Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBBB. USA, 1983. Brooksfilms, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. Screenplay by Thomas Meehan, Ronny Graham, based on the 1942 screenplay by Edwin Justus Mayer, story by Melchior Lengyel, Ernst Lubitsch. Cinematography by Gerald Hirschfeld. Produced by Mel Brooks. Music by John Morris. Production Design by Terence Marsh. Costume Design by Albert Wolsky. Film Editing by Alan Balsam. Academy Awards 1983. Golden Globe Awards 1983.
In a deft and beautiful revision of the 1942 classic starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard, Mel Brooks and real-life wife Anne Bancroft (beautifully cast) play a popular Polish acting duo (“He’s world-famous in Poland!”) who play a game of survival with their Nazi occupiers in 1940s Warsaw. As in the original, there is a handsome pilot (Tim Matheson filling in for Robert Stack) who is looking to woo Bancroft away from her loving husband, a traitorous Polish professor (Jose Ferrer, nearing the end of his formidable career) who turns them over to the bad guys, and a hammy German general (Charles Durning, outstandingly funny) whom they must outwit for them all to survive. Brooks delivers Hamlet‘s soliloquy, which his character has an unfortunate fondness for, with the same level of cheeky mischief that Benny gave the original, but with the great spoofer central to the project as producer but not enlisted either as writer or director, Brooks’s usual post-modern humour is kept to a minimum: stage manager Sondheim is ordered to “Send in the clowns!” and an announcer tells us, following an opening scene of Polish dialogue, that the film will be forthwith in English, but such gags are few and far between. Instead, the benefit of historical knowledge gained since the original film is used to build on the previous version: not only are the Nazis outwitted, but Jews and one gay man, all bound for concentration camps, are added into the mix for situations that are not disrespected by the humorous nature of the enterprise. The shenanigans that occur in getting people out of scrapes are hysterically clever, but then one of the evacuees faces a theatre full of Nazi generals and she, clad in clown makeup as disguise, is paralyzed with fear and gives the film some chords of genuine dread. It’s a strange mix, but it all works thanks to strong backing from a sterling script and superb direction, and the result is proof that the best way to destroy something terribly evil is to laugh in its face.