Friday, March 30, 2012

To Be Or Not To Be (2) vs. Top Secret! (15)


        “To Be Or Not To Be” is a WWII comedy set in wartime Warsaw after the Germans have occupied Poland. It was released in 1942 and was bashed by critics for making fun of the ever-serious Nazis.  The plot centers on a Polish acting troupe led by the egotistical Josef Tula (Jack Benny) and his loose wife Maria (Carole Lombard). They get involved in a plot to stop the Gestapo from getting information from a spy. It requires their acting skills and even includes an imitation of Hitler.

        “Top Secret!” was released in 1984 and was directed by the “Airplane!” team of Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker. It is set in Cold War East Germany. An Elvis Presleyesque American singer named Nick Rivers (Val Kilmer) meets a beautiful girl named Hillary (Lucy Gutteridge). He gets involved in a Resistance plot to rescue her scientist father.  Low brow comedy ensues.


       “To Be Or Not To Be” has the pairing of Benny and Lombard. They are in top form. Both are perfect for their roles and the chemistry is apparent. Benny is hilarious in parts. The supporting cast is strong and all have their moments.  For instance, Maria's maid delivers some stabbing one-liners.  Even the Nazi Col. "Concentration Camp" Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman) is sinister, yet comical.

        “Top Secret!” features an impressive performance by Val Kilmer. He really gets into the silly role and carries the film. It’s hard not to enjoy his mugging.  He also does an amusing imitation of Elvis and sings convincingly. The rest of the cast is weak, but other than Rivers this is not a character movie. The actors are just there as props.

First half score: “To Be Or Not To Be” - 45      “Top Secret!” - 37


         “To Be Or Not To Be” is the perfect 1940s war comedy. It has a good plot, great acting, suspense, some great lines, and is consistently amusing. The one liners are spaced for best effect – the opposite of “Top Secret!” It also deserves credit for aiding the war effort by lampooning the Nazis at a time that they were fearsome. Benny does a great job making fun of hammy actors and his marriage to Maria is obviously a take-off on Hollywood celebrity pairings.  Some of the dialogue is very funny.

       “Top Secret!” is from the “Airplane!” school of frenetic humor. In this tournament it closely resembles “Hot Shots!” I have a theory that if a comedy has an exclamation point at the end, you can expect it to be silly with tons of jokes. It is a little less gag-crazy than “Hot Shots!” and includes some funny scenes spoofing Beach Boys music and teen idol performances. There are two unique scenes: a scene in a bookstore that is run backwards and an incredible underwater barroom fight sequence. There are lots of sight gags, but most are cute rather than funny.  Many are painfully silly (e.g., flying people shitting on a statue of a pigeon).  Some of the gags are very dated.   Who under fifty would get a Ford Pinto joke today? (By the way, it’s hilarious.)

Second half score: “To Be Or Not To Be” - 44 “Top Secret!” - 42


       Once again, we have a match-up between old school and new school. In other match-ups I have argued that modern humor is funnier than old-time humor. However, acting and writing still rule. Quantity does not defeat quality when it comes to most comedies. Especially when the quantity of jokes comes with a low percentage of yuks. I happen to be a fan of the “Airplane!” school of comedy and do not mind cringing and laughing at the same time. (By the way, has anyone else noticed no similar movie has managed to top the original?) I do not mind feeling guilty about laughing. I have a soft spot for “Top Secret!”, but it does not stand up to “To Be Or Not To Be”.  The movie is now considered a classic and is ranked #49 on AFIs greatest comedies.  You could argue that it is underrated.  One thing you cannot argue is that "Top Secret!" belongs on the same list.



TOP SECRET!                79

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