The Cold War comedy had become its own genre by the time Mel Brooks and Buck Henry put in on TV with “Get Smart.”
The idea that Russian spies, Russian authoritarianism and “The American Way” could collide for laughs should have been a stretch for a generation that survived the biggest Hot War, WWII. But by the time films like Billy Wilder’s “One, Two, Three” and Norman Jewison’s “The Russians are Coming, The Russians Are Coming” came out, American audiences had bought in.
But when did we first start to laugh at the whole idea of a war of ideas, of a clash that was deadly earnest and deadly serious but without (much) shooting, was hard to take seriously?
I’ll bet it was “The Big Lift,” a just-after-it-happened, docudrama real and often laugh-out-loud funny account of the Berlin Airlift, the first major confrontation of The Cold War.
I’d never seen this pre-Korea 1950 dramedy, with Montgomery Clift and Paul Douglas as Hawaii-based Air Force crew suddenly shipped to Germany to keep Berlin from being starved to death by the Soviets. George Seaton, who went on to write and direct “Airport,” and “The Country Girl,” wrote and directed “Miracle on 34th Street” and scripted a couple of Marx Brothers romps, wrote and directed “Lift.” And if he’s not parked in what Andrew Sarris loftily called “The Pantheon” of cinema stylists of that era, the record reflects the writer-director knew where to find laughs in even the grimmest of settings.
It’s dark — set mostly in a ruined, rubble-filled Berlin, with war criminals wandering the streets and even the local “schatzis” (friendly frauleins) a dubious proposition. The work was dangerous, flying food and coal in via C-57 transports through a narrow air corridor, harassed by Russian fighter planes, into an airport surrounded by apartment blocks (“Like landing in the Rose Bowl” one pilot cracks.).
But as serious as it all was, this mad scramble (20 minutes between landing and the next takeoff) to save survivors of a genocidal regime from another genocidal regime, had to seem a tad ridiculous.
The cynical, bluff Sgt. Kowalski (Douglas, of “The Maggie” and many a comedy or drama of the era) mutters “This is where we SHOULDA used the A-bomb,” a sentiment that can’t have been unique at that time.
Sgt. Danny McCullough (Clift) isn’t quite that cynical. But he probably didn’t serve in the European theater. And when he’s singled out for a hometown profile by an Associated Press reporter, and honored, strictly by chance, at a “thank you” ceremony for the work they’re all doing, he warms to the first woman (Lithuanian-German actress Cornell Borchers) he’s seen during this service.
As the McCullough and Kowalksi explain their jobs and the milieu to the AP reporter, McCullough steals away to spend time with the widowed Frederica. That’s how he sees the city, up close, with its ruined buildings, civilians pressed into labor gangs to remove rubble to rebuild it and the patently absurd four-power arrangement that divided Berlin into “zones” occupied by the victorious Allies and the liberated French.
Seaton, mixing his cast with real-life fliers and GIs, creates a swaggering, bantering world of inter-service rivalry, with the Air Force guys razzing Navy crews who come to pitch in, with MPs (working in teams, with one soldier from each of the four occupiers) struggling to keep the peace and the “fraternizing” to a minimum.
Newsreel coverage opens the film, and is cleverly folded into the proceedings as Seaton has it interrupted by the Hickam Field (Hawaii) airmen watching it being given their orders to report for “45 days” of “training.”
The script is patriotic without being heavy-handed, with the brutish Kowalski explaining to his bullied fraulein (Bruni Löbel) the virtues of democracy with a cute “Dewey Defeats Truman” anecdote, a defense of a society with its own anti-Semitism (and race) problems.
The Germans our heroes meet include Strieber (O.E. Hasse), a survivor and hustler and freely-admitted “Russian spy” who documents the comings and goings of Berlin Airlift flights, a comical cynic who jokes of the 15,000 Germans the Russians have spying for them in Berlin, and the 10,000 the Allies have on their payroll.
Travel between “sectors” has a certain peril that Seaton finds comical. Russians hassle tram riders for food and coffee, and we see an older German man counsel a weeping woman to hide her little bag of coffee under her hat.
When he rats her out, it’s a jaw-droppingly funny shock and the entire tram turns on him. When he laughs and opens his coat to reveal a year’s supply of coffee, and gives her a couple for her service (she took suspicion away from him), the joke has the perfect punchline.
Both characters have arcs, with Clift’s Danny turning a bit more cynical about the Old World and Old Enemies that can’t be trusted, and Douglas’s Germa-phobic Kowalski warming from the guy who doesn’t hesitate to glower the “Krauts” off their own sidewalks as he stomps down the street.
“They belong in the gutter. If they don’t get outta my way, I’m gonna push’em there.“
“The Big Lift” is a film that takes us back to a simpler time, America at its most confident, not yet wholly wrestling with the Civil Rights Movement and thus self-righteous in ways that due to be knocked down a peg or two.
And it’s a stand-out film in the career of a filmmaker whose deft hand with comedy and drama “(The Country Girl” was an Oscar winner) made him a go-to choice of the studios, even if he was no Hitchcock, Huston, Wilder or Wyler.
Wilder may have made the funniest Cold War comedy of them all. But Seaton got there ten years ahead of him in a classic film well worth tracking down on Tubi, Roku or your favorite classic film channel of choice.
MPAA Rating: Approved
Cast: Montgomery Clift, Paul Douglas, Cornell Borchers, Bruni Löbel and O.E. Hasse
Credits: Scripted and directed by George Seaton. A 20th Century Fox release on Tubi, Amazon, etc.
Running time: 2:00