Top Must-See Movies for Polish Americans

I’ve seen a lot of Polish films–that is, films made in Poland or by Polish directors–but that’s another list. For this list, I’ve rounded up Hollywood classics along with some more recent English-language movies that feature Polish characters. Some of them may surpise you, even if you have already seen them. If you haven’t, ask for them “@ your library.” If your local public library doesn’t have them, request an interlibrary loan! Some can actually be watched in full online.

1. Conquest. This 1937 classic stars Greta Garbo as Polish countess Marie Walewska and Charles Boyer as her lover, Napoleon. It’s a sweeping, epic film that withstands the test of time and presents a romantic version of this little-known-today historic love affair, based on a book by Wacław Gasiorowski. Line delivered by an old man who is instantly shot by a horde of Cassocks: “This is Poland; we don’t take orders from no czar.”

2. A Streetcar Named Desire. Featuring Marlon Brando as the crude Polish-American Stanley Kowalski, this 1951 classic is based on the play of the same name by Tennessee Williams. Favorite line, Stanley shouting at the delicate Blanche Dubois, played memorably by Vivian Leigh: “I am not a Polack. People from Poland are Poles, not Polacks. But what I am is a one hundred percent American, born and raised in the greatest country on earth and proud as hell of it, so don’t ever call me a Polack.”

3. West Side Story. If you’ve already seen this 1962 American musical classic, you might not remember that the central conflict in the movie is between the Puerto Ricans and the “Polacks” (with some Wops and Micks thrown in for good measure) in New York. Played by Richard Beymer, Tony is the good-hearted Polish boy who falls in love with Maria, the good-hearted Puerto Rican girl played by Natalie Wood, and sets off the gang war.  The more I see this movie, however, the more I think it belongs to Rita Moreno, who sings the classic “America” with such passion that it is more relevant today than ever, applied to any ethnic group struggling to succeed in the land of liberty. Listen for this line: “”lf it’s the last thing I do, l’m gonna get that Polack.”

4. Madame Curie. Paris in the early part of the last century is the backdrop for this beautiful love story starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, released in 1943 as World War II raged in Europe. My favorite parts are the references to Poland and the stubborn Polishness that made Marie Skłodowska one of the greatest scientists who ever lived. If you’ve never seen a Greer Garson film, or haven’t seen one lately, she is one of the most beautiful and talented actresses Hollywood ever produced, and totally under-appreciated today. Listen for these lines: “She’s a very obstinate girl,” says Pierre Curie to his mother. “Well, after all, Poland is her home,” the mother explains.

5. The Miracle of the Bells. Critics generally consider this 1948 movie a turkey. As a teenager, I thought it was fabulous, right up there with other Catholic films such as The Song of Bernadette and The Bells of St. Mary’s. Today, what stands out is not the performances of Frank Sinatra, Fred MacMurray, or Alida Valli as the dying Polish actress who sacrifices all for the sake of a film, it’s the realistic portrayal of coal miners in “Coaltown” U.S.A. Many of the extras in the film were actual miners working for the Glen-Alden Coal Company in Pennsylvania.

7. Sophie’s Choice. Meryl Streep once again displays her extraordinary ability with languages, playing a Polish victim of Nazi evil in this moving1982 adaptation of the novel by William Styron. Most horrifying moment: from the Nazi guard who tells Sophie that she must choose which of her children she will be allowed to keep, “You are a Polack, not a Yid. That gives you a privilege, a choice.”

8. To Kill a Priest. Christopher Lambert and Ed Harris star in this tense 1988 drama directed by the superb Polish director Agnieszka Holland. The film is a fictionalized version of the story of the Polish priest Jerzy Popiełuszko, with Lambert in the lead role and Harris as the secret-police captain set to assassinate him. This film captures the personal courage and solidarity behind the overthrow of communist rule in Poland.

