film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

To Be Or Not To Be (1942)

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I was aware of the existence of Ernst Lubitch’s To Be Or Not To Be before seeing it – only because Mel Brooks re-made it in the early 1980s.  And after seeing it, I have to say that Mel Brooks remaking this film makes complete and utter sense.

Jack Benny stars as Josef Tura, the leader of a theater in Warsaw.  When the story begins, it is right before the Nazi occupation of Warsaw, and Tura and his team are deep in rehearsals for a new play, “Gestapo”, a satire spoofing Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. When a government official stops by to urge them to stop – they don’t want to anger the actual Hitler – the troupe simply mothballs the set and costumes and re-mounts Hamlet, with Josef playing lead and his wife Maria (Carole Lombard) as Ophelia.  It’s familiar ground for the company – so familiar, in fact, that Maria knows exactly when she’ll have long breaks in between scenes and uses the time to welcome besotten admirers backstage to her dressing room (not what you think – she’s a flirt, but keeps it innocent and stays faithful to Josef).  Maria is entertaining one such swain – a young pilot named Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack) – when the Germans make their move and invade.  Sobinski hurries off to enlist, while Maria joins the rest of the cast in the basement, where they huddle together to withstand an air raid.

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As the war wears on, Sobinski ends up in the British R.A.F. as part of a loyalist Polish division, while much of the theater troupe has secretly begun working for the Polish resistance.  When Sobinski discovers that a “Polish Resistance Leader” named Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges) is actually a Nazi spy, and is currently en route to Warsaw to meet with officials there, he makes a daring flight to Poland to warn Maria.  As the company is debating how they can divert Siletsky, suddenly someone remembers – hey, don’t we still have the set and costumes from Gestapo that we never used?  And didn’t we all think that Bronski looked uncannily like Hitler when we were in rehearsals?  Maybe we can use all of that somehow…

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There’s more to the story than that, but it gives a good idea, and I don’t want to give much more away than I have already, as it’s a really clever clockwork of a story.  There’s a bit of a subplot woven throughout – Josef eventually learns that Sobinski was hanging out in Maria’s dressing room and she has to soothe his ruffled feathers – but most of it is a tale of a group of zany actors getting the better of the Nazis.  And it’s all definitely played for laughs – the SS Officer stationed in Warsaw is an utter buffoon, and the schemes that Tura and his troupe come up with outsmart the enemy easily (and even outsmarted me at one point!).

That poking fun may have worked to the film’s detriment at the time.  The film came out a few short months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and people were not in a joking mood about the war.  It was a little too soon, many critics complained.  Others took a dim view of some of the jokes – at one point, one Nazi with a low opinion of Tura’s acting talent quips that “Josef Tura did to Hamlet what we’re doing to Poland”.

Lubitsch stuck by his film, however. He firmly believed in using comedy to belittle those in power and knock them down to size.   “What I have satirized in this picture are the Nazis and their ridiculous ideology,” he argued in a response to one critic.   Jack Benny’s father also reportedly walked out of the first screening, horrified at seeing his son in a Gestapo uniform.  Benny had a heart-to-heart with him afterward about the film and Lubitch’s thoughts on using comedy to poke fun at the Third Reich, and his father tried again – and went on to see the film another 46 times.

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There was an poignant moment as well.  Felix Bressart plays a company member, Greenberg, who early on opines to a friend that he wishes Tura’s troupe would do The Merchant Of Venice sometime, since he’s convinced he’d make a great Shylock.  He’s even got one of the speeches memorized, he says – “Hath not a Jew eyes?  Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? …If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?”  It becomes a frequent refrain for Greenberg – he says it ironically to a friend in the Ghetto, he recites it when he’s trying to impress other actors.  And towards the end of the film, when Greenberg is tapped to cause a distraction and lure a group of Gestapo soldiers out of an opera box, he knows exactly what he wants to say – Greenberg draws himself up to his full height, looks the Gestapo officer right in the eye, and asks, “….Hath not a Jew eyes?  Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?….”

This film may have been a little too soon for 1942 audiences, but I greatly enjoyed it.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Now, Voyager (1942)

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So, watching Now, Voyager was seriously thought provoking for me. Although not for the reason you may think.

At the time of its release, it was heralded for handling psychotherapy and mental illness in a uniquely sensitive way; a trait that still wins this film applause today.  Bette Davis plays Charlotte Vale, the youngest daughter of a super-strict Boston Brahman matriarch (Gladys Cooper).  Charlotte has grown up the target of her mother’s verbal and emotional abuse and repressive control.  But Charlotte has a sympathetic sister-in-law who brings a psychotherapist along for a visit one day so he can have a look-see.  Mrs. Vale protests mightily, but after only five minutes with Charlotte and her mother, Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains) sizes up the situation, tells Mrs. Vale off and drags Charlotte off to his sanitarium in Vermont.

