Midway through the 1942 war-time dark comedy To Be or Not to Be Col. Ehrhardt of the Nazi Gestapo (Sig Ruman) calmly refers to a past performance of Polish ham actor Joseph Tura’s (Jack Benny) by saying, “What he did to Shakespeare we are now doing to Poland”: If Tura’s on-stage butchery of the Bard is any indication then this is pretty bad, indeed!
Welcome to the artistry of Ernst Lubitsch, who throughout a career that saw him rise to prominence in Germany before emigrating to Hollywood, so became associated with the subtle interweaving of visual wit, innuendo, sophisticated dialogue and use of sound, and a winking, continental sensibility toward sex that it became his trademark and calling card: the Lubitsch Touch. His bedroom farces and musicals were the champagne of Hollywood throughout the 20s, 30s, and into the 40s, (he died in 1947) and he won the admiration of many, including a young Billy Wilder, whom he both collaborated with and acted as a mentor for.
In To Be or Not to Be, he faced one of his greatest challenges: a dark comedy about Nazi Germany’s invasion of Europe, made extra difficult due to the fact that it went into production before the United States had even entered the war. As a German Jewish émigré, Lubitsch had reason enough to tackle this project with relish, but, beyond that, the culture of fascism itself was all that his worldview was not: stilted, tyrannical, prudish, ham-fisted, unsophisticated, obsessed with power and national and racial superiority… frankly, pretty dull stuff! Think of this as one filmmaker’s creative response to the threat of National Socialism: In Lubitsch’s world, anyway, the Nazis are out-manned, out-gunned, and, generally, out-smarted.
The action is set in Warsaw and begins just before the 1939 Nazi invasion of Poland: Joseph Tura is the preening lead in a prominent acting company while his beautiful wife Maria (Carole Lombard), the lead actress, is neglected and forced to endure his colossal ego. During a performance of Hamlet one evening she receives a bouquet of flowers in her dressing room. They have been sent by a handsome young airman, Lieut. Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack), whom she agrees to meet, telling him to step out of the theater as soon as her husband has uttered the line of the movie’s title—the beginning of a lengthy soliloquy which will guarantee their safety from discovery. The sight of an audience member rising to his feet at the most dramatically crucial moment of the play so wounds Tura that he never considers for a moment that his marriage is in danger, thinking only of his prestige as an actor!
The Nazis invade Poland, abruptly interrupting Maria and Stanislav’s affair, and the remainder of the plot concerns Stanislav, who has fled to England and joined the Royal Air Force, secretly re-entering Poland in order to intercept a list of names of sympathizers to the resistance before it can be passed on to the Gestapo. The acting troupe is called into action and all manner of hijinks ensue as the thespians do battle with the fascists, using their skills to outwit the enemy.
The genius of this film is its multi-layered approach to a difficult subject, where Lubitsch’s subtle lampoon of the world of theater and cheap theatrics helps to underscore his overall disdain for fascism. In the end, it is no accident that the Nazis are fooled by a ruse which any child could spot. The breezy romantic triangle at the heart of the film helps to cover over the life-or-death moments which might otherwise drag the picture down into gloom. The Lubitsch Touch was always about life and in To Be or Not to Be it is employed in a literal opposition of life-over-death. Though controversial upon its release, To Be or Not to Be is widely and justly hailed today as a masterpiece, as evidenced by Criterion’s new re-release of the film.
The screenplay is by playwright Edwin Justus Mayer and an uncredited Lubitsch, adapting a story by Melchior Lengyel. The supporting cast is excellent, including Stack, Ruman, Lionel Atwill, Tom Dugan, and especially