Cast & Crew
In 1940, as German troops near the outskirts of Paris, Samuel L. Jacobowsky, a Polish Jew who has been fleeing the Germans since their conquest of Poland, plans his next escape. As the resourceful Jacobowsky contemplates how to reach the Spanish border, Dr. Szicki of the Polish Embassy arrives at the hotel in which Jacobowsky is staying to confer with Col. Prokoszny, another guest at the hotel. When Szicki gives the Polish colonel a coded message to deliver to the Polish Embassy in London, the blustery, pompous colonel eagerly embraces his chance to "get into the war." After the taxi hired to drive the colonel to St. Jean de Luz on the Spanish border, where he is to rendezvous with a London-bound submarine, is damaged in a collision, the colonel orders his aide Szabuniewicz to find him another vehicle. At the hotel café, Jacobowsky, who lived in the small Polish village in which the colonel's family were the reigning aristocrats, tries to enlist the colonel in a scheme to requisition an automobile, but the officer rejects his proposal. When Jacobowsky purchases one of the few remaining automobiles in Paris, a Rolls Royce owned by the Baron Rothschild, the anti-Semitic colonel refuses to ride with him and confiscates the car for himself. Jacobowsky has shrewdly emptied the gas tank however, and makes a bargain with the colonel to provide gas in exchange for safe passage to the border. When the colonel turns north instead of south, and heads toward the German-occupied city of Reims, Jacobowsky becomes alarmed but the colonel insists on continuing onto Reims to pick up his fiancée, Suzanne Roualet, before leaving the country. Meanwhile, a German officer, Maj. von Bergen, arrives at the restaurant Suzanne owns in Reims and makes lewd suggestions to her, but his crude overtures are interrupted when he is summoned to headquarters. Soon after, the colonel, Jacobowsky and Szabuniewicz arrive at the restaurant, and when the colonel begins to serenade Suzanne, she runs out the door and into his arms. As Suzanne and the colonel retire to her boudoir, Jacobowsky makes a deal with some French soldiers to trade the colonel's stash of vodka for gasoline. Later, with their gas tank now full, the four fugitives head for the South of France. As they pass columns of fleeing refugees, a French officer warns them that Paris has fallen and the Germans are looking for the colonel. When Jacobowsky suggests that the colonel exchange his uniform for civilian garb, the officer adamantly refuses. Now hungry and nearly out of gas, they camp in a market-place with the other refugees. The ever-resourceful Jacobowsky then goes to the town's castle, and upon learning that the caretaker is a monarchist, convinces the man that the colonel is the Pretender to the Throne and is to be crowned King of France. When the caretaker invites them to stay and gives them a royal welcome, Suzanne praises Jacobowsky's ingenuity, thus arousing the colonel's jealousy. After Suzanne and the colonel argue over Jacobowsky's virtues, the colonel grabs some bottles of wine and storms out of the room. Suzanne then flirts with Jacobowsk and realizes that he has fallen in love with her and coaxes him to dance. The colonel, now drunk, bursts into the room, and seeing them dancing, challenges Jacobowsky to a duel. Jacobowsky rashly picks up a sword and declares his love for Suzanne, causing the colonel to chase him into the cellar. The colonel calms down, however, when Jacobowsky finds a cask of rare brandy and offers his adversary a drink. As the colonel drunkenly caterwauls, German soldiers arrive to commandeer the castle. Jacobowsky, Suzanne and Szabuniewicz lead the drunken colonel up the stairs and, after dressing him in civilian clothes, escape out the back door and head for St. Jean de Luz. When the colonel, hung over and in shock from being stripped of his uniform, drives the car into a German tank, the four are taken to headquarters for questioning. There, Suzanne is greeted by von Bergen, who asks them if they know Prokoszny. To protect the colonel's identity, Jacobowsky lies that his male travel companions are Polish relatives. When Suzanne appeals to the major to help them reach the border, he releases them. Sensing that the colonel has been deeply humiliated by the turn of events, Jacobowsky decides that the time has come to leave the group. While hitchhiking along the roadside, Jacobowsky is picked up