Movie Project #45: Grand Illusion [1937]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

La Grande Illusion [1937]

Grand Illusion [1937]
Director: Jean Renoir
Writers: Charles Spaak, Jean Renoir
Country: France
Genre: Drama/War
Starring: Jean Gabin, Marcel Dalio, Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim
Running Time: 114 minutes

It’s something of a miracle that Grand Illusion is available to be watched these days. The original print was thought to be destroyed during an Allied air raid in 1942. It was later found in the 1960s then transferred from Germany to Russia to France, with none of them realizing that they had the original negative. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that it was rediscovered, and eventually it made its way to the Criterion Collection. And what luck! The Criterion version is absolutely beautiful.

Grand Illusion is set during the First World War, and it follows a group of French soldiers who are held as prisoners of war by the Germans. After two French aviators, Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) and Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin), are shot down by acclaimed German Rittmeister, von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), they arrive at the nearest German base. Boeldieu and von Rauffenstein are able to bond over their high social class, making the captivity seem more cordial than anything. After seeing the treatment of prisoners of war in other films, it’s shocking to see just how well the French are treated here. Even Maréchal, a working class man, is offered lunch immediately.

Grand Illusion [1937]

Yet even with this hospitality, the Frenchmen are determined to escape the prison. Upon meeting the other POWs, it is learned that they have been working on a secret dirt tunnel below their room. Before they are able to finish, however, everyone is transferred to other camps. De Boeldieu and Maréchal bounce from camp to camp, eventually getting settled into a mountain fortress. It is here where where the two once again encounter von Rauffenstein (still very friendly) and also a prisoner from the old camp, Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio).

Even though the fortress is dubbed “inescapable”, the men immediately get to work on developing a plan. One tactic — to get the entire group of prisoners to cause a ruckus by playing wooden flutes — is sheer genius. This act is the most suspenseful of the film, as it focuses more on an actual prison escape, whereas the beginning is more of a social/political commentary.

Grand Illusion [1937]

The film has a lot to say in this regard, though it is difficult to understand the class relations without knowing quite a bit about what it was really like back then. Director Jean Renoir fought in World War I himself (Gabin even wears Renoir’s real uniform in the film), and his firsthand experience shows the vast difference between the two wars. The upper class in the first war act cordial with each other regardless of nationality, something unheard of just years later.

Filmed in 1937, not too long before the beginning of World War II, Grand Illusion is very much a portrait of its time. Given its overall statement and the general uneasiness of the world at this time, it’s easy to see why the Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels declared this “Cinematic Public Enemy No. 1”. The back story surrounding this film is absolutely incredible, and it only enhances the viewing experience today.

8/10

Movie Project #29 and #30: Sunset Boulevard [1950] and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington [1939]

The 50 Movies Project is a personal “marathon” of mine. In June, I compiled a list of 50 movies that I felt I needed to see by the end of the year. Old, new, foreign, English — it doesn’t matter. These are all movies that I have heard a lot about and have been wanting to see for some time. This project gives me a way to stay focused on the goal.

Sunset Boulevard [1950]
Sunset Boulevard [1950, Billy Wilder]
Starring William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim.

Holy hell, what a film! The fact that such a biting satire about the film industry was made in 1950 blows my mind. The movie opens up mysteriously with a dead man floating in the pool. This man, Joe Gillis (played by the brilliant Holden), proceeds to narrate the film from beyond the grave, and the movie follows the events that led up to his demise. While on the run from repo men, Gillis pulls into the garage of what he thinks is an abandoned Hollywood mansion. Well, it turns out that the long-retired silent film star Norma Desmond (the scary-good Swanson, a former silent film star herself) is living there, and she sparks up an interest in the failing writer of Gillis. What transpires is truly bizarre, as Gillis becomes involved in a love triangle with Desmond and a young writer (Nancy Olson).

The world that Norma Desmond lives in is beyond fascinating, as she has clearly lost her mind and is stuck living in the past. She believes she will make a great comeback someday, and her reassuring butler (von Stroheim) refuses to tell her otherwise, fearing she will commit suicide. Her descent into madness culminates with one of the most memorable closing lines ever uttered on film: “There’s nothing else. Just us, and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark. All right, Mr. De Mille, I’m ready for my closeup.”

Sunset Boulevard also has some terrific moments of dark humor, and I particularly loved the brief cameos from silent film stars such as Buster Keaton and H.B. Warner. This was the first time I had heard Keaton speak! There really is a lot to love about this movie, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. 10/10

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington [1939]
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington [1939, Frank Capra]
Starring James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains.

It says something about a movie’s power when a statement made 70+ years ago still holds relevance today. The always awesome James Stewart stars as Jefferson Smith, a naive Boy Scout leader who is oddly selected to take over as a US Senator after an incumbent passes away. When he gets there, he is enamored with the sights and sounds of Washington D.C., even getting himself lost in the process. He quickly finds out that he doesn’t belong there, as he has no interest in the political bullshit that goes on every day. Still, he perserveres, especially after he finds out about a scandal that would build a dam over his proposed Boy Scout campsite.

As a story of one man fighting for what’s right, it’s hard not to admire the movie. Smith, aided by his chief of staff Clarissa Saunders (Arthur), is a likable guy, and his big moment — a very, very long fillibuster — is quite brilliant. Superbly acted with a great screenplay to boot, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington still holds up today. 9/10