An exceptional satire featuring two Hollywood legends in top form
It’s always a thrill to find a film that is astutely entertaining, and none fits the bill better than the extraordinary satire, “To Be or Not to Be”. This life or death escapade in Nazi-occupied Poland overflows with sophisticated rapid-fit wit, making for one savory treat. A miraculous blend of comedy, drama, intrigue, and style, this film has it all. Often cited as the greatest work by one of cinema’s early legendary directors, Ernst Lubitsch, it also contains what many call the finest performance by the incomparable Carole Lombard, and the best film performance by one of America’s leading comedians of the era, Jack Benny. French film magazine, Cahiers du cinéma, named it the 13th Top Film of All-Time, and the American Film Institute (AFI) named it the 49th Funniest American Movie of All-Time. It is about as smart a film as one can watch and is very, very funny. Whether viewed as deep satire or pure comedy, this film never gets old.
Its plot begins in August 1939 on the eve of the German invasion of Poland, and is set amongst a Warsaw theater troupe of hammy actors headed by husband and wife divas “Joseph” and “Maria Tura”. During their production of William Shakespeare's “Hamlet” (played by “Joseph”), “Maria” accepts an invitation to meet a man who keeps sending her flowers, and instructs him to visit her in her dressing room when “Hamlet” delivers his “To be or not to be” soliloquy. The suitor is the handsome young Polish airman, “Lieutenant Stanislav Sobinski”, who is in love with the married actress. The two carry on an affair as war breaks out, and as an unwitting result, they and the troupe find themselves working with the Polish resistance to save their country. Their goal is to prevent Nazi spy “Professor Alexander Siletsky” from giving the Gestapo names and addresses of the resistance. To stop him, the actors must employ all the tricks of their trade such as acting, improvisation, makeup, props, costumes, and even lifting dialogue from Shakespeare. Sexual and wartime metaphors blend in clever double talk, egos are boosted and deflated, and the lines between theatricality and reality blur as the fate of a country sits in the hands of a company of vain actors who only want to play great parts. The clever manner in which this bold comedic romp is told has made “To Be or Not to Be” a masterpiece, and it could only have been accomplished so adroitly by one person, Ernst Lubitsch.
Lubitsch brought a nuanced style, visual wit, modern psychology and worldliness to movies, and was one of a handful of early filmmakers who elevated the form into art. His work was so unique that the phase The Lubitsch Touch quickly emerged. Originally a marketing ploy by Hollywood executives to capitalize on his popularity, the term stuck, and anyone who watches his films begins to recognize a distinct, yet almost indescribable style. Ten film critics, historians, or filmmakers will give you ten different definitions of The Lubitsch Touch – such as Billy Wilder ("It was the elegant use of the Superjoke. You had a joke, and you felt satisfied, and then there was one more big joke on top of it - the joke you didn't expect. That was The Lubitsch Touch”), Andrew Sarris ("A counterpoint of poignant sadness during a film's gayest moments”), or Richard Christiansen ("The Lubitsch Touch is a brief description that embraces a long list of virtues: sophistication, style, subtlety, wit, charm, elegance, suavity, polished nonchalance and audacious sexual nuance”). My take on that elusive phrase has come to define Lubitsch’s sophistication, metaphorical wit, and use of the unexpected, all used while shaping characters and telling stories indirectly, often making a game of sex, class and/or politics. However one defines it, “To Be or Not To Be” is a prime example of The Lubitsch Touch. As with most of his films, he helped write the script – this time with Melchior Lengyel and Edwin Justus Mayer.
Because Lubitsch’s Touch includes the use of surprise, it is difficult to talk about plot details without revealing the unexpected. But as you watch the film you’ll notice the delicate way with which he rapidly provides jokes and twists you don’t see coming. Another large part of his Touch is how, with no judgement, he portrays sex as a dalliance, frequently in a love triangle. In “To Be or Not to Be” we have “Maria”, who loves her husband and enjoys her suitor. While never overtly talked about, the sex drives the plot and provides a lot of the film’s comedy and double talk (such as when “Sobinski” boasts to “Maria”, “You might not believe it, but I can drop three tons of dynamite in two minutes”, shortly followed by “Would you permit me to show you my plane?”).
