50DMC #29: A Movie Everyone Should See

The 50 Day Movie Challenge asks one question every day, to be answered by a few paragraphs and a clip, if possible. Click here for the full list of questions.

Today’s prompt: What’s a movie you think everyone should see?

This is a question I never quite know how to answer. If “everyone” really means everyone in the whole world, then I have no answer. Movies are vastly important to me, but not to everyone, so I hesitate to tell anyone who doesn’t care for them that they have to see any one in particular. In that case especially, what they should watch depends extra heavily on what they do enjoy. You could say it should be a movie with a particularly important social message or something that makes it important outside of moviedom, but I tend to dislike message pictures personally, so don’t recommend them. You could say something of particular cultural impact, but those (like Star Wars or some such) tend to permeate the culture so much it doesn’t really matter if you’ve seen them or not.

If you limit it to people who like movies or are film buffs, then you get the big hitters like Citizen Kane, but choosing that is boring, and they’ve probably seen it. So here’s how I’m going to modify the question: What’s a movie that I think film buffs should see that they probably haven’t. Now, a lot of classic film buffs will have seen To Be or Not to Be, but I tend to find that a lot of people who do enjoy classic film haven’t. And they should. It’s a 1942 comedy directed by Ernst Lubitsch, who’s known for his sophisticated touch for romantic comedies. This one has that, but it’s also a satire aimed squarely at Hitler, who in 1942 was pretty much at the height of his power. The level of comedy at Nazi expense in this film is almost as ballsy as Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Yet mixed in with the comedy (as it is in Chaplin’s film, too, I hasten to make clear) is a great deal of pathos. A company of Warsaw actors putting on Hamlet (hence the title) end up going underground when the Nazis come in, but they hatch a plot to fight back, full of impersonations and subterfuge – the most important acting roles they’ll ever have. But Lubitsch and company manages to balance a comic style with very serious stakes perfectly.

I couldn’t find the scene I really wanted to share, where one of the actors, in the midst of the blitzkrieg attack on Warsaw, gives Shylock’s “do we not bleed” speech from The Merchant of Venice. It’s pretty much the sobering moment when the bedroom comedy centered on Carole Lombard’s flirtation with a young flier to the consternation of Benny, her husband, turns into the war-torn spy plot of the second half, and it’s exquisite. But this one will do as well, as an interrogation of a young boy ends up in a loyalty-grabbing series of “heil Hitlers.” By the way, this was Carole Lombard’s final film, after more than a decade of being one of Hollywood’s most sparkling comediennes; she was killed the next year when her war bond tour plane was shot down. Her loss was tragic, but there couldn’t be a finer film to be her final legacy to us.