9. The Pianist. There are many American films about the Holocaust and the Second World War that portray Poland as peripheral to the real action of the war. This 2002 gem places the true-life story of Polish-Jewish pianist and composer Władysław Szpilman at the very center. Starring Adrien Brody, who won an Oscar for the role, the film is arguably Polish-born director Roman Polanski’s best, certainly his most personal and inspirational. The scenes of the destruction of Warsaw are the most terrifying ever brought to the screen.

10. Schindler’s List.  This 1993 American semi-biographical film about  Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who saved the lives of more than a thousand mostly Polish Jewish refugees during the Holocaust by employing them in his factories. Directed by Steven Spielberg and based on a novel Thomas Keneally, it stars Liam Neeson as Schindler and was filmed in part in Krakow, Poland.

11. Polish Wedding. Nobody in the city of Hamtramck, Michigan, where it was filmed, seemed to like this comic-tragic movie–except me and my journalist friend Walter Wasacz, who covered the shoot for the local newspaper, The Citizen, in 1998. People found it disrespectful and vulgar; we found it magical and honest. Maybe it was seeing the ordinary shops and streets and the magnificent St. Florian church on the big screen, or maybe it was the authentic performances of Lena Olin, Clare Danes, and Gabriel Byrne. More than anything, for me, it is the complex musical score that captures a fleeting time and place so wonderfully. Each time I watch the film and the camera pans Hamtramck at night, I see the little house where my late mother lived, and think to myself, “Perhaps she was asleep, right there, that night, as the cameras rolled.”

12. The Razor’s Edge. This 1946 adaption of the novel by W. Somerset Maugham has the main character, played by Tyrone Power, going to work in a coal mine near Lens, in northern France, where he gets to know one of the many Poles working in the French mines, an “unfrocked priest” named Kosti, who arrouses his interest in mystical religion. The story spans a period of 24 years, from 1919 to 1943, and takes place in many different locations, including Chicago, London, India, and, of course, Paris. My favorite of Kosti lines: “Get out you fool; I’m going to get drunk!”

13. The Way Back.   The New Republic called it the best film of 2010. It’s an epic saga of survival and escape from a brutal Siberian Gulag during World War II. Notable among the performances are Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, and Jim Sturgiss as the determined Pole who never, never, never gives up.

14. Victor/Victoria. Notable because Julie Andrews stars as a woman masquerading as a man who impersonates women and the writers of this 1982 comedy-with-music made Andrews’ phony identity “Count Victor Grazinski”–presumably because it is one way to be certain that movie-goers will know nothing at all about what constitutes the look, speech, or behavior of a Polish count.  The only problem with the premise is that the film is set in Paris in the 1930s, where people might very well have known the difference between a Brit and a Pole.

15. All About Eve. As the film opens, we hear the voice of theater critic Addison deWitt (played by George Sanders) talking about the presentation of a prestigious acting award to the conniving Eve Harrington (played by Anne Baxter): “These hollowed walls, indeed many of these faces, have looked upon Modjeska, Ada Rehan, and Minnie Fiske; Mansfield’s voice filled the room, Booth breathed this air….” The Polish actress Helena Modjeska was still a theater icon in 1950 when the film was made, well enough known that her last name alone was all that was needed. Perhaps she was a role model to Eve, for later in the movie when Addison exposes Eve’s lies and made-up past, the big shocker comes when he shouts, “Your name is not Eve Harrington. It is Gertrude Slescynski!”

16. Suddenly Last Summer. “It means sugar in Polish.” That’s what Montgomery Clift, as Chicago psychiatrist Dr. Cukrowicz, tells Katherine Hepburn as the New Orleans mother of Sebastian, who died mysteriously on what we learn later was one of his escapades in Italy. Tennessee Williams wrote the play upon which the screenplay by Gore Vidal was based, and it was released in 1952, when homosexuality was viewed by the medical community as a mental illness–the real topic of this film, as Hepburn tries her best to get Clift to lobotomize her niece, played fiercely by Elizabeth Taylor, before she can tell the truth about how Sebastian’s sexual proclivities led to his death.

