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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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