Lubitsch is also famous for using objects and symbols to show themes, and one example here is “Maria’s” elegant white gown. She first appears in the film wearing it, entering while the company is rehearsing a play about the Gestapo. As the director explains to the cast that the play will be a realistic “document of Nazi Germany”, she asks if he likes her dress. He responds, "Is that what you are going to wear in the concentration camp?”, to which she replies, "Well don't you think it's pretty?". Through keen humor, the dress informs us of “Maria’s" vanity, reaffirms that the film is a comedy, and underscores the theme of confusing real with pretend. "Maria" appears later in the dress when meeting “Professor Siletsky”, and this time it highlights the differences between the extravagant life of the Germans and the suffering of the Polish, while again highlighting real versus pretense. As with the entire film, all of this can be enjoyed simply for laughs or as folly with a deeper meaning. Thus is the brilliance of Lubitsch.
Born in Berlin, Germany, Ernst Lubitsch began working in his father's tailor business, leaving it to become an actor. In 1911, he joined the Deutsches Theater (run by the esteemed Max Reinhardt) where he soon transitioned from bit parts to leads. He began appearing in silent comedies beginning with "The Miracle" in 1912, mostly playing ethnic Jewish characters (he was Jewish). Lubitsch became so successful, he started to write, act, and direct his own short films starting with "Miss Soapsuds" in 1914. He left acting in 1920 to concentrate on directing and writing. After several international hits (including "Passion" in 1919, originally "Madame Dubarry", which became the biggest moneymaking foreign silent film released in the US), Lubitsch was summoned to Hollywood by "America's Sweetheart", actress and international star Mary Pickford to direct her 1924 film "Rosita". He was one of the first German directors to relocate to Los Angeles and quickly became Hollywood's most successful European director, gaining a reputation for being the master of refined comedy and intimate detail. He was often referred to as "The European Cecil B. DeMille" because of his lavish costume dramas (particularly "Forbidden Paradise" and "The Patriot", which earned him his first Best Director Academy Award nomination). With the advent of sound, Lubitsch began making musical operettas, his first sound film being the Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald hit "The Love Parade", which earned him a second Best Director Oscar nomination. He re-teamed the two stars in "The Merry Widow” and "One Hour with You", and along with several other musical touted masterpieces, he acquired a reputation for being a solid director of movie musicals.
In 1932, Lubitsch directed the successful Pre-Code comedy "Trouble in Paradise", helping solidify The Lubitsch Touch. But with the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1934 (which I explain in my “Red Dust” post), it was not approved for rerelease and not seen again until 1968. That film and his next racy 1934 Pre-Code comedy, "Design for Living", have both become classics considered to be among his best works. In 1935, Lubitsch became the production manager for Paramount Studios (the only major Hollywood director to run a large studio). He lasted in the job for one year (his perfectionism and control made it impossible to oversee over fifty films a year). Lubitsch made films until 1948, and his other classics include "Ninotchka", "The Shop Around the Corner", "That Uncertain Feeling", and his first color film, "Heaven Can Wait" in 1943, which earned him a final Best Director Academy Award nomination. In 1947, the Academy awarded him an Honorary Award for his distinguished contribution to the art of the motion picture. His final film was the 1948 Betty Grable musical, "That Lady in Ermine". He was married and divorced twice. He suffered a heart attack in 1943, followed by a second in 1945, and then a fatal one in 1947. Ernst Lubitsch was 55 years old when he died.
