#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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#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