Charlotte is much better after a month (although the place looks more like a resort, so it’s no wonder), but is still uneasy about heading straight home right away, so with Dr. Jacquith’s encouragement she embarks on a six-month cruise.  She has a marvelous time, and turns out to be quite the social butterfly.  Most significantly, she meets Jerry Durrance (Paul Henreid), who’s hitching a ride on the cruise to make a business meeting in Buenos Aires.  Jerry is married, but unhappily so, and is the father of two girls – the youngest of which, Tina, is suffering the same kind of maternal neglect that Charlotte did. Charlotte’s confidences about her own troubles help Jerry to understand and support Tina, and Jerry’s kindness and attention brings Charlotte out of her shell even further.  Of course this leads to the pair falling in love – but they part at the end of the cruise, since Jerry won’t divorce his wife.  Jerry still can’t resist sending a corsage to Charlotte’s house in Boston as a parting gift – it arrives just as she’s about to finally see her mother again, and the gesture gives her enough confidence to finally assert herself and her autonomy.  Mother and daughter live under a kind of chilly truce for a while, with Charlotte even getting engaged to a distinguished Boston blue-blood, but a chance meeting with Jerry again shakes her up to the point that she breaks her engagement and calls her mother out for her neglect – a double-whammy shock which causes Mrs. Vale to suffer a fatal heart attack.  Wracked with guilt, Charlotte heads for Dr. Jaquith’s sanitarium again.  And on her first day there, she sees a surprisingly familiar face – Jerry’s daughter Tina, whom she recognizes from a picture he showed her. Thinking the girl can use a friend, she reaches out…

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So here’s the thing.  I read a quick 25-words-or-less plot blurb before watching, and wrote it off as the kind of melodrama I usually don’t like.  And I still don’t.  I’ve always felt this kind of plot was formulaic; it presents a woman whose sole path to happiness seems to be via Finding Love, and even worse, it denies the lead her heart’s desire and holds up sacrifice as a noble thing (the famous last line, “let’s not ask for the moon when we have the stars” is presented as romantic, but to me it sounds defeatist).  There’s a lot of sturm und drang along the way, a lot of chance meetings and tragic misfortunes, cruel twists of fate and at least two scenes with dramatic confrontations between two female relatives where one of them is finally confronting the other over some long-lasting mistreatment.  Alex inadvertently hit on a modern word for the genre after I told him that it was a classic example of the three-hanky picture; he hadn’t heard that term before, and I told him it was an older term for this kind of melodramatic, sentimental film with a woman going through various trials and tribulations and affairs of the heart.  “Oh,” Alex said, “you mean it’s like a Lifetime or Hallmark Channel movie.”

And he’s right.  And I further realized that I’ve been sneering at the contemporary version of this kind of film for years – the overwrought melodrama, the heightened plot twists.  Now, Voyager even includes the old trope of the character who undergoes a “stunning transformation” in appearance, which really just boils down to her giving up wearing glasses and doing her hair different, which I rolled my eyes over at first.

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But interestingly enough that is also what gave me pause.  Bette Davis tried to do a bit more to alter Charlotte, to be fair, and it’s an example of the trope that works a little better than usual.  There’s not much that can be done to “ugly” up Bette Davis, but they really try – Davis insisted on padding inside her costume to make her look fatter, a really stodgy pair of glasses and a Mary Todd Lincoln hair style with some fake bushy eyebrows.  It’s a marked difference from the “after” – Davis’ usual slim figure, stylish gowns and swept-up hair showing off a slim neck.  Davis also carries the difference emotionally – the “before” Charlotte is nearly mute, while the “after” Charlotte is gracious and charming.  It may have been a cliché, but it was a cliché that I realized that I bought in this case.

And that made me analyze my reaction a bit further.  I’ve protested in the past that I disliked this kind of film because the heroines ended up having to sacrifice happiness, and that was unrealistic – but on the other hand, I also take a dim view of the rom-com because the lead always gets happiness, and I also thought that was unrealistic.  Was the problem the films, I wondered, or was it me?  Have I been unfair to an entire genre of film?

What I finally realized is that it wasn’t the content of films like this that galls me – it’s the segregation.  This is something that discusses emotional abuse, neglect, psychotherapy, coming into one’s own and asserting one’s self, being a responsible parent – these are all things that affect men as well as women.  It isn’t even women who are the only ones with emotional stakes in this film – Jerry has some seriously high emotional stakes, and goes through some intense growth as well.  This could have been a film for everyone.  But it wasn’t billed that way – it was billed as being a film “for women”, for them to just have a cathartic cry over before going back to their own lives.  Lives which might have been similarly troubled; but instead of being encouraged to take more of the kind of control that Dr. Jaquith was encouraging for Charlotte, the women in the audience were being encouraged to get all the crying out of their system in the theater so they could suck it up and cope with the status quo at home.

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It may be unfair of me to expect third-wave feminism from a 1940s drama. But it may be women like me back then who were starting to get sick of this kind of thing who paved the way for third-wave feminism in the first place.