Fandor Files Vol. 1: Two Legendary Filmmakers Take on WWII…and Win!

by Frank Calvillo

Fandor Files

Welcome to the Fandor Files, a six-part monthly series featuring the best from, one of today’s top streaming sites showcasing the best of classic titles, independent films, and insightful documentaries. Each month, we’ll take a look at a pair of selections linked by a common thread, illustrating important parts of history and society.

WWII is the subject in the debut issue of the Fandor Files, where we shall see the starkly different ways in which the movie business dealt with the threat of Nazi Germany taking over. Films have always been a one of the best mediums for not only capturing the state of any given era, but more importantly for providing the most biting of commentary on it. Nowhere was this more prevalent than in the WWII era, which saw a number of war-themed titles hit cinema screens showing many beloved stars engaged in battles of various forms. In this edition, we’ll revisit two classic films from a pair of cinema’s most esteemed directors as they tackle the subject of war with the kind of creativity and bravery for which they became known.

To Be or Not to Be (1942)

This classic comedy from director Ernst Lubitsch sees Carole Lombard (in what was sadly her final screen performance) and Jack Benny as Maria and Joseph Tura, the husband and wife stars of an acting troupe in 1940s Poland. When the invasion of the Nazis forces the troupe to shut down, life becomes decidedly dreary. However things take a surprising turn when a lovestruck soldier (Robert Stack) enlists Maria’s help in the capture of a top German spy. The situation gets even trickier when Joseph is thrust into the plan, which sees him impersonating a pair of top Nazis and giving the performance of a lifetime in an effort to get both himself and Maria out of Poland.

When I first saw To Be or Not to Be back in film school a number of years ago, I remember the one aspect of it which stuck me the most then, the same one which still has the same effect on me today, is how such a dire subject matter could lend itself to being one of the most hilarious comedies of its time. This is a side-splitting film from beginning to end, with many comedic gems sprinkled throughout. There’s the recurring joke of Stack rising and leaving his seat during Benny’s reciting of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, which never fails to anger him; Lombard’s one-of-a-kind brand of cunning playfulness; and Lubitsch’s embrace of a darker brand of humor not necessarily seen in a ’40s Hollywood film (i.e. Erhardt’s final scene). Above all though, To Be or Not to Be brazenly and unflinchingly pokes fun at the enemy of the day through the use of farce and wordplay, which showed above all else that Hollywood wasn’t too scared to make fools of its enemies.

Foreign Correspondent (1940)

In Foreign Correspondent, New York reporter Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) is sent over to Europe to be his paper’s source for what is happening overseas as war rapidly approaches. Following the assassination of a top diplomat, Johnny, along with Carol (Laraine Day), a strong-willed politician’s daughter, finds himself on the trail of a hotbed of spies who plan to execute a large conspiracy throughout London unless they are stopped and their leader is exposed.

I’ve always thought Alfred Hitchcock’s wartime films were usually some of his more neglected, yet telling offerings. The first of the director’s unofficial WWII trilogy (which also included Saboteur and Lifeboat), Foreign Correspondent is by far the one of the three that remains least remembered. It’s a true shame that this is so since the film sees the director managing both politics and suspense in a way very few filmmakers ever could. While the other two aforementioned films favored the personal over the political, showing how the war affected the average person, Foreign Correspondent is a film completely seeped in the the kind of war-filled tale which greatly echoed events of the day, especially in the idea of spies and double agents. This is a Hitchcock film however, and no title bearing the master’s name would be complete without a number of the kind of solid set pieces his audiences had by that time already come to expect. It’s hard to pick which one stands out most here: there’s the sinister windmill sequence, the breathtaking press conference in which an assassin attempts to escape through a sea of umbrellas, and the thrilling airplane ride which ends with a plunge into the Atlantic ocean. It’s telling, provocative, and above all else, pure Hitchcock.

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