by a carload of nuns who drive him to St. Jean de Luz. As Jacobowsky approaches the border crossing, his passport is confiscated and he is arrested by the Germans. At headquarters, a German officer questions Jacobowsky about the colonel's destination. When Jacobowsky refuses to cooperate, the officer releases him and threatens to have him tortured at eight p.m. that night unless he comes forward with the information. Meanwhile, the colonel arrives at St. Jean de Luz and learns from his contact that Jacobowsky has been arrested. Although the contact implies that Jacobowsky has betrayed him, the colonel senses that Jacobowsky is in danger and goes to his aid. As the hour nears eight, Jacobowsky sits in the town square, contemplating suicide. Just as he is about to swallow a capsule of poison, the colonel drives up in his Rolls Royce and embraces him as a "comrade-in-arms." When Jacobowsky begs the colonel to leave, the colonel assures him that Suzanne is in possession of the documents and will complete his mission. Knowing that the Germans are watching them, the colonel begins guzzling brandy and instructs Jacobowsky to devise an escape strategy. After some thought, Jacobowsky tells the colonel to drive to the convent. The Germans follow and watch as the Rolls Royce pulls into the convent gates and, moments later, drives out. When the Germans stop the Rolls they discover it is being driven by the Mother Superior. Meanwhile, Jacobowsky and the colonel peddle a bicycle to their rendezvous with the submarine. When the colonel arrives, the sub captain informs him that he has room for only two passengers. After Suzanne insists on staying behind, the colonel orders Szabuniewicz to take care of her and promises to return one day. Once Jacobowsky and the colonel are on board the submarine, the colonel panics, thinking that he left the papers behind. Jacobowsky smiles and gives him the envelope entrusted to him by Suzanne.
Jean Del Val
S. N. Behrman
Carter Dehaven Jr.
William A. Lyon
Me and the Colonel
Me and the Colonel is symptomatic in this way - mild-mannered, earnest, happy to exploit stereotypes and cliches for comic effect, and oozing with a sympathy for the plight of the Jews in Europe that's mostly implicit, as if acknowledging that the last thing any audience member needed, even by 1958, was the verities of the Final Solution jammed down their throats during a Danny Kaye movie. Kaye is the film's raison d'etre, the fading postwar star less than a half-dozen movies away from retiring to occasional TV appearances (his one-shot company, Court Enterprises, co-produced the film), and Kaye's rueful performance here has everything to do, it seems, with the star's observance that his brief and rather strange time in the spotlight has come to an end. A breakout star in 1944's Up in Arms, Kaye had been rescued from a struggling post-vaudevillian stage career by Samuel Goldwyn, and for the rest of the '40s and into the '50s Kaye was a headliner, beloved for sentimental schtick, nonsense songs and a substantial payload of do-gooder energy, as manifested in his notable ambassador work for UNICEF and other charities, and his eagerness to make films for children. Kaye was also one of Hollywood's most prominent activist liberal Jews, honored by the state of Israel and resisting the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, and given his prominence it's surprising to realize that Me and the Colonel is the only film Kaye ever made about the war or the Jewish ordeal of the middle century.
As it is, Glenville's film is no grand statement - it's a mordant lark, based upon the final play written in 1944 by Austrian author Franz Werfel after he'd escaped the Nazis and relocated to California. Kaye plays Jacobowsky, a mild-mannered Polish Jew who by 1940 has already been a refugee twice over before needing to flee Paris on the eve of the Germans' occupation. Inherently wily and gently crafty, Jacobowsky crosses paths with an irritable egomaniac of a Polish Colonel (Curd Jurgens), and connives to have them embark together (along with the Colonel's military manservant, played dyspeptically by Akim Tamiroff) in an ill-gotten car across the countryside to Spain. The Colonel is not only a raging boozer but an unapologetic anti-Semite - but since he is in as much danger from the Nazis as Jacobowsky, an uneasy armistice is met, and in the end the two even conspire on a touch of espionage.