17. A Song to Remember. This 1945 biopic casts Cornell Wilde as Polish composer Frederic Chopin and Merle Oberon as his Parisian friend and mentor George Sand. To appreciate the film, you must forget about historical accuracy and enjoy the sumptuousness of the sets and the drama, which is filled with the heavenly music of Chopin played by popular bandleader of the 1940s Jose Iturbi.

18. Mr. Winkle Goes to War. An earnest attempt to boost morale during the Second World War, this 1944 trifle stars Edward G. Robinson as a modest banker who dreams of owning a fix-it shop. When the aging dreamer (Robinson playing 44 but looking every bit of his 51 years) is unexpectedly drafted, he sticks by his guns so to speak, and becomes a war hero. His sergeant, played by Richard Lane, is named Czeidrowski. Never does the film mention that he is Polish, but he turns out to be a tough but compassionate character, an all-American whom the boys in his unit call Sergeant Alphabet because his name is “pert near longer than the whole alphabet.” Of course it isn’t, and the spelling is odd even for Polish. Nevertheless, his character is a small nod to the fact that some 900,000 Poles were in the Armed Forces in World War II. Favorite moment: When Robinson, Lane, and two pals sing “Sweet Genevieve” a cappella.

19. Destroyer. I used to wonder why Edward G. Robinson, a stubby little man with a voice like a crook, was so popular with audiences in the 1940s. This 1943 movie explains it all, as Robinson portrays Steve Boleslavski, a Navy shipyard welder with a heart of gold who helped build the battleship John Paul Jones. After failing sea trials, the ship is assigned to the mail run, until caught up in a desperate battle with a Japanese sub. After the ship is torpedoed and on the verge of sinking, Boleslavski and crew hatch a plan to try and save the ship and destroy the sub. Interesting that the words “Pole,” “Poland,” and “Polack” are never uttered during the course of the film, and Boleslavski is spelled with the non-Polish “v.” Nevertheless, Destroyer is a sweet and inspiring piece of World War II propaganda that speaks well of the Polish American population and its ability to become American, first and forever. Favorite line, uttered by Glenn Ford to Boleslavski’s daughter, played by Marguerite Chapman: “In a world full of Smiths, Joneses, and Callahans, I had to pick a Boleslavski.”

20. Yentl. The beauty of this film is the way the music and the story are woven together, often with voice-over rather than people bursting into song for no apparent reason. This is Barbra Streisand’s crowning achievement, as star and director, and with music composed by Michel Legrand, it’s sublime. Based on a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer, the film is set in Poland and takes us back to a time when the Holocaust had not happened and girls who passed themselves off as boys were pretty much viewed as demons. This movie musical works on every level, from the voices to the beautiful recreation of life in the Lublin area.

21. To Be or Not to Be. Remarkable as it is, this comedy about an acting troupe that becomes embroiled in a Polish soldier’s efforts to track down a German spy was released in 1942 but filmed in 1941, before the USA entered World War II. The spy has information that would be damaging to the Polish resistance and the troupe must prevent its being delivered to the Germans. Set in Nazi-occupied Poland, the film stars Jack Benny and Carole Lombard, and it is difficult to imagine how they managed to pull it off, but critics continue to site this film as one of the best mockeries of the Nazis ever done. Lombard died in a plane crash along with her mother and twenty others returning from a war bond rally before the film was released. A 1963 remake of the film, directed by and starring Mel Brooks in the Jack Benny role, has always left me wondering why it was necessary to remake a film that was about as good as it was ever going to be the first time around.

