Monday, July 27, 2015

To Be or Not to Be (1942)

Director: Ernst Lubitsch


In the wake of the United States entering World War II Ernst Lubitsch was set to release a motion picture that could be considered a strong weapon in the fight against the Axis in the minds of Americans, a film that satirized Nazi Germany as a great assemblage of buffoons outsmarted by group of actors in wartime Poland. The film is a laugh out loud dark comedy that was sure to bring smiles on the faces of most that saw it, but sadly would be remembered as the final picture for its greatest headlining star. Despite the tragic loss that would be attached the lore of the feature it remains one of the most amusing motion pictures in American cinema and significant for it place in entertainment history.

Carole Lombard and Jack Benny
To Be or Not to Be is a cynical, dark comedy about a troupe of Polish stage actors who take it upon themselves to outsmart their Nazi enemies in hope to help win the war set to backdrop of the Nazi invasion of Poland. During the events of Germany commencing occupation of Poland in 1939 a Warsaw theater troupe, led by its ham star actor Josef Tura (Jack Benny) and his beautiful wife Maria (Carole Lombard), become mixed up with Nazi authorities due to the relationship Maria has with a handsome young pilot named Sobinski (Robert Stack).

Through the troupe’s acting and theater make-up skills Tura is able to fool the bumbling Nazi Col. Ehrhardt (Sig Rugman) enough to gain access to knowledge of German actions in Warsaw. With this new information they devise a plan of escape. At a highly celebrated stage show in the honor of visiting Adolf Hitler Tura, Maria, and rest disguised at Nazis, including Hitler himself, convince soldiers to allow passage to Hitler’s private plane where the actors fly to freedom.

"To be, or not to be..." Robert Stack's cue to exit..
An underlying running gag through the picture is Tura’s jealousy of Maria’s possible affair with Sobinski, which never truly happens. In the early stages of the picture Maria gave instructions to the young and fetching Sobinski to leave his seat and visit her in her dressing room during Tura’s favorite moment to drag out his acing skill, while performing Hamlet on stage, the key words beginning with the famous words “To be, or not to be…” Originally not knowing why, Tura was always worried when Sobinski left his seat continually at this very moment. Through the picture Tura holds his grudge with the young pilot until together they  find their way to Scotland where the Allies reward Tura and his men with anything they desire, to which Tura wishes to perform Hamlet once again. The final joke of the film consists of Tura taking the stage once more for the “to be, or not to be” scene with Sobinski in the audiences, but when he delivers the words another men suddenly gets up to exit, leaving both men with a surprised and suspicious look in their eyes as we fade to black.

The film is a true delight to watch. Looking back on it decades later the feature is light-hearted, filled with great humor and feeling that nothing is taken very seriously. However, one can only imagine how very different it would have been to be in the audience viewing this film for the first time in 1942. Nazi Germany was a real, tangible threat to the entire world and unlike when Charlie Chaplin released The Great Dictator America was now part of that war. America’s borders were breached December 1941, just four months prior to the movie’s opening. Young American men were now setting off to Europe and the Pacific to give their lives for their country. The talk about Nazis was not something that would be thought of as a possible set up for a punchline for audience that took their seats in a theater.

When director/producer Ernst Lubitsch began pre-production it is unclear what the filmmaker was thinking as the subject matter he was dealing with was not inherently funny. However the famed director plowed forward in this self-produced picture writing the part of the leading ham actor of Tura specifically for comedian Jack Benny. Benny, then a star of his own popular radio show, was flattered by desire that one of the most famous director wanted to work with him. His originally intended co-star was Mariam Hopkins, but due to complications was recast with Carol Lombard, who desperately wished to work with Lubitsch as well. Together these three formed the backbone of this feature as hilarious stars and their skilled leader.

A tragedy forever linked to To Be or Not to Be would be the sudden loss of Carol Lombard just after principal photography and two months before the feature’s release. Lombard, the then Mrs. Clark Gable, was still one of Hollywood’s most famous actresses and in effort to help in the war effort was touring to help raise money through war bond rallies. While returning home from a very successful rally in January of 1942 her plane crashed shortly after take-off leaving hole in the heart of Hollywood and even more so in the heart of husband Clark Gable. Reactions in Hollywood were of great sorrow and other stars raised efforts in support of the war in remembrance of Lombard and her work at the time of her death.

In a way the third wheel to the two starring role is young Robert Stack who dons the role of the pilot Lt. Stanislav Sobinski, the admirer of Maria that allows the troupe to be mixed up with the Nazi authorities. The 22 year-old Stack was very fresh in Hollywood and was extremely nervous to meet and work with the woman he admired from a distance like a schoolboy, Carol Lombard. In the end Stack would credit Lombard towards providing him with many wonderful tips to aid in his acting that helped guide him through his long career.

Lobard with Sig Ruman caught by "Hitler."
Being that the story is about actors the cast is filled with wonderful, small-time character performers. Names like Felix Bessart, Lionel Atwill, Sig Ruman, Tom Dugan, and Stanley Ridges are far from notable names to the average movie audience, but their roles as the supporting cast supplied memorable moments in the picture as melodramatic actors yearning for one great performance, German officers, a professor turned double agent, and even a man who is determined to give a believable performance as the Fuhrer himself. These performances are all delightfully wonderful and should be enjoyed for the greatness they all provide.

For audiences of 1942 most viewers were perhaps not entertained by this feature. American had just entered the war, young men were leaving home with many not coming back, and Carol Lombard had just passed away two months prior. America was in no mood to laugh. Some audiences were so appalled they walked out of theaters, including Jack Benny’s own father. However for those who stayed and allowed the humor to play out the film was a hilarious break from the world beyond the theater. Critics that gave the movie its chance loved it, but they initially appeared to be in the minority. Through all the praise that was shared for the film, only a single Academy Award nomination would be made for Best Music.

For the cast and director To Be or Not to Be was one of the greatest shinning points in their careers. For Lubitsch he regarded it as one of his finest films, which in time critics would agree. For Jack Benny he found the experience a great moment on screen working for who he thought was the best director ever. For Lombard it was said to be most fun she ever had on set in her career. The film was a mix of great enjoyment and sorrow all at the same time as it delivered wonderful times for those involved, but is linked to darker memories as well.

With time, especially after the fall of Nazi Germany, the film found a greater audience that fully appreciated the humor that lined the picture. Much like the television show “Hogan’s Heroes” or the Mel Brooks style of comedy about Hitler and the Nazis, To Be or Not to Be would be a superb way by which audiences degraded the evil that once threatened the world and reminds them to not let these types of evils control them. In the long run the feature would be remembered as one of the greatest American comedies of all time as listed by the American Film Institute and further remembered with the honor of being named to the National film Registry as culturally significant in American film.
Tom Dugan plays Bronski, who plays Hitler.

In 1983 Mel Brooks would produce and star in a remake of To Be or Not to Be with himself as the ham actor and his real life wife Ann Bancroft as his beautifully suggestive wife in the picture. The satirical humor about Nazis would be a perfect fit for the man that brought about “Springtime for Hitler” from his debut hit from 1969, The Producers.

To Be or Not to Be stands up well for contemporary audiences with its quick and witty comicality. Fans of Jack Benny would adore seeing this delightful funnyman deliver and be the butt of numerous jokes throughout the picture. This comedy classic should and will be cherished for years to come as a cinematic classic from a time period when not much was funny in the world.

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