While most of Hollywood began its resistance against the Nazis by creating big, propagandistic war pictures to show the American public how terrifying the Third Reich was, director Ernst Lubitsch had a different idea: mock them. That idea resulted in To Be or Not to Be, the crowning achievement of the filmmaker’s illustrious career.
The story, developed by Lubitsch with Melchior Lengyel, follows a group of Polish actors fighting back during the occupation of Warsaw. Playwright Edwin Justus Mayer fleshed it out into a full screenplay, one that has both the intricate plotting of the best spy thrillers, but also the wit and sense of humor present in Lubitsch’s finest films, like Trouble in Paradise and The Shop Around the Corner.
Radio comedian Jack Benny stars as “that great Polish actor Joseph Tura.” The character is playing the lead in Hamlet alongside his wife Maria (Carole Lombard) by night, and rehearsing the theatre company’s new play, Gestapo, during the day. On the anti-Nazi play’s opening night, the government informs them the show cannot go on. “It might offend Hitler,” a representative explains, not-so-subtly calling out the criticisms that would be thrown at the film upon its release. “Well, wouldn’t that be too bad,” Joseph indignantly responds. “Have you ever read what he says about us?” The company continues with Hamlet instead, but it doesn’t make much of a difference: war is declared during the performance that night, and the bombs begin to drop on Warsaw. When a young flyer (Robert Stack) is tasked with stopping an enemy spy from revealing classified information, he enlists the help of the acting troupe, who don Nazi uniforms from their cancelled play and prepare for the most important performance they will ever give.
Lubitsch himself was born to a Jewish family in Berlin. He left Germany in the early 1920s for Hollywood, and found great success crafting a personal brand with a number of hit screwball comedies and musicals. He returned to Germany in December 1932, a visit that would be his last to the country. At a party a reporter asked Lubitsch why he didn’t make films at home anymore. “That’s finished,” Lubitsch said. “Nothing good is going to happen here for a long time.”1 Six weeks later, Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor. Lubitsch, along with a cast and crew featuring mainly Jews and immigrants, had a personal stake in this story.
This all suggests an especially dour film, but To Be or Not to Be is decidedly a comedy, and one of the best ever made. Much of this can be attributed to the actors—particularly the perfectly cast Benny, who couldn’t have been happier to work on the film. “It was always impossible for comedians like me or Bob Hope to get a good director for a movie,” he later explained. “That’s why we made lousy movies.”2 One day on set, Benny asked Lubitsch why he would ever want a non-actor like him for the movie. “You think you are a comedian,” Lubitsch told him. “Jack, you are an actor, you are an actor playing the part of a comedian and this you are doing very well. But do not worry, I keep your secret to myself.”3 In the role of an egotistical Shakespearean actor, Benny receives the perfect lines to showcase his mastery of comedic delivery. Nothing in any of his other films can match even a simple pause the actor places between lines. He called the film “the best picture I ever made”4 and called Lubitsch “the greatest director in the motion picture industry,”5 two claims which are not necessarily exaggerations.
Lombard, though she had no way of knowing at the time, turned in the final performance of her career with To Be or Not to Be, dying just a few weeks after the film wrapped. Though top billed, she has considerably less screen time than Benny, especially in the latter half of the film. But she makes the most of every moment she has, getting big laughs from lines that others would have tossed off without a thought. The film is a great note for her to go out on, albeit a sad one, suggesting that her career could have produced even more performances of this caliber.
As in many Lubitsch films, the supporting cast brings it all together; here, he works with a few of his favorite character actors. Sig Ruman has a lot of screen time as the foolish Gestapo officer Colonel Ehrhardt, and Lionel Atwill took a break from his low-budget monster movies at Universal to play the hammy actor Rawitch. But the standout has to be Felix Bressart as Greenberg, another member of the theater troupe,. A small-time actor who just wants a chance to play Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, his subplot culminates in a transcendently humane moment on par with Charlie Chaplin’s final speech in The Great Dictator.
The film’s reception was decidedly mixed. Some critics recognized its genius, but dissenter Bosley Crowther of The New York Times, in particular, called it out as “baffling” and “reckless.”6 The film made back its budget, but wasn’t nearly the hit it deserved to be. Over time, To Be or Not to Be’s reputation began to increase; in 1983, Mel Brooks released a lackluster remake that indicates just how right Lubitsch got it; in 1996, the film was added to The National Film Registry; and in 2013, it was made widely available as part of The Criterion Collection. Its influence can be seen in films as varied as Inglourious Basterds and The Grand Budapest Hotel, but even Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino can’t match peak Lubitsch.
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References [ + ]
|1.||^||Scott Eyman, Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015), 205.|
|2.||^||Roger Fristoe, “The Big Idea Behind To Be or Not to Be,” Turner Classic Movies, http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/961715%7C0/The-Big-Idea-To-Be-or-Not-to-Be.html|
|3.||^||Jack Benny and Joan Benny, Sunday Nights at Seven (New York: Warner Books, 1990), 150|
|4.||^||Benny 1990, 149|
|5.||^||Herman G. Weinberg, The Lubitsch Touch (New York: Dutton, 1968), 287|
|6.||^||Bosley Crowther, “To Be or Not to Be,“ The New York Times, March 7, 1942|