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Made in 1942, this comedy is set in Warsaw, during the Polish occupation by the Nazis.  It unashamedly pokes fun both at Hitler and the Nazi regime, and also the vanity of actors.  It tells the story of a Polish acting troupe, including husband and wife couple Joseph and Maria Tura (Jack Benny and Carole Lombard, in her last film), who find themselves tangled up in a plot to stop the Nazis obtaining valuable information.  It does not sound like a recipe for a hilarious comedy…but that is what this film is.  Joseph Tura considers himself an acclaimed Shakespearean actor, and during the film he plays Hamlet (badly!)  Maria, his beautiful and feisty wife, catches the eye of Lieutenant Stanislav Sobinski.  Joseph is suspicious and jealous, but they soon have greater problems to worry about…

By the time this film was released, Germany was sweeping across Europe.  Also, tragically, Carole Lombard had died in a plane crash, and possibly as a result, the film was initially seen as being in bad taste, and was not appreciated by audiences.  Over the years however, it has gained a reputation as a classic comedy, and I think the humour still stands up well for modern viewers.

The story is convoluted, but easy enough to follow.  The real joy in this film however,  is the incredibly funny script and the way that the cast (even the minor players are terrific) deliver their lines.  The dialogue fizzes along nicely and there is also plenty of visual comedy.

The tragedy and heartache caused by the occupation of Poland is duly acknowledged, and I don’t think the film was attempting to make light of the situation at all.  One scene in particular shows members of the Nazi army jumping out of a plane to their certain death, on the orders of Hitler, given by radio transmission.  The film also shows the burning buildings and the many homeless and grieving families who suffered as a result of Hitler’s regime.

The subplot is great – concerning Joseph’s vexation at his wife’s flirtation with a handsome Lieutenant; and said Lieutenant’s infatuation with the slightly Maria (flightly she may be, but she is also possessed of a great bravery).

Carole Lombard looks beautiful and so full of life and vitality throughout – which in hindsight underlines the sadness of her death at such terrible circumstances at the age of 33.  Still, this is how she should be remembered – at her very best.  It’s a shame that this film turned out to be her swan song, but what a swan song it is.  Benny is also terrific; I have never seen any of his work before, but will certainly be searching out more of it!  This is one of the American Film Institute’s 100 Funniest Comedies, and it deserves its place on that list.  Despite the sombre subject matter, this is a film well worth seeing.

Year of release: 1942

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

Writers: Melchior Lengyel, Edwin Justus Mayer, Ernst Lubitsch

Main cast: Jack Benny, Carole Lombard, Robert Stack, Felix Bressart, Lionel Atwill, Stanley Ridges, Sig Ruman

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As the title suggests, this book tells the story of Edgar Sawtelle, a young mute boy, who lives on a farm in Wisconsin with his parents.  They lead a very happy existence, breeding and training their unique  and brilliant dogs, known simply as Sawtelle Dogs.  However, when Edgar’s Uncle Claude comes to the farm, things change.  The tension between Edgar’s father (also called Edgar and known as ‘Gar’) and Claude is almost palpable, and eventually Claude leaves after a huge argument.  However, when events at the farm take a tragic turn, and Claude insinuates himself into the affections of Edgar’s mother Trudy, our eponymous hero realises that life as he knew it has changed forever, and he takes drastic action to try and make things right again…

Put simply – I loved this book!  It really is all kinds of awesome.  It did start slowly, and in fact up until about 40 pages in, I was considering giving up on it), but I’m so glad that I stuck to it.  It is a modernised retelling of Hamlet, but is also a beautiful and incredible story in its own right.  The characters are so beautifully drawn, and Edgar makes for a superb hero, in that he really isn’t a hero at all – he’s just a frightened boy whose safe world is turned upside down, and he tries to work out what has happened and put right all the wrongs.  Sometimes he makes bad choices, and they come back to haunt him, and sometimes he loses his way, but I found it impossible not to root for him throughout the story.  The characters of Trudy, Gar and Claude were also very well depicted – there is no black and white with these characters; none of them are wholly good and none of them are wholly bad, but by the end of the book I certainly felt that I had got to know them well. 

On teh subject of characters, it’s rare to find a book where dogs’ characters play such a huge part in the storyline, but it works perfectly here.  I fell in love with Edgar’s pet dog Almondine, and loved the short parts of the book that were written from her point of view (in fact, ti was hard not to cry at times).  The relationship between her and Edgar, and the level of feeling between them will be familiar to any dog owner.  While Almondine was more of a pet, the book also talks about the dogs that are raised on the farm, and throughout the story, we get to know some of them very well, and their individual characters also shine through and add to the story.

It is fair to say that the author is a somewhat verbose and ‘wordy’ writer, and often is so descriptive that two or three pages can pass without anything much happening.  But who cares when prose is as enjoyable as this?  The writing is eloquent and often beautiful, and inspired many emotions in me while I was reading this book.

In short, this book is one of those stories that only comes along very rarely – one that lingers in the mind long after you have turned the last page of the book.  highly, highly recommended.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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