my latest KD Classic is up, this week it’s another ONE, not a FIVE, a companion piece of sorts to my recent article on The Great Dictator, this time looking at To Be or Not To Be, with Jack Benny, Carole Lombard and a fantastic cast.
To Be or Not to Be
Similar to Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, which I wrote about recently, I had this movie in mind as a companion piece and interesting contrast– another early example of Hollywood ridiculing a wartime enemy. To Be or Not to Be is a 1942 Nazi satire made by director Ernst Lubitsch, a master of sophisticated comedy. To Be isn’t quite as edgy or daring as the Chaplin, nor half as insanely anarchic as the same subject matter might have been in the hands of the Marx Brothers; instead, it’s an intelligent and technically near-perfect comedy and as subversive a product that carried a studio gloss and a Grade-A cast than anyone had seen to that point.
The plot is about a troupe of gloriously and lovably hammy Polish theater actors, led by the Turas, husband and wife played by Jack Benny and Carole Lombard. Though they normally (and poorly) do Shakespeare, their new anti-Hitler play is censored out of “sensitivity” to the threatening Germans. This concern is soon moot, as the Nazis invade Poland, but the actors get to use their Nazi impersonations when they are asked to help a pilot (Robert Stack) stop a spy from exposing their involvement in the Polish underground resistance. Mostly panned in its day for uncomfortable and controversial subject matter, the film is now a highly regarded comedy, and deservedly so. It effectively mocks the Nazis, which was then still a novel concept, but also directs as many jokes at egotistical and pretentious actors. The cast is exceptionally talented and perfectly assembled, and it’s an achievement that in playing overacting actors, nobody actually overacts. Felix Bressart shines as the spear-carrying bit player who finally gets to recite Shakespeare’s “hath not a Jew eyes” speech from The Merchant of Venice as both a plea for tolerance and a distraction at a key moment. Lionel Atwill, usually authoritatively highbrow, is here a histrionic blowhard. Marx Brothers alum Sig Ruman is the Gestapo chief who relishes his reputation as “concentration camp Ehrhardt” yet blames underlings for all his mistakes and practically trembles in fear after telling a cheesy Hitler joke. Ruman’s performance set the pattern for the many bumbling Nazi officer characters that later populated pop culture. Then there’s rugged gangster-faced Tom Dugan, whose Hitler impersonation is off yet close enough to shock unsuspecting onlookers.
The film deftly moves from hilarious to poignant; when the Nazis occupy Warsaw, the Polish names on every sign–a joke only minutes before–become real people and families whose lives have been destroyed. Theatrical posters are papered over with layers of notices about forbidden acts and items. Lubitsch successfully blends romance, satire, wartime propaganda and political commentary, as he did with Ninotchka, where he sent up the joylessness of Communism; he also made some must-see nonpolitical comedies like Trouble in Paradise and Design for Living. There are clever shots and staging, like the search for a spy in the darkened rows of theater seats, the curtain rising to reveal him, and so much more that’s less obvious and proves the adage that good directing is present when it’s least noticeable. Lubitsch also co-wrote the adaptation specifically with radio superstar Jack Benny in mind, turning out a well-constructed script that constantly twists yet always remains clear and fast-moving. Lubitsch addresses the folly of blind obedience to an authoritarian leader, most obviously in a scene where pilots with no parachutes instantly jump out of a plane because impostor-Hitler commands it. The simple but lasting gags include Stack getting up and disturbing a whole row of theatergoers to visit Lombard backstage every time Benny launches into his overwrought “to be or not to be” speech. It’s said of Benny’s delicate overinflated ego, “I hate to leave my country in the hands of such a ham,” and with the fate of Poland hanging on him, he still stops to ask everyone he meets (while in disguise, and with much drama) if they’ve heard of that “great” Polish actor (meaning himself), and of course nobody ever has except for Ruman who says, “what he did to Shakespeare we are doing now to Poland.” Then there’s the idea of Hitler himself being a performance, and an unreal one at that; when Tom Dugan is told his Hitler getup is “not convincing…just a man with a little mustache,” Dugan responds, “but so is Hitler!” He then walks out on the street to prove his imitation and costume are good, and succeeds in scaring the people but not a little girl who asks for his autograph (as actor). The recurring concentration camp joke may seem crude from our perspective but in 1942 the world thought the places were simply work camps, and were still largely unaware of the true horrors taking place there. Finally, the movie’s a must-see, if only as a showcase for gifted comedienneCarole Lombard, here at her prime in beauty and talent. Soon after shooting, and shortly before the film’s release, she died at age 33 in a plane crash with her mother and a group of soldiers; they were all traveling from a war bond rally to make an appearance on Jack Benny’s radio show.
To Be or Not To Be is available streaming on HULU (as part of the Criterion collection) and NETFLIX, on DVD and shows often on TCM, next on Aug 28 (sign up for an email reminder); you have no excuse not to watch or rewatch to catch all the jokes you missed the first time.
this article originally appeared as KD’s Classic 1: All the World War’s a Stage at the LandmarkReport