#90 (tie) – A Matter of Life and Death (1946), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

Matter of Life and Death

Stairway to Heaven. The great figures of world history line the massive staircase connecting Earth and the afterlife in Powell & Pressburger’s giddily inventive fantasy romance A Matter of Life and Death.

We are now making our way into the second half of British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s amazing run of films in the 1940s. A Matter of Life and Death (1946) is also the duo’s first movie made after World War II, but the war still heavily informs the film, which centers on the near-death experience of English bomber pilot Peter Carter (played by David Niven). The film also continues the explorations of Anglo-American relations that can be found in A Canterbury Tale and (to a lesser extent) Colonel Blimp, by having Peter’s love interest be June, an American girl serving as a military radio operator. But all of that sounds rather serious, when A Matter of Life and Death is really a fantasy romance, taking the whimsy of Powell & Pressburger’s previous efforts and ratcheting it up to 11. The basic plot is that Peter is forced to jump from a burning aircraft without a parachute. His death is certain, but due to a clerical error in the afterlife he doesn’t die. Heaven tries to correct its mistake, but Peter appeals his death on the grounds that he and June have fallen in love. But then again, this all might be in Peter’s head. With visual pizzazz that matches the fantastical plotting, A Matter of Life and Death is often considered the high water mark of Powell & Pressburger’s filmography, and is the highest ranked of their six Sight & Sound films. (104 min.) Continue reading

#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

#127 (tie) – Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), dir. Vincente Minnelli

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Clang! Judy Garland sings up a storm in Meet Me in St. Louis, a nostalgic musical romp about growing up white and privileged in Middle America at the turn of the 20th century.

The first major sound film — The Jazz Singer (1927) — was a musical. And this is hardly a surprise; early talkies took their cues from the theatrical stage, and singing and dancing have long been a staple of plays and vaudeville. But despite the vast array of musicals that would grace the silver screen over the next several decades, they don’t feature all that prominently on the Sight & Sound list, with perhaps just five making the cut. In our exploration of the list so far, the only musicals we have encountered are a parody of the form (Duck Soup) and a children’s film (The Wizard of Oz). But that changes now with Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), the first honest-to-goodness adult musical on the Sight & Sound list. Directed by her future husband Vincente Minnelli, Judy Garland stars as Esther Smith, a young woman pining for the boy next door ahead of the 1904 World’s Fair. The film pretty much evenly divides itself between Esther’s grasp for romance and the tomboy antics of her youngest sister Tootie, striking a tone of nostalgia for a bygone age that is celebrated through the use of period songs and a number of original compositions that have themselves become popular standards. Meet Me in St. Louis also features some of the most eye-poppingly vivid Technicolor cinematography ever captured on film, highlighting the movie’s already fever pitch energy and melodrama. (113 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

#171 (tie) – His Girl Friday (1940), dir. Howard Hawks

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Follow my lede. Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant star as two conniving newspapermen (and former huband and wife) covering the upcoming execution of a murderer in the bullet-quick black comedy His Girl Friday.

Director Howard Hawks returns to the yammerverse for his third Sight & Sound list movie in as many years. His Girl Friday (1940) also marks the third time Hawks has made use of the talents of Cary Grant, who stars as Walter Burns, the unscrupulous editor of a popular, but very tabloidy, New York newspaper. But Grant takes a backseat in this vehicle to Rosalind Russell, whose Hildy Johnson is a hardnosed journalist and Walter’s ex-wife. Hildy is about to get remarried and leave the newspaper — two things Walter won’t stand for. His Girl Friday falls very much into Hollywood’s screwball comedy form, although the characters aren’t as loopy or pratfall-prone as one would find in Hawks’ Bringing Up Baby or Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve. Rather, this is a movie of very competent — and intensely chatty — characters who are trying to out-scheme each other to get what they want, be it money, love, or that exclusive story. And as it happens, His Girl Friday is actually a remake of an earlier film (The Front Page, 1931), which goes to show that not every remake is a sign of creative bankruptcy. Sometimes a story really needs a second chance, and His Girl Friday is all about seizing onto those second chances. (88 min.) Continue reading

#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