Tag Archives: To Be or Not to Be

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.

Film on TV (Oct 27-Nov 2)

Monday, Oct 27

2:00pm EST / 1:00pm CST – TCM – Roman Holiday
Not Audrey Hepburn’s film debut (that would be a brief walk-on in the British crime caper The Lavender Hill Mob), but the film that thrust into international stardom. She plays a sheltered princess who runs away to see real life and falls in with reporter Gregory Peck and photographer Eddie Albert. Slight story, but Hepburn’s charm fills the screen.

4:00pm / 3:00pm – TCM – An American in Paris
American ex-pat Gene Kelly dances around Paris, snagging Leslie Caron along the way. Oh, yeah, and dancing a mind-blowing modern ballet through Parisian art to Gershwin’s title piece. These days it usually plays second fiddle to Singin’ in the Rain, but American in Paris rewards a viewing.

8:00pm / 7:00pm – TCM – To Be or Not To Be
If you never listen to anything else I ever say, listen to this: To Be or Not To Be is one of the greatest films of all time, and you should see it. It’s a comedy about Nazi Germany. I know. Jack Benny plays the leader of a Polish theatre troupe, specializing in playing Hamlet along side his wife Carole Lombard. I know. When Hitler takes over Poland, the troupe engages in an act of espionage both dangerous and ridiculous. I know! It’s simultaneously hilarious, ominous, and heartbreaking. Director Ernst Lubitsch’s finest hour? For me it is. Carole Lombard’s best role (the final one of her career, before she was killed in a plane crash returning from a war bond tour)? For me it is.

Tuesday, Oct 28

8:00pm / 7:00pm – TCM – Sunset Boulevard
Billy Wilder’s classic noir explores the dark side of the rich and formerly famous, as a struggling screenwriter gets involved with a silent screen star seeking to make a comeback in the sound era. In one of the most brilliant cast films ever, actual silent screen star Gloria Swanson returned to the movies to play the delusional Norma Desmond, actual silent star/director Erich von Stroheim (who worked with Swanson on the never-finished Queen Kelly, portions of which appear in Sunset Boulevard) plays her former director/current butler, and Buster Keaton makes an appearance as an old friend.

10:00pm / 9:00pm – TCM – Ace in the Hole
This is a Wilder film I haven’t seen yet, but it’s got a reputation for being one of the most cynical films of all time. Sign me up for that!

4:00am / 3:00am (29th) – TCM – Some Like It Hot
And if Wilder-does-depressing-noir and Wilder-does-cynical-drama doesn’t grab you, how about Wilder-does-madcap-cross-dressing-comedy? Quite probably the best comedy ever made, in fact. Musicians Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis dress as women to join an all-girl band and escape the mob after witnessing the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Keeping their cover as women becomes quite a chore after they discover the charms of Marilyn Monroe are ALSO in the band.

Wednesday, Oct 29

7:45am / 6:45am – TCM – Notorious
Hitchcock turns in his finest spy drama; US agent Cary Grant recruits Ingrid Bergman to get close to enemy target Claude Rains. When “get close” becomes “get married to” their own budding romance is in jeopardy, not to mention Bergman’s life if Rains discovers her true affiliation.

11:45pm / 10:45pm – TCM – Out of the Past
Out of the Past comes up in most conversations about film noir. It’s got all the elements: low-key lighting (due in this case to budgetary concerns), an existential anti-hero (Robert Mitchum), a femme fatale (Jane Greer), etc. It’s honestly not my favorite noir, but it’s a good one to see once.

Thursday, Oct 30

9:00am / 8:00am – TCM – I Walked With a Zombie
In case you missed it during the Val Lewton festival last week.

8:00pm / 7:00pm – TCM – Dead of Night
A group of people gather at a lonely English country house and tell scary stories. One of the earliest horror anthology films, it remains one of the best. The framing device particularly makes me happy, and I’m really looking forward to revisiting the film.

2:00am / 1:00am (31st) – TCM – Kwaidan
One of the more famous and lauded horror anthology films, Kwaidan is a set of Japanese ghost stories. I watched and didn’t completely love Kwaidan earlier this year, but I promised myself I’d give it another chance. I was highly distracted the first time.

4:45am / 3:45am (31st) – TCM – Spirits of the Dead
I haven’t heard of this film, but I looked it up, and it’s an anthology film of Edgar Allan Poe stories directed by Federico Fellini, Louis Malle, and Roger Vadim. I know, right?! So I have to check that out.

Friday, Oct 31

7:30am / 6:30am – TCM – Cat People
In case you missed it during the Val Lewton festival last week.

Saturday, Nov 1

2:00pm / 1:00pm – TCM – 2001: A Space Odyssey
In case you missed it last week. Wow, lots of repeats, TCM. What’s up with that?

6:15pm / 5:15pm – TCM – Forbidden Planet
What’s better than Shakespeare’s The Tempest? Why, a science fiction The Tempest set on a planet run by a maverick genius, his robot, and his daughter, of course. Okay, Forbidden Planet isn’t really better than The Tempest, but it is an interesting take on the play, and an obvious influence on the original Star Trek.

10:15pm / 9:15pm – TCM – A Star is Born (1954)
After four years away from the screen trying to recover from depression and addiction, Judy Garland returned for this film of a singer/actress getting her big break in show business just as her actor husband’s career is falling off the rails. Along the way, she belts “The Man That Got Away” and other great tunes that define her late career. (The 1937 non-musical version of the film with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March is also worth watching; I couldn’t say about the 1976 version with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, because I have not yet personally found it worth watching.)

1:15am / 12:15am (2nd) – TCM – All About Eve
The ultimate backstage drama. Superfan Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) worms her way into working for Broadway diva Margo Channing (Bette Davis), but she really aims to replace her. The superb supporting cast includes Celeste Holm, Gary Merrill, George Sanders, Thelma Ritter, and a young Marilyn Monroe, all spouting crackling dialogue by Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

Sunday, Nov. 2

6:00pm / 5:00pm – TCM – Gigi
Vincente Minnelli’s Oscar-winning musical seeks to answer the age-old question – can a Parisian playboy marry for love? This is quite a mature-themed musical, focusing as it does on Louis Jourdan’s intent to make Leslie Caron his mistress rather than his wife, not to mention Maurice Chevalier’s slightly disturbing rendition of “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” but it has many rewards in a wonderful score and beautiful art direction. You just may not want to make it family movie night.

8:00pm / 7:00pm – TCM – All the President’s Men
The Watergate scandal becomes a follow-the-money mystery of investigative reporting by main characters Bernstein and Woodward of the Washington Post. Great filmmaking, and tour de force performances from Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as the rookie/outcast reporters who earn their stripes on the story of the decade.