One of the most subversive, entertaining films of the 1940s, To Be or Not to Be, directed by the wonderful Ernst Lubitsch, is a masterwork of satirical, comedic madness.
To Be stars Jack Benny in what is arguably the best role of his career, as Josef Tura, the hammier part of a Polish husband-and-wife acting team. His wife, Maria (Carole Lombard), conducts love affairs in her dressing room during their performances while Josef stands on stage delivering Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” soliloquy. As Poland comes under attack from an invading German army, and Warsaw is overrun by the Gestapo, the theater closes down their latest production, a satire of Hitler’s Nazi movement. When Maria’s latest lover, Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack), a young Polish airman, arrives in Poland to pass important information to the Polish Underground, Josef and Maria decide to help the resistance. The entire acting company jumps on board, and the actors, led by Josef, engage in an increasingly zany series of impersonations of high-ranking Gestapo officials, all in an effort to help the Underground survive and, hopefully, flee the country before they are all interred in concentration camps …
As you can imagine, releasing a movie that pokes fun at Hitler and Nazi Germany right after the United States entered World War II was a calculated risk on the part of Lubitsch and United Artists. And initially, it proved to be a rather poor one; audiences did not respond well to the film, and it wasn’t until years after the war had ended that people began to look back on this film and recognize its sheer genius.
Part of the reason for the film’s lack of initial success also has to do with the timing of the film’s release. The movie came out only a few scant months after the United States had entered the war, premiering across the country in March 1942. And the film’s release was, most notably, marked by the tragic death of its female star, Lombard, a beloved figure in Hollywood. Lombard, who had been on a junket selling war bonds in the Midwest, was flying back to Hollywood for the film’s initial previews in January when her plane crashed into a mountain, killing all on board, including Lombard and her mother. To Be or Not to Be remains her final film (in deference to the circumstances of Lombard’s death, a line was cut from the film shortly before its release, in which Maria, somewhat ironically, reasons, “What can happen on a plane?”).
In later years, critics have looked back on the film as one of Lubitsch’s best, combining all of the wry, wise, comedic, romantic, and dramatic elements that make up what some call the “Lubitsch touch,” the magical, almost undefinable “specialness,” for lack of a better word, that distinguishes a Lubitsch film from its competitors and contemporaries. A Lubitsch film simply sparkles. Or, as John Farr explains much more clearly, the Lubitsch touch “represented the director’s unique ability to combine smart storytelling, witty dialogue, and often sumptuous settings to create films of unsurpassed sophistication that, due to their sheer entertainment value, still managed to be accessible to a broad public.”
And just in case you’re wondering, those contemporaries knew, too, that Lubitsch was the zenith; for years, Billy Wilder, arguably one of the most prolific, gifted, and celebrated directors of all time, kept a sign in his office that read, “What would Lubitsch have done?”
I dare you to watch this one and not laugh: it’s a physical impossibility. This movie is absurd and surprising and wondrous and witty, and you’ll be on the edge of your seat as it draws to a close, anxious to see if these crazy, patriotic people are going to get away with fooling the entire Nazi regime. Benny is at his absolute best as the vain, desperate Josef, more concerned about his professional reputation at times than about his own neck (the quote titling this post, spoken by a Gestapo colonel, is only one in a series of hilarious references to Josef’s “hammy” acting). Lombard shines as the seductive cuckolding wife, delivering her lines with an almost discernible relish. And the supporting cast is simply marvelous, including great performances by a young Stack and the wonderful Felix Bressart (one of Lubitsch’s go-to actors, who also appears in Ninotchka and my favorite Lubitsch film, The Shop Around the Corner).
To Be or Not to Be is not available on DVD for some reason, which is a travesty, and it isn’t listed on TCM’s schedule in the upcoming months, so keep your eyes peeled for it in the future to make sure you don’t miss this truly classic comedy.