Lubitsch pushed the boundaries of sex and politics in his films, and perhaps because of his delicately indirect touch, was able to get more past the censors than any other director. While "To Be or Not to Be" contains a married female having an affair (forbidden by the Code), it's the film's mix of comedy and politics that caused controversy when initially released. Filming began on November 6, 1941, one month before the US entered World War II, and by the time it was released in early March of 1942, the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and Germany declared war on the US. Comedies about war, Adolf Hitler, and the Nazis has previously been made, but now public consciousness shifted.
In addition to having an unheard-of mix of comedy, drama, and suspense, “To Be or Not to Be” was not your typical propaganda war film. Even though the extent of the horrors of the war and its concentration camps were not yet known, jokes about the invasion of Poland, murder, and humanizing Nazis (albeit as buffoons) made some audiences and critics feel the film was in bad taste. Though “To Be or Not to Be" did get many good reviews and turned a profit, several harsh reviews appeared in prominent papers such as The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer (who even hinted that he made light of the bombing of Warsaw because he was German). Lubitsch wrote to them defending himself and the film, reminding them that Warsaw is shown tragically, the Poles are shown as courageous, the ideology of the Nazis is shown as ridiculous, and that the movie shifts from dramatic, comedic, or satiric as each situation demands. When viewed today, the film presents a seamless blend of all these elements in what is a funny, clearly anti-Nazi film.
Starring in “To Be or Not to Be” is Carole Lombard in a dazzling performance as Polish actress, “Maria Tura”. Lombard’s radiance, impeccable comedic timing, and natural delivery make “Maria” come to life as a strong beauty with shades of fragility, while often fishing for compliments. Glamorous, funny, and incredibly talented, Lombard was one of filmdom's most gifted, popular, and legendary screen comediennes. If you want insight into what her magnificence adds to dialogue, watch her in the brief scene with "Joseph" after he orders a "salami and cheese sandwich and a glass of beer" over the phone. As they give each other false praise while walking to her dressing room, Lombard elevates the already witty dialogue with a myriad of fleeting authentic emotions including arrogance, love, insincerity, excitement and anger. – all while drinking in everything "Joseph" says. It is a fine example (as are any of her scenes) of Lombard's amazing skill feeling, listening and being honest - the signs of a truly masterful actor.
She was not the first choice for the role. Lubitsch initially offered it to Miriam Hopkins who starred in three of his previous films. But upon reading the script, Hopkins felt "Maria" was a supporting role and that “Joseph” would steal the spotlight and get the laughs, so she turned it down. Learning of this and wanting to work with Lubitsch, Lombard sought the role and won it, and Lubitsch then tailored it to her. One of Hollywood’s top movies stars, Lombard’s involvement alone was enough to secure the film’s financial backing.
Born to a wealthy Indiana family, when Carole Lombard was six years old her parents separated, and she, her two brothers and mother moved to Los Angeles. Her mother was a strong woman and early feminist and Lombard inherited these qualities. A tomboy who was great at sports, she was spotted playing baseball with friends by film director Allan Dwan who then cast her in a small role in "A Perfect Crime" in 1921, her first film. This spurned an interest in acting and she began to audition (including for Charlie Chaplin's "The Gold Rush"), to no avail. She was signed to the Fox Film Corporation at sixteen and her official film career began in 1924 with a bit part in "Gold Heels". Two films later she played the lead opposite Edmund Lowe in 1925's "Marriage in Transit". After working steadily in large and small parts (appearing in eight films in 1925 alone), in 1926 she was seriously injured in a car accident with a piece of glass lodged into her left cheek. She underwent the somewhat new plastic surgery to save her face and career. It was successful but left a scar on her left cheek which she learned to hide with lighting and makeup. It ended her contract with Fox. Hired by the king of silent slapstick comedy, producer Mack Sennet as one of his famous "Bathing Beauties” – she primarily played the pretty girl sidekick to the funnyman, as well as appearing in a series of comedies showing off her athletic skills.
