The Atlanta Jewish Film Festival brings three classic films back to the big screen for anniversary showings, and all present stories from the entertainment industry within a period of 15 years.
The oldest and most interesting historically is “To Be or Not to Be,” being shown Feb. 5 to mark its 75th anniversary. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch, the movie dared in early 1942 to mock the Nazis through a screwball comedy, much as “Hogan’s Heroes” would do on television more than two decades later.
Like the Mel Brooks-Anne Bancroft remake in 1983, “To Be or Not to Be” is set in Warsaw at the start of the World War II in 1939 and revolves around a married stage couple, Maria and Joseph Tura, played by Carole Lombard and Jack Benny. There’s a thin plot about stopping a German spy, as well as a subplot involving a young pilot (portrayed by Robert Stack in his early 20s) with a crush on Maria, but mostly the movie is about shredding the myth of the German master race by making the Nazis look like fools.
The movie has a spot on the National Film Registry, and it’s good, subversive fun. Lombard is the standout in her last role before dying in a plane crash, and most of the supporting players are appropriately slapstick.
The one weak link is Benny, whose shtick played much better in TV skits and movie cameos than leading big-screen roles.
Also set during World War II is “Radio Days,” Woody Allen’s love song to the golden age of radio. Released Jan. 30, 1987, it’s celebrating its 30th anniversary with a screening Feb. 2.
The film’s period stretches at least from Oct. 30, 1938, during Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast, through the start of 1943. But the exact timeline isn’t important because Allen isn’t telling a story; he’s just reminiscing with a series of loosely connected vignettes. That’s why it doesn’t matter that Seth Green, playing narrator Allen as a child, never ages.
In typical Allen fashion, the film is packed with familiar faces, including Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest, Julie Kavner, Michael Tucker, Danny Aiello, Tony Roberts, Wallace Shawn and Jeff Daniels. Keep an eye out for Larry David as a Jewish Communist who blares music and feasts on pork chops on Yom Kippur.
It’s a fun and funny and nostalgic for a time in America people can appreciate even if they weren’t alive then, as most of us weren’t.
“My Favorite Year,” released in 1982 as Richard Benjamin’s directorial debut, plays up similar nostalgia for the medium that supplanted radio: television. The festival marks its 35th anniversary Jan. 28.
The film is set in 1954, the era of live television (when Jack Benny was thriving), and stars Peter O’Toole doing his best Errol Flynn impression as swashbuckling movie star Alan Swann and Mark Linn-Baker as Benjy Stone, a young, Jewish TV writer who idolizes Swann and is ordered to watch him so he stays more or less sober and arrives on time.
My favorite scene of “My Favorite Year” is when Stone takes Swann home to dinner at his mother’s apartment. Lainie Kazan plays a stereotypical Jewish mom with a twist: She’s remarried to a retired Filipino boxer named Rookie Carroca, who does the cookie and puts an unusual spin on a kosher meal.
Again, the film isn’t about the plot so much as the laughs and the memories, but those are plentiful. Although “Radio Days” is more Jewish and “To Be or Not to Be” is more historically important, I think “My Favorite Year” works best as a movie and is the most consistently funny of the three. All of them are worth seeing again, especially if it’s your first chance to see any of them in a theater.