(On Cable TV, February 2019) There’s a good reason why My Man Godfrey comes up again and again on lists of classic 1930s comedies—it impeccably charming, and still oozes class and cool even eighty years later. The star of the show, of course, is William Powell, who’s unflappable as a homeless man plucked out of the scrap heap by a rich family on a dare, and who eventually becomes an all-knowing, all-capable butler to a quirky dysfunctional family. It’s a kind of suave character that he’d play many times later on, and you can see why. Carole Lombard is just as good in her own way as a flighty socialite, and they play off each other beautifully: neither would be as funny without the dynamic created by the other. While incredibly accessible to modern audiences, My Man Godfrey does remain a clear product of the mid-1930s—there’s an oblique reference to the Dionne quintuplets, for instance, and the film does start by taking for granted a social situation that would only exist in Depression-era America. Surprisingly enough for Depression-era Hollywood, there is a fair amount of class critique here (after all, the film does begin with a treasure hunt in which one of the collectibles in a homeless man), with the deck clearly stacked against the rich characters. (It can’t quite reconcile its populist intent with its escapism.) Interestingly enough, though, much of the humour in My Man Godfrey isn’t in the one-liners or crazy situation as much as it’s found in the coolness and eccentricity of the characters, with a little bit of physical comedy thrown in. The script is a bit rough around the edges—the beginning is a bit much to take, and the ending has pieces falling together so quickly that it becomes unconvincing—but the result is one great film, one that has aged gracefully as a terrific product of its era.
(Youtube Streaming, November 2018) The famed “Lubitsch touch” referred to director Ernst Lubitsch’s ability to … well, no one can quite agree about the exact definition of the Lubitsch touch, but there is something in his movies that separate them from other films of the period. So it is that To Be or Not To Be remains striking even today for the sheer number of spinning plates that Lubitsch is able to keep in the air without having them all crash to the ground. Consider that it’s a comedy set during the earliest days of the Nazi occupation of Warsaw. Consider that it mixes anti-Nazi critique with a portrayal of egomaniac theatrical actors dealing with mortal suspense and perceptions of infidelity. It’s a wonder that the film hold together at all, let alone that it manages to be hilarious and thrilling at once. Jack Benny is excellent as an actor whose ego nearly derails resistance plans, while Carole Lombard is the other half of the couple at the centre of the story. The treatment of Nazis really isn’t sympathetic, and there’s a vertiginous quality to the film when you consider that it was shot and released in the middle of World War II, as these things were still very much going on and liberation was just a distant goal. The opening sequence is terrific, which leads to a rather less interesting first act in which the pieces of the plot are slowly put together. The dialogue is slyly funny (it may take you a while to catch a joke given the dry delivery) and occasionally mordant: I almost gasped at “What he did to Shakespeare we are doing now to Poland.”—the film gets away with a lot considering that it’s a post-Code production. To Be or Not To Be does get its rhythm back in the second half as complications pile on, the danger becomes more immediate and we see the characters thinking fast on their feet in order to get out of ever-more complex situations, sometimes caused by their own doings. There’s a very appropriate Mel Brooksian quality to Jack Benny considering that Brooks would take over the role in the 1983 remake. Audacious even today, To Be or Not To Be has survived exceptionally well and remains just as funny as it ever was.