The tricky historical tension between Jews, anti-Semitic Poles and the Germans that would wipe both of them out is not a topic tackled often in Hollywood films. But truthfully Me and the Colonel doesn't tackle so much as do a cakewalk, reveling in its stagy nature and encouraging incorrigible hamminess from its cast. (Glenville was a stage director, never claiming to be much more, and scored a few years later with the grand archness of Summer and Smoke in 1961, and 1964's Becket.) Kaye is sly and subtle, but Jurgens is a gargantuan, bug-eyed cartoon, bullhorning his way through his scenes so crudely he seems to have forgotten his own German accent.
The thickly-sliced pork rump on display doesn't weigh the movie down terribly, because Werfel's intention was always to couch the despair of the situation in impish situational humor, all of it fueled by the Colonel's irritated racism, his unquenchable thirst, his idiotic ideas of aristocratic nobility, and his heedless lust for his French girlfriend (Nicole Maurey). Clearly, in Werfel's view a certain class of intolerant and oppressive Pole deserved everything they got from the Germans, and if anything the movie constitutes some kind of sociopolitical revenge. (Where or how Werfel might've been wronged or disgusted by Polish aristocracy, we may never know.) But in the end all is well - only Kaye's knowing dread, reflected often only in his watchful eyes, suggests the true stakes at hand. Everything else, including the plot itself, transforms the refugee scramble of 1940 into a goofy road trip, where vodka is traded for gasoline and French nuns are the ultimate escape-gimmick ruse.
It is a coincidence that in 1944 Werfel named his character as he did, in the play's title (Jacobowsky under der Oberst), and that the first genuine Holocaust film, The Last Stage (1948), a Polish film about life in Auschwitz, made less than three years after liberation of the camp, shot on location in Auschwitz itself, using real liberated prisoners as extras, was directed by Wanda Jakubowska, herself an Auschwitz client just a few years earlier. Glenville's small movie, despite some on-location footage shot in France, takes place on a different planet altogether, a daydream landscape of the Hollywood Holocaust, with more vaudeville in its blood than refugee outrage.
Producer: William Goetz
Director: Peter Glenville
Screenplay: S.N. Behrman (screenplay and play: American version); George Froeschel (screenplay); Franz Werfel (original play)
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Art Direction: Walter Holscher, Georges Wakhevitch
Music: George Duning
Film Editing: William A. Lyon, Charles Nelson
Cast: Danny Kaye (S.L. Jacobowsky), Curt Jurgens (Colonel Prokoszny), Nicole Maurey (Suzanne Roualet), Francoise Rosay (Madame Bouffier), Akim Tamiroff (Szabuniewicz), Martita Hunt (Mother Superior), Alexander Scourby (Major Von Bergen), Liliane Montevecchi (Cosette), Ludwig Stössel (Dr. Szicki), Gerard Buhr (German Captain)
by Michael Atkinson
Me and the Colonel
The working titles of the film were Jacobowsky and the Colonel and Best of Enemies. Onscreen credits include the following written acknowledgment: "The Rolls-Royce owned by Mr. George Power was used by arrangement with the Montagu Motor Museum." According to a May 1944 Los Angeles Examiner news item, Columbia vied with Warner Bros. for the film rights to Franz Werfel's play. In July 1956, a Hollywood Reporter news item stated that Gottfried Reinhardt was to produce and direct the film. An October 1957 Daily Variety news item adds that Leslie Caron was considered for the female lead, and that the film was to be shot in England. Although a January 1958 Hollywood Reporter news item notes that nightclub impressionist Billy Batchelor was to play the role of a Frenchman, his appearance in the released film has not been confirmed.
As noted in Hollywood Reporter production charts, location filming was done in France in December 1957, after which the production moved to the Columbia Studio in Los Angeles. Studio publicity materials in the film's production file at AMPAS note that five days of location shooting took place in Lyons, France. Some critics disapproved of the marriage of anti-Semitism and comedy featured in the film. In an August 1958 New York Times article, film critic Bosley Crowther asked "What's amusing about watching a patient Jew in a desperate and outrageously insensate negotiation for his life with a fool?"
Voted One of the Year's Ten Best American Films By the 1958 National Board of Review.
Winner of the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Written American Comedy of 1958.
Released in United States Fall October 1958
Released in United States Fall October 1958