is a marked departure from that earlier film, in that it trades the refined trappings of the über-wealthy to focus on a set of retail workers in a shop in Budapest (packed full of thoroughly un-Hungarian American actors). The film also leaves behind the rafts of sexual innuendo and sparkling banter that are a hallmark of Trouble in Paradise to craft something more willing to be deeply earnest about love and loss. But that doesn’t mean that Lubitsch and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson (who co-wrote Trouble in Paradise) suddenly decided to get all dour and dreary on us. The Shop Around the Corner still manages to engage with its artful, but sincere, dialogue and excellent sense of character. Foremost among those characters are top salesclerk Alfred Kralik (Jimmy Stewart) and new hire Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), a pair who loathe each other in person but have unwittingly been falling for each other through an anonymous exchange of letters. If that scenario sounds a bit familiar, it’s because this film was remade in 1998 as the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan vehicle You’ve Got Mail. But don’t let that dissuade you, because the famed “Lubitsch Touch” is in full effect in The Shop Around the Corner, and there’s plenty to love waiting there in Box 237. (99 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