22. Jakob the Liar. Robin Williams delivers a powerful dramatic performance as a Polish-Jewish cafe owner who creates a mythical radio that broadcasts hopeful stories about the advance of the Allied forces in World War II. Based on a 1969 novel by Poland-born Holocaust survivor Jurek Becker, this 1999 film is marked by sensitive direction and outstanding performances all around. Filmed on location in Poland and Hungary the film is bittersweet. In what could be Williams’s best performance ever, he tell a joke as Jakob Heym: “Hitler goes to a fortune-teller and asks, ‘When will I die?’ And the fortune-teller replies, ‘On a Jewish holiday.’ Hitler then asks, ‘How do you know that?’ And she replies, ‘Any day you die will be a Jewish holiday.’” Ironically, Jakob creates the radio hoax to lift spirts and prevent his friend from committing suicide, which Williams did fifteen years later.

23. The Big Lebowski. The thing about movies made by the Coen Brothers is that I either love them (Fargo) or they leave me flat (The Big Lebowski). There is a thin line between comic and tragic, and here the lead characters never find it. As played by Jeff Bridges and John Goodman, two dumber Polacks have never graced the silver screen. Yet, there is nothing Polish or Polish-American about these losers–”The Dude” Lebowski and Walter Sobchak–except their names, and “Sobchak” is a very un-Polish spelling. There are a couple of assumptions that you have to make to laugh at the jokes in this 1998 film. One is that Polish surnames are innately funny and you should laugh when you hear one, especially when it is associated with intelligent thought or combined with an American given name (“Bunny Lebowski”). The only time you hear the word “Polish” in the movie is when The Dude explains to Sobchak that he is “not even Jewish”: “You’re fucking Polish-Catholic.” So why see this film? Because it raises a lot of questions, such as: What’s so funny about stupidity? Why does John Goodman seem to be doing an imitation of Roseanne Barr? Would this have worked better as a cartoon? Why is “Lebowski” considered a “jerk-off name”? Another reason is to watch Julianne Moore deliver another bizarre but intriguing performance. As Maude Lebowski, she leads The Dude, a burned-out hippy, into the only one of his lines that made me laugh out loud by asking him post-coitally what he does for recreation. As if it’s the first time he’s ever been asked, he thinks for a second, then replies, “Go bowling, drive around, and the occasional acid flashback.”

24. Some Like It Hot. The most obvious ethnic references in this comedy are to Italians, since it is set during Prohibition and the heyday of the mafia, but there is also a Polish connection. Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play two poor musicians running for their lives after they witness a brutal gangland massacre in 1929 Chicago. To escape, they disguise themselves as women and join an all-girl band on its way to a gig in Florida. Enter Marilyn Monroe as a “dumb blonde” who identifies herself as Sugar Kane, adding that “I changed it from Sugar Kowalczyk.” “Polish?” she is asked. “Yes, I come from this musical family. My mother’s a piano teacher. My father was a conductor.” To the question “Where did he conduct?” she replies, “On the Baltimore and Ohio.” In the end, the dizzy Polish girl from Sandusky, Ohio, turns out to have a heart of gold, and she gets her man with her well displayed sex appeal. In the bargain, Marilyn Monroe gets to appear in what is considered one of the most enduringly funny movies ever made.

25. Impromptu. With Hugh Grant playing Frédéric Chopin, Impromptu seems an unlikely film to be, as some critics have called it, the best film ever made based on the notorious writer George Sand and her pursuit of the Polish-French composer whose attitude toward amour frustrated the daylights out of her. Grant plays Chopin as a handsome but delicate soul, and Judy Davis turns in another magnificent performance as the hyper-aggresive Sand. Grant’s Polish accent is endearing; even if it is not quite identifiable; so what, they were speaking French anyway. Emma Thompson is a hoot as the social climber who plays host to Chopin, Sand, and Franz Liszt while her husband calls them a bunch of parasites. It’s a very entertaining romp, with lovely scenery, witty lines, and lots of temperament. References to Chopin’s Polishness are sprinkled throughout.

