#183 (tie) – “I Know Where I’m Going!” (1945), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

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He’ll take the high road. Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey star in this charming romantic comedy from Britain’s great filmmaking duo as a social-climbing young woman and a down on his luck Scottish laird.

With “I Know Where I’m Going!” we yammerers are already through half of Powell & Pressburger’s six entries on the Sight & Sound list. But with our chronological approach that’s hardly surprising, given that the duo scored a list-worthy movie a year for six consecutive years. “I Know Where I’m Going!” is something of a departure from the previous films we have discussed, if only because it is much more straightforward and fast-paced than the epic Colonel Blimp or the genial A Canterbury Tale, but it is not without a serious dash of whimsy and visual flair — hallmarks of those earlier films. The story follows Joan Webster, an ambitious woman who has been working to rocket up the social ladder since she was a toddler. She is about to be married to a wealthy industrialist about twice her age, and heads up to the Scottish Hebrides islands for the ceremony. But stormy weather waylays her and throws her in the company of Torquil MacNeil, a Royal Navy officer and Scottish laird of little fortune. Well, you can probably guess the rest of the story, but what “I Know Where I’m Going!” lacks in unpredictability it more than makes up for with excellent humor, beautiful cinematography, and a playful surrealist streak that makes the most of its fairytale setting among the peaks and heather. Continue reading

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#73 (tie) – Children of Paradise (1945), dir. Marcel Carné

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Mime doesn’t pay. Baptiste, a lovelorn stage performer in 1820s Paris, serves as the soul of Marcel Carné’s epic melodrama of ardent love, self-destructive passion, and the populist power of theater.

With materials scarce and their country still under Nazi occupation, Marcel Carné, France’s most successful director of the era, and the famed poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert decided to make the biggest, most expensive film ever produced in France. From end to end Children of Paradise (Les enfants du paradis, 1945) was a poke straight in the eye of the modern reality of France and the modern motion picture in general. French Resistance were hid by the production as extras and crew. The set designer and composer were Jews whom Carné helped hide from the Nazis as they worked on the film. The Germans wouldn’t allow movies to be longer than 90 min, so Carné simply split his three-hour film in two and claimed it was two movies — re-running the credits again in the middle. But what appears on screen also places Children of Paradise well outside the realm of the conventional. Set in 1820s Paris, the story follows the tangled lives of several men who are vying for the love of the streetwise Garance. This in itself is nothing unusual, but the film’s vision of a bygone era is wholly unique — diving into the theatrical past to question the limits of the cinema of the present. The principal wooers of the film are Baptiste, a mime who is the first to elevate his art beyond pure slapstick, and Frédérick, an impoverished lothario with dreams of playing Othello. As such, much of the film is based around scenes of performance on the 19th century stage, often in mime and generally with an over-the-top brio that strays wildly from naturalism. Children of Paradise is wholly about passion — pure, lustful, possessive, or destructive — which the film lays bare in its chaotic vision of old Paris, its romantic cinematography, and the fervent declarations and actions of its characters. (190 min.) Continue reading

#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

#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

#4 – The Rules of the Game (1939), dir. Jean Renoir

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Unnecessary roughness. Farce and tragedy collide head on in director Jean Renoir’s cynical take on pre-WWII French society — both high and low. In this shot, a marquis and the man trying to steal his wife carry the marquis’ mistress after she falls into hysterics — a taste of the complicated relationships woven throughout the film.

We dive back into the Sight & Sound Top 10 in this entry, yammering about director Jean Renoir’s remarkable upstairs/downstairs tragicomedy The Rules of the Game (La règle du jeu, 1939). The film provides a glimpse into the lives of the rich and remarkable in the halcyon days just before the Second World War, as it tracks the affairs and entanglements of an upper class clique while they party and hunt at the country estate of the Marquis de la Cheyniest. The marquis is trying to break things off with his mistress just as a heroic pilot makes a brazen attempt to steal the marquis’ wife. The film also follows the romantic shenanigans of the staff, with a poacher-turned-servant cozying up to a flirtatious maid who happens to be the gamekeeper’s wife. The setting is ripe for farce, and Renoir keeps the conversation and the action lively, escalating the insanity as romantic advances are accepted or rebuffed. But The Rules of the Game is not content to be just a comedy of manners or a madcap party. For all the comedic antics, this is a film of complex, thoughtful individuals with hurts every bit as strong as their lusts, and Renoir’s overriding cynicism finds the melancholy waiting to consume the mirth. So many films and tales urge you to follow your heart; The Rules of the Game suggests you may be better off using your head. (106 min.) Continue reading

#202 (tie) – Duck Soup (1933), dir. Leo McCarey

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Hail, hail, Freedonia! The Marx Brothers — (from the left) Zeppo, Chico, Harpo, and Groucho — declare war with a bang and a song in the anarchic musical comedy Duck Soup.

The Marx Brothers come racing into the Sight & Sound mix with Duck Soup (1933), their funniest and most unhinged film. Veterans of vaudeville and the Broadway stage, the four Marxes — insulting motormouth Groucho, Italian stereotype Chico, silent lunatic Harpo, and Zeppo — first came to the big screen in 1929, bringing with them an anarchic sense of humor that didn’t run against propriety so much as throw a grenade at it. But even though the Brothers (who were actual siblings) tore through their movies like a tornado, their earliest films were typically dragged back to earth by needless romantic subplots and anodyne musical numbers. Not so in Duck Soup, which sees Groucho as the gloriously named Rufus T. Firefly, petty dictator of Freedonia, and Chico and Harpo as a pair of colossally incompetent spies from rival nation Sylvania — oh, and Zeppo is there too. Now in charge of an entire country, the Marxes are allowed to run completely wild, creating a frantic satire of politics and war — and movie musicals. Audiences in 1933 didn’t warm to Duck Soup like they did the Brothers’ earlier pictures, but it has since come to be recognized as their finest film and, with its blatant disregard for even basic matters like continuity and plot, it may be the zaniest Hollywood comedy ever made. (68 min.) Continue reading