#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┬áthe 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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#154 (tie) – Only Angels Have Wings (1939), dir. Howard Hawks

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Pea-nuuuuuuuuuuuts!!! Cary Grant and Jean Arthur star in Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Howard Hawk’s action-packed adventure melodrama about mail pilots flying dangerous mountain routes in South America.

A young woman gets mixed up with a group of hard livin’, hard drinkin’ expatriate pilots who careen through a life of reckless adventure in Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings (1939). Cary Grant plays the manager of a small airline contracted to carry the mail through dangerous South American mountain passes. Equipped with small, out-of-date planes, the pilots don’t have the equipment needed to fly above the mountains or navigate safely in bad weather, making every flight a chance for high drama. Our window into this insane business is a plucky American woman (Jean Arthur), who steps off a boat for what is supposed to be a few hours and finds herself unable to resist Grant’s churlish appeal. This is the first movie by Howard Hawks we are going to discuss, but it is certainly not the last, as Hawks has more films on the Sight & Sound 250 list than any other American director. (121 min.) Continue reading