It’s a frustrating thing to have so many ideas about things to write on (seriously, I have a very full Google Doc with things I hope to get to one day…) but not have the inspiration, or the energy to do it. To throw myself back into writing about film, here’s the first Dana’s Weekly Roundup, a quick digest of all the films I’ve watched in the past seven days!
To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942): It doesn’t seem possible, or at least wise, to ever make a romantic comedy-backstage drama-espionage thriller set in occupied Poland, not to mention making it in 1942. Leave it to Lubitsch to do it, and to make it a true masterpiece. Carole Lombard and Jack Benny star as Maria and Joseph Tura, the most famous actors in Poland, whose company is putting on a performance of Hamlet while the Nazi occupation begins. Ms. Tura becomes involved in the Polish resistance, roping in Mr. Tura through his own stubbornness, and a plot to bring down the Nazis in Poland comes down to the downtrodden troupe of actors. Of course, this being a Lubitsch film, there’s a frankly portrayed love triangle, as Maria is also in love with Polish airman Robert Stack. There are so many disparate parts to the film – the love triangle, the crosses and double-crosses of espionage, the broadly funny set pieces for Benny – that it would easily seem disjointed, but it’s Lubitsch’s expert eye, as well as the cast’s impeccable timing, that make the film a true masterwork. It’s hilarious, and touching, often at once, as well as bold and daring, especially considering its date. Very highly recommended!
The Smiling Lieutenant (Ernst Lubitsch, 1931) I could honestly just watch Lubitsch films all the time, so we followed up To Be and Not to Be with The Smiling Lieutenant – love triangles aside, they could not be more different films. The Smiling Lieutenant stars frequent Lubitsch collaborator Maurice Chevalier as the titular army man, who is in love with Claudette Colbert, the leader of a beerhall touring-all-women’s orchestra (!!!). Chevalier pitches woo left and right, and soon he misdirects his ardor to the Princess of Flausenhaum, a neurotic, repressed, delightful Miriam Hopkins.
This is pre-code Lubitsch in all his glory – the innuendos zing by at lightning speed, and there’s a complicated love triangle that ends with the two rivals becoming friends (of a sort) – Colbert sings a song called “Jazz Up Your Lingerie” to Hopkins to help her win over Chevalier once and for all. This is the thing I loved most about the film – the two women aren’t angry at each other over the lieutenant; instead, they’re both sad about the circumstances, but Colbert understands the die is cast against her and decides to non-bitterly help her “rival” instead. That’s so much more progressive than most romantic comedies that have come since.
Losing Ground (Kathleen Collins, 1982) I’ve been interested to see Losing Ground since it was presented at Lincoln Center earlier this year – the rediscovery of the first film directed by a black American woman is something to celebrate! While I didn’t make it to the run at Lincoln Center, I’m glad I got the opportunity to check it out during BAM’s (excellent) Indie 80s series. Seret Scott is magnetizing as Sara, a philosophy professor researching religious ecstasy over the summer break, when she rents a house in upstate NY with her artist husband Victor (director Bill Gunn of Ganja & Hess fame). On the brink of his first real success as an artist, Victor declares he’s over abstraction and is ready to embrace nature, and beauty, particularly in the form of Celia, a resident of the small town they inhabit that summer. Through her marital crisis, Sara gets a lead role in a senior thesis film, where she lets her hair down (literally) and dances with an older, becaped gentleman.
The first half of the film is a little clunky – most of the dialogue is expository and didn’t seem right coming out of any of the characters’ mouths. As the film went on, however, the colors became more brilliant, the motion more fluid, and the emotions more believable. A scene by the pool at the very end of the film, and especially Sara’s long-gestating venting of her feelings towards her husband, almost made me want to stand up and applaud (and I generally hate things like that in the theater). While the 80s score really hobbles the emotion of the film, the acting and beautiful direction overcomes it by the end, and it’s a real lost gem of American cinema.