Appearing in eighteen Sennett comedy shorts and one feature between 1927 and 1929, she learned comic timing and how to have a light touch before the camera. In 1929, Lombard easily transitioned from silents to sound and in 1930 was cast as the female lead in "The Arizona Kid", which was a major hit, leading Paramount to sign her. She continued mostly playing leads, and appeared opposite William Powell in two films released in 1931, "Man of the World" and "Ladies Man". While working together they became close and married in the summer of 1931 (she was twenty-two and he was thirty-eight). Though they loved each other, they were drastically different and their marriage lasted just over two years, though they remained lifelong friends. After more hits, Lombard starred opposite John Barrymore in the Howard Hawks screwball comedy "Twentieth Century", which made her a major star. Lubitsch (then head of Paramount) admired her and gave her another screwball comedy, "Hands Across the Table" in 1935, opposite newcomer Fred MacMurray. An enormous success, it established Lombard as a top comedienne and she continued making comedies, primarily playing elegant yet zany women. She earned a Best Actress Academy Award nomination (her only) starring as a harebrained socialite in the classic 1935 screwball, "My Man Godfrey" (opposite Powell), and by 1937 was one of Hollywood's most popular stars and its highest paid actor. Her salary was reported in the press and she publicly stated that 80% of it went to taxes which she happily paid to help improve the country.
Lombard graced the cover of Life magazine in 1938, who crowned her "Screwball Comedy Queen" – a title that has stuck even today, and AFI voted her cinema's 23rd Greatest American Female Screen Legend. Other notable titles from her seventy-eight films include "Nothing Sacred", "True Confession", "In Name Only", "Vigil in the Night", "Bolero", and Alfred Hitchcock's one true comedy, "Mr. & Mrs. Smith". Lombard became legendary for her beauty, wit, selflessness, generosity, straight-shooting honesty, patriotism, and for swearing like a sailor. She was also renowned for hosting inventively themed parties and for playing pranks and hoaxes (such as bringing cattle wearing the name tags of her and her co-star to the set of Hitchcock's "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" upon hearing him call actors "cattle", or giving a ham to Clark Gable with his picture on it while shooting "No Man of Her Own”). She helped many people in their careers (such as actor turned interior designer William Haines) and supported others through illness (such as tennis champion Alice Marble). A strong believer that all people are equal regardless of gender, race, religion, or sexuality, she used her fame and power to make sure everyone on a set was treated fairly, including cast, extras, and crew. In 1937, Photoplay magazine published an article by her titled, "Carole Lombard tells: 'How I Live by a Man's Code'", in which she encourages women to work and expresses that she doesn't believe in a "man's world”. Everyone I’ve ever heard interviewed that knew her consistently says how beloved she was to all.
At a party in 1936, Lombard ran into Clark Gable (the two had previously starred together in 1932’s “No Man of Her Own”). He was separated (though still legally married to his second wife), and the two superstars began dating, quickly becoming inseparable. After granting his wife a large settlement, Gable and Lombard eloped (with his longtime friend and press agent Otto Winkler) while he was filming "Gone with the Wind”. Their marriage (her second and final) became legendary (there is even a 1976 movie about them, "Gable and Lombard"). They called each other "Ma" and "Pa" and sought a simple life outside of Hollywood. When the US entered WWII, Lombard was eager to help with the war effort, reportedly meeting with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in person to ask what she could do (he told her to continue making movies and comforting people). When Gable was named chairman of Hollywood's Victory Committee, he assigned Lombard to open a war bond drive in Indiana, and she went with her mother and Winkler. Her sincerity, charisma, and enthusiasm raised a record breaking $2+ million. Eager to get back to Gable, rather than take their scheduled train, Lombard wanted to fly back to Los Angeles (there is some speculation she knew Gable was having an affair with his current co-star Lana Turner and wanted to return quickly to save their marriage). Her mother and Winkler were afraid of flying, so they flipped a coin and the airplane won. Their TWA plane landed in Las Vegas to refuel, and just after taking off at 7:07 pm, crashed into the Double Up mountain peak, instantly killing everyone onboard (including fifteen US Army soldiers). Gable ran to the crash site to search for her body to no avail. It was discovered two days later. Inconsolable, Gable was reportedly never the same. "To Be or Not to Be" had not yet been released and Lubitsch cut one line of dialogue from the film – "Maria's" response to "Lt. Sobinski" asking her to join him in his plane, when she said, "What could happen in a plane?". Carole Lombard died on January 16, 1942 at the age of 33. A Liberty Ship was christened the SS Carole Lombard on January 15, 1944, which went on to rescue hundreds of survivors from sunken ships. She is one of my favorite actresses and was also Lucille Ball's idol (and friend), and anyone who's seen Lombard's films can clearly see her influence on the brilliant Ball.