26. An Officer and a Gentleman This popular movie features the following bits of dialogue between stars Debra Winger and Richard Geer, who asks Winger, “What kind of a name is Pokrifki?” She replies, “Polish. What kind of a name is Mayo?” “Italian,” Geer says, “My mom was Irish. I think I got her ears. The rest is all Wop.” Winger replies, “Where are you from, Mayo the wop? Geer answers, “Everywhere, nowhere…Paula the Polack.”

27. In Our Time It is unusual to see a film made during the Second World War by Warner Bros. that deals with Poland, but here we have this seldom seen gem starring Ida Lupina and Paul Henreid. Lupino plays an English tourist in Warsaw on an antique buying mission when she falls in love with a Polish count, played sensitively by Henreid. They move to his estate and attempt to modernize the farm operations, but the German invasion of Poland throws their lives into turmoil.

28. Romance of a Horsethief A little knowledge of Polish history makes this movie a lot more meaningful, and abandon any idea that it is romantic in the way we think of the word today. Those caveats aside, this is a neglected film from 1971 that holds up quite well. The hyper-masculine Yul Brynner is the star in every sense, swaggering his way through as the Cossack who has been put in charge of the Polish town of Mława. Meanwhile the Jewish residents of a nearby shtetl plot and scheme to steal horses and defy the Russian authorities. A Polish gentleman of the upper class wants to marry his daughter off to a French dandy, while she falls for one of the Jewish horsethieves. Mind you, this is a time when Poland had been wiped off the map, and the Germans and the Russians were vying for their piece of the country. Favorite scene: Yul Brynner in a brothel drinking champagne and then chewing up the glass. Favorite line: “Polish peasants can’t read, and the Jewish peasants won’t.”

29. The Talk of the Town Cary Grant plays a man falsely accused of arson and murder in a small Massachusetts town. Jean Arthur is the friend you harbors him after he escapes from jail. And Ronald Coleman is the law professor who eventually finds the evidence that exonerates “Leopold Dilg.” The fourth central character in the comedy-drama is a jar of borscht. “It’s a Polish dish,” Arthur explains to the professor, “beet soup with sour cream” from Mrs. Pulaski’s Polish dairy. Suggesting that Dilg is Polish, Arthur notes, “It’s the kind your mother used to make.” Later the professor attempts to say “borscht” and notes, “I never can pronounce it.” While Dilg’s Polishness is suggested, Mrs. Pulaski’s son turns out to be a real worm who snitches on Dilg while telling his mother, “In America, everybody is responsible for everything.”

30. Eminent Domain This largely forgotten film is exceptional in every way. A Canada-Israel-France coproduction set in 1979 and released in 1990, it was filmed in Warsaw and Gdansk and stars two Hollywood actors playing–rather convincingly–Poles caught in the communist system of deception, intrigue, and party loyalty. A rather smug Jozef Borski is suddenly banished from the politburo. When he asks, “What did I do?” he is told, “Nothing.” This leads to a bewildering set of events that throw his family life into turmoil. Donald Sutherland and Anne Archer play the leads with poignant authenticity, and the filming on location gives real insight into life in Poland before the Soviet Union and the Communist Party released their grip on the nation. Note also that the Polish national anthem and the Polish version of the “Happy Birthday” song, “Sto Lat,” can be heard at the beginning of the movie.

31. Call Northside 777 Probably the most Polish of all the American films on my list, this gem stars James Stewart as a skeptical reporter who winds up trying to prove that a Polish man has been framed for murder. Given the classic noir treatment and filmed in shadowy neighborhoods on Chicago’s south side, the movie also features extras drawn from the community who speak Polish and have Polish names like Wanda Skutnik. The movie also tackles the topic of police corruption and the unfair treatment of lowly immigrants. One of the strongest characters in the movie is the framed man’s Polish mother, who scrubs floors to save money that she wants to use to free her innocent son. She is played by Kasia Orzazewski who was born in 1888 in Poland.

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