To Be or Not to Be (1942)

“So they call me ‘Concentration Camp Ehrhardt’?”

Synopsis:
As Hitler ravages Europe, a famous Polish actor (Jack Benny) and his wife (Carole Lombard) are forced to switch their troupe’s play from a Nazi-satire to “Hamlet”. Benny is distressed when a handsome fighter pilot (Robert Stack) gets up from the audience at the start of his “To be or not to be…” soliloquy, not knowing his wife is engaging in an innocent flirtation with this starstruck fan. Meanwhile, a spy (Stanley Ridges) infiltrates the Polish Resistance movement, and it’s up to the acting troupe to prevent a bumbling Gestapo chief (Sig Ruman) from learning the names of underground members.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that the “title of Ernst Lubitsch’s comedy-propaganda masterpiece” — with a script by Edwin Justus Mayer that is “brimming with clever twists and sparkling dialogue” — actually “refers to the existence of Poland”, noting that the film is Lubitsch’s attempt to present “Poles whom we [Americans] would want to support: they are brave, resourceful, and have an indomitable spirit”. He points out that the “continuous deception and disguises are staples of French farce, as is the bedroom intrigue”, and they “are typical of Lubitsch” — as are “the moments of screwball comedy (the infighting between Benny and Lombard), the sexual innuendo and downright naughtiness, and the flights into burlesque, slapstick, and outrageous spoof.” He reminds us that “the film was roundly criticized for being funny when it’s about a serious subject — but Lubitsch strongly attacks both Hitler and his followers, never letting his humorous treatment of them make us forget they are ruthless murderers”.

In Cult Movies 2, Peary states that “Cult movies are often born in controversy”, and describes in greater detail the reception this film had in 1942, just “three years after Germany invaded Poland” and “three months after the United States entered World War II”. He notes that Bosley Crowther of the New York Times was especially offended by the film; Crowther wrote, “To say [the film] is callous and macabre is understating the case”. However, Peary points out that “it’s interesting to note that critics were lenient to those World War II comedies that made no attempt to impress upon viewers the grim realities of Nazi aggression and occupation in Europe, while they jumped on Lubitsch’s film for daring to be both a comedy and topical”; in truth, “the opposite should have been the case”. Adding greatly to challenges with the film’s reception was the fact that viewers were devastated by Lombard’s death in a plane crash on her way back home to Hollywood after selling war bonds; the film was “impossible to promote”.

Speaking of Lombard, Peary names her Best Actress of the Year in his Alternate Oscars (sharing the award with Ginger Rogers in The Major and the Minor), noting that “Lombard considered her performance in To Be or Not to Be the best of her career”, and he agrees. He writes, “She has many moments in which she reveals why she was the thirties’ most celebrated comedienne”, and adds that he “particularly like[s] her affected mannerisms and voice when she tells Benny that it’s of no consequence that he finally asked the director to bill her above him in a play, and her look when he says that he knew she’d feel that way so the billing will stay the same”. He writes, “Also memorable is her sexual-innuendo-filled flirting with Stack’s young bomber pilot”: her “eyes reveal she is lost in fantasies when he tells her, ‘I can drop three tons of dynamite in two minutes’.” However, “Lombard’s Maria switches from being dazzlingly comical to deadly serious, and Lombard reveals how much she had grown as a dramatic actress in the last few years.” Lombard, Benny, and indeed the entire cast is in top form here; this movie is well worth a look by all film fanatics.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Carole Lombard as Maria Tura
  • Jack Benny as Joseph Tura (nominated as one of the Best Actors of the Year in Alternate Oscars)
  • Robert Stack as Lt. Sobinski
  • Many humorous moments

Must See?
Yes, as a cult classic. Nominated by Peary as one of the Best Films of the Year in his Alternate Oscars.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

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2 Responses to “To Be or Not to Be (1942)”

  1. Screamingly, gaspingly hilarious virtually from first frame till last. No more really need be said.

    However, it’s still highly regarded and revived so still a must see. I saw the respectable Mel Brooks remake (1983) recently and enjoyed it as well, but it can’t hold a candle to the original which is obviously must see entertainment.

  2. A no-brainer must-see (and one that holds up well on repeat viewings). As per my post in ‘The ’40s-’50s in Film’ (fb):

    “I hate to leave the fate of my country at the hands of a ham.”

    ‘To Be or Not To Be’ (1942) [film link in comments]: Ernst Lubitsch’s best film had a double-whammy against it when it was released: not only was the satire (of Nazis) widely considered immediately to be in bad taste but its star (Carole Lombard) met a tragic death in a plane crash about a month before the film’s release. Apparently critics were divided, with (I believe) the larger number of them dismissing the film for ‘obvious’ reasons. Even the Academy basically shunned the film, giving it a single nomination (best score) at awards time. However… time has not only been kind to the film, it has been generous. ‘TBONTB’ is now seen as one of the best comedies in cinema history… with good reason. The script by Edwin Justus Mayer (co-written by an uncredited Lubitsch) is pure gold. In the first 30 minutes, it’s all frothy and light – but, from then on, we are entertained non-stop by a delicious (and seamless) blend of comedy and drama. Just as it is irreverent towards Hitler, it is equally (and knowingly) ‘ruthless’ in its depiction of actors. As the less-than-talented Joseph Tura (who believes himself an artist beyond compare), Jack Benny never had a better role. The same can almost be said about Lombard – except that her Maria Tura is very close to her memorable portrait of Lily Garland in Hawks’ ‘Twentieth Century’: both women are equally vain but, whereas Lily never lets us forget her intrinsically lower-class background, Maria is high-class personified – and much smarter than Lily could ever be. Still, both are sterling characterizations. Lubitsch, first and foremost a man of taste, preferred his comedy to reflect verbal intelligence and sophistication (there are no belly-laughs here but also no cheap ones – and certainly no pratfalls). Progressively complicated, ‘To Be…’ is also endlessly inventive – right up to the film’s final, well-earned laugh. It is about as close to a work of genius that a film can get.

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