Jack Benny stars as “Joseph Tura”, “Maria’s” egotistical husband and star of the acting troupe. One of America’s top comedians, Lubitsch wanted Benny for the role from the start and tailored “Joseph” to Benny’s showbiz persona of having an unjustly inflated ego, using double takes, pregnant pauses and looks for laughs, and an uncanny sense of comedic timing. As a result, Benny melts into the role, making for one playfully amusing performance. True to his own brand of humor, Benny can make the simplest thing funny, such as his walk onstage to deliver “Hamlet’s” famed “To be or not to be” speech, or how he keeps looking at “Sobinski” in bed trying to put two and two together. The role also plays with Benny’s reputation for vanity, as “Joseph” constantly seeks praise, whether from “Maria” or “Gestapo commander “Colonel Erhardt”. He is hysterically funny, and casting Jack Benny as a character that plays “Hamlet” in a film titled “To Be or Not to Be” was already comical to audiences at the time.
One of the leading comedians of the twentieth century, Chicago born Jack Benny began studying the violin when he was six years old. Not a great student, he was expelled from high school and began playing the violin in vaudeville at age seventeen. During his vaudeville years he became friends with the Marx Brothers and began a lifelong friendship with fellow comedian George Burns. While serving in the Navy during World War I, he played the violin and slowly began adding comedy. In 1926 Benny fell in love with Sadie Marks and put her in his show as a comedienne. The two married (until his death) and she appeared in many of his acts throughout his career. Benny’s first film was "Bright Moments" in 1928, followed by seven more in 1930 and three in 1931. After appearing as a guest on Ed Sullivan's radio show in 1932, Benny launched "The Jack Benny Program", and by 1936 was the #1 comedian in America. His radio (and then TV) program was among the highest rated during its entire run from 1932 until 1955, making him a national treasure. Among the rest of the cast were his wife (who changed her name to Mary Livingston), and actor Eddie “Rochester" Anderson, the first Black man to have a recurring role in a national radio show (you can read about him in my post on "You Can't Take It with You"). The show featured a fictionalized version of Benny as stingy, vain, and easily exasperated, while ineptly playing his trademark violin. In a 1972 WNET TV interview, Benny gave his thoughts on the reason for his giant success, "I played a character that included all the faults, and... frailties of mankind. See, every family had somebody like me. Either they had an uncle that was stingy or one who thought he was very sexy and he wasn’t”. Known to be generous, kind, and giving, Benny was the opposite of the persona he created.
Jack Benny started appearing on television in 1949, and began a televised version of "The Jack Benny Program” in 1950, which ran until 1965. The show won eight Emmy Awards with fourteen nominations. Benny earned two additional Emmy Award nominations in 1956 and 1970. He steadily made television appearances though 1972, ending with recurring guest spots on "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In". Never quite conquering the big screen or becoming a movie star, his film career was less stellar than his radio and TV careers. "To Be or Not to Be" is considered his best film, and his other films include "The Hollywood Revue of 1929", "Broadway Melody of 1936", "It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World", "Hollywood Canteen", "Gypsy", and most notably "Charley's Aunt”. In addition to radio, TV, and film, he headlined in Las Vegas, and played the violin with various symphonies raising millions of dollars for charity through the years. Whenever I’d see him on a talk show as a kid, he never failed to make me laugh. Jack Benny died in 1974 at the age of 80.
