Movie Project #31: To Be or Not to Be [1942]

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.

To Be or Not to Be [1942]

To Be or Not to Be [1942]
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Writers: Melchior Lengyel (original story), Edwin Justus Mayer (screenplay), Ernst Lubitsch (uncredited)
Country: USA
Genre: Comedy/War
Starring: Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack, Stanley Ridges
Running Time: 99 minutes

Reason for inclusion: I had never seen an Ernst Lubitsch film.

Accolades: One Oscar nomination (Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture), National Film Registry, #49 on AFI’s 100 Laughs

While watching To Be or Not to Be, I couldn’t help but be amazed that such a bold political satire (and spoof of the Nazis) was filmed and released during the thick of World War II in 1942. Here is a film that pulls no punches, even including multiple Hitlers, cracking jokes about a real-life horrifying situation. Yet most astonishingly, it remains tasteful.

The film takes place in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation, and it follows a Polish theater company caught in the middle of it. Josef Tura (Jack Benny) and his wife, Maria (Carole Lombard, in what is tragically her last role), are the biggest names on the bill, but both have such out of control egos that they bicker back-and-forth more often than not. Their rocky relationship leads Maria to fall for a starstruck young pilot named Stanislav Sobinski (a 23-year-old Robert Stack), who has been sending her flowers during her shows.

To Be or Not to Be [1942]

Sobinski leaves Warsaw to join the fight against the Nazis, but he eventually returns on a top secret mission to find a possible spy. This traitor, Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges), attempts to recruit Maria to join the Nazi cause. At this point, the film gets more and more farcical, as the theatrical group becomes entangled between the two sides, with many of the actors posing as important members of the Nazi regime.

While it can get a bit tricky following the surprisingly complex plot, especially as there are multiple people playing both the “real” and “fake” versions of the same character, it all comes together quite nicely in the end. What I loved most about the film is how it combines so many different genres and ideals. Take a political satire, throw in a bit of screwball comedy, a dash of startlingly effective suspense, and some romance, and the end result is masterful.

To Be or Not to Be [1942]

To Be or Not to Be represents a number of firsts for me. Not only is this my first Lubitsch (and certainly not the last), but it is also the first I have seen from either of its co-stars, Jack Benny and Carole Lombard. Benny is someone I have heard a lot about over the years, and his hammy, over-the-top performance in this is great fun. Lombard is the perfect counterpart, both stunning in appearance and quick with her tongue. They are both ripe with razor sharp dialogue, and each member of their theater group is given their chance to shine as well.

To Be or Not to Be is loaded with witty one-liners and a number of unforgettable scenes (“Heil me!”), and its influence is still felt today. The theater scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds bares more than a passing resemblance to its counterpart in this film. Bottom line, this is a hilarious yet suspenseful film, and it has made me eager to see more of the famous “Lubitsch touch.”

9/10

Movie Project #8: Airplane! [1980]

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.

Airplane! [1980]

Airplane! [1980]
Directors: Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, Mark Zucker
Genre: Comedy/Romance
Language: English
Country: USA

Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit drinking.

So I have finally seen Airplane!, the now-legendary comedy that I have heard quoted countless times over the years.

Rumack: Can you fly this plane, and land it?
Ted Striker: Surely you can’t be serious.
Rumack: I am serious… and don’t call me Shirley.

A spoof on the disaster film genre, Airplane! still brings the laughs even to this day. Based around a single flight, the movie incorporates a few different subplots involving its passengers. There’s the ex-fighter pilot Ted Striker (Robert Hays), who was traumatized during the war and now has a unique drinking problem. He’s trying to get back together with his (recently ex-) girlfriend Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty), an airline stewardess who grew tired of his pathetic antics. There’s the problem with the airline food; apparently, the fish dinner gave many of the passengers (including the pilot) food poisoning. This raises the question: who is going to land the plane?

Airplane! [1980]

I laughed a lot during Airplane!, though maybe not as much as audiences did during its 1980s heyday. Some of the rapid-delivery jokes don’t work as well today, but there is still a lot to like. I loved the non-politically correct humor, such as plain English subtitles appearing on screen as two black gentlemen spoke “Jive” (as the movie called it). I loved the random cuts involving various passengers on the plane, including this gem from two children:

Young Boy with Coffee: Excuse me, I happened to be passing, and I thought you might like some coffee.
Little Girl: Oh, that’s very nice of you, thank you.
[takes coffee]
Little Girl: Oh, won’t you sit down?
Young Boy with Coffee: Cream?
Little Girl: No, thank you, I take it black, like my men.

So freaking random, and yet so great. Also, I really enjoyed the deadpan delivery from many of the characters, including Leslie Nielsen’s brilliant one-liners. So much fun all-around.

Airplane! [1980]

The movie’s cast is in top notch form here, with Leslie Nielsen stealing the show as Dr. Rumack. I loved him in Naked Gun, and he is just as fun in Airplane. Peter Graves has some great moments as the pilot, including another non-PC sequence where he asks a child, “have you ever seen a grown man naked?” This boy (Robert Harris) has a funny moment where he bashes the basketball skills of co-pilot Roger Murdock (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). It was also really cool to see Robert Stack in a movie, as I had only known him previously as the host of Unsolved Mysteries.

I am happy to have finally seen Airplane, and it was right up my alley since I am a huge fan of Naked Gun. Even with some jokes falling flat, it is still a blast to watch and it is worthy of its place in comedic history.

8/10