(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.
(On Cable TV, March 2018) As I dig deeper in film history, few words become as interesting as “pre-code comedy”. The more I watch older films, the more I complain about the Hays Production Code that effectively stunted the thematic development of American cinema between 1934 and 1960 (ish). But there is a brief time, roughly 1930–1934, during which Hollywood movies, having more or less mastered the grammar of cinema, was moving toward bolder and more daring subject matter. These movies feel considerably fresher than many subsequent films in their ability to grapple with authentically adult subject matter. While I wouldn’t call Trouble in Paradise an all-time classic nor a boundary-pushing film, its Pre-Code nature makes it so that it’s just spicy enough to be worth a rewarding viewing experience. Focusing on a pair of expert thieves out to swindle a rich French heiress, this is a romantic crime comedy that works decently well on several levels. As a pure comedy, it features witty dialogue, strong characters and an amiable sense of sophisticated style. Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins make for likable criminal heroes (their introductory dinner is a lot of fun), their loyalty to each other tested when Kay Francis enters the picture as a rich target. Director Ernst Lubitsch handles the elements of his film with a deft touch (indeed, “The Lubitsch touch” that could be seen in later movies such as The Shop Around the Corner), producing a well-rounded piece of work. What’s not so obvious to modern audiences since then used to moral complexity is the idea of presenting two outright thieves as romantic heroes: while it’s since been done over and over again in modern cinema, this was a bit of a sensation at the time, and the film effectively disappeared from public circulation for decades (until 1968) once the Hays Code was enforced two years later. Marvel, then, that we twenty-first century cinephiles now have access to something that many earlier audience didn’t. And marvel that, thanks to more natural non-enforced moral standards, Trouble in Paradise still plays really well today, more than eighty-five years later.