Robert Stack plays “Lieutenant Stanislav Sobinski”, a young Polish airman in love with “Maria”. Like his co-stars, his part was tailor-made for him. Stack had met Lombard when he was fourteen, teaching her to skeet shoot in Lake Tahoe as she was about to divorce Powell. Stack later stated she had the ability to make men feel special, and everyone fell in love with her, including him. He eventually moved to Hollywood, and after appearing in just a half dozen films, Lombard asked that Stack play “Sobinski” and he was given the part. His real life infatuation paid off, for Stack is completely believable in the role. He has all the conviction, awkwardness, and innocence of a boy with a crush. Just watch how genuinely he looks at her in his first scene in her dressing room. It makes the subtle sexual innuendo between the two much funnier. Nervous on the set, Stack credits Lombard with mentoring him, keeping him loose and relaxed during filming, and even edging him back into his key light whenever he stepped out of it.
Los Angeles born Robert Stack spent his early childhood in Italy before moving back to Los Angeles when he was seven. A sportsman, he played polo, was an International Outboard Motor Champion, and a national record-setting skeet shooter, (inducted into the National Skeet Shooting Hall of Fame in 1971). He studied acting in college and Hollywood soon took notice of his good looks and deep voice, and he made his film debut at the age of twenty opposite Deanna Durbin in 1939's "First Love", giving the star her first on-screen kiss. Stack worked steadily through 1942, pausing to serve in the US Navy during World War II. He returned to films in 1948, playing opposite such stars as Elizabeth Taylor in "A Date with Judy" and John Wayne in "The High and the Mighty". He had a major career boost with a supporting role in "Written on the Wind", which earned him a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination (his only). While making movies, he made a few television appearances beginning in 1951, and in 1959 most famously starred as "Eliot Ness" in the classic TV series "The Untouchables", for five seasons, earning an Emmy Award in 1960 and a second nomination in 1961. In 1995, he earned a third and final Emmy Award nomination for "Unsolved Mysteries". In 1979, he appeared in the comedy film "1941", and its success led to a slew of comedies including "Caddyshack II" and "Airplane!", and voicing characters for the animated features "Beavis and Butt-Head Do America” and "The Transformers: The Movie". His other films include "The Mortal Storm", "The Tarnished Angels", "Is Paris Burning?", "The Last Voyage", and "Uncommon Valor". His final appearance was on the TV series "Teams Supremo" in 2002. He was married once (to actress Rosemarie Stack) from 1932 until his death. Robert Stack died in 2003 at the age of 84.
Just a quick mention of actor Henry Victor who plays "Captain Schultz" of the Gestapo. He might look familiar if you are watching the films on this blog, for you previously saw him as "Hercules" in the 1932 horror film, "Freaks". Though British born, he was raised in Germany and because of his German accent mostly played German officers in small and supporting roles during the war, until his premature death in 1945. Please check out my post on "Freaks" to read a bit more about him.
I'll also point out Rudolph Maté, the film's talented cinematographer. He photographed many classics, including two already on this blog – "Gilda", and the silent classic, "The Passion of Joan of Arc", where you can read more about him.
"To Be or Not to Be” earned one Academy Award nomination for Best Musical Score by Werner R. Heymann. The film has been remade and adapted several times, including a 1983 version starring Mel Brooks and his wife Anne Bancroft, a 2008 Bollywood version titled "Maan Gaye Mughal-e-Azam", and a 2008 Broadway stage show.
Get ready for a truly enjoyable first-class display of suspenseful pandemonium. A film I love, enjoy “To Be or Not to Be”!
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