Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Benny & Bogie

The first films I saw in the Bay Area in 2012 were at the Stanford Theater.

To Be or Not To Be starring Jack Benny & Carole Lombard; directed by Ernst Lubitsch; (1942)
Casablanca starring Humphrey Bogart & Ingrid Bergman; with Claude Rains; directed by Michael Curtiz; (1942)

I was curious about To Be or Not To Be because I had never seen Jack Benny in a role except as "himself" which he portrayed in a few films and a long-running television series which I saw in reruns. That's the character that says "Well..." and has Rochester as a chauffeur.

In To Be or Not To Be, Benny plays Joseph Tura, the star actor in a Polish theater troupe. Carole Lombard plays Maria, his wife who is also an actress but jealous and dismissive of her husband's vanity and limelight. She copes by accepting the attention of younger men. A running gag throughout gives the film its title. Maria tells her would be paramour's to come back stage when her husband begins his soliloquy in Hamlet which starts with "To be or not to be..." In each instance, Benny deadpans a look of fury as a the young men stand up (invariably in the center of the 2nd row) and make their way backstage. Benny pulls it off for laughs like a pro.

Set immediately before and during the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, the theater troupe deals with the Nazi blitzkrieg and occupation. Robert Stack shows up as a young Polish aviator who is enamored with Maria. After escaping to London, he returns to stop a Polish double agent from revealing the underground resistance network. That's pretty serious stuff but it's played for laughs as mistaken identities, an actor who masquerades as Hitler and Benny's vanity are all expertly mined for laughs. I guess it is the "Lubitsch Touch."

Sig Ruman, who would gain cinematic immortality as Sgt. Schultz in Stalag 17 (1953), plays a more bumbling Nazi in To Be or Not To Be. He shows a fair amount of comedic skills going head-to-head with Benny in many scenes. Lombard, looking less bombshell than usual, also gets some gags (at Benny's expense frequently).

To Be or Not To Be is clearly Benny's showcase. He gets to dress as a Nazi, Hamlet, a Freudian looking Pole and I'm sure I'm missing some of his disguises. He pulls this off with his normal nonplussed aplomb. However, Joseph Tura is not that different from "Jack Benny." Still, it's hard to dismiss To Be or Not To Be. It was Lombard's last film before dying in an airplane crash. I (and the audience) laughed repeatedly throughout which, let us not forget, is a comedy about the Nazi occupation of Poland.


There's not much I can add to the volumes written about Casablanca. In fact, I've seen the film so many times that I can recite the dialog and plot intricacies by memory. This time, I did forget that my favorite song of the film until it was played. I'm not referring to "As Time Goes By." No, a few minutes before that iconic scene, Dooley Wilson perform a toe tapping rendition of "Knock on Wood" which features a call and response with the band.

Everyone was there - Peter Lorre as the unctuous Ugarte, Sydney Greenstreet as the venal Ferrari, Conrad Veidt as the odious Major Strasser and whoever the actors are that play the young Bulgarian couple trying to escape Casablanca. For all the praise heaped on Bogart and Bergman and even Paul Henreid as Lazlo which I have always thought was a thankless role, Casablanca's real star is Claude Rains as Captain Renault, the delightfully corrupt police chief of Casablanca.

Like his character, Rains steals every scene that's not nailed down. Every line coming out of his mouth is loaded with humor, cynicism, innuendo and weariness. It was a role of a lifetime for any actor. Unfortunately, Rains lost the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor to Charles Coburn in The More the Merrier, a film I've rarely heard of, much less seen. I'm anxious to see Coburn's performance.


I've noticed the Stanford does good business. They must pack in 100 to 200 people per screening at a minimum. All the tickets are double features and I notice a number of people leave after the organist finishes but I still think they are doing well. The Stanford is owned by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation so their lease and perhaps operations are reduced or subsidized which explains their low admission prices and extremely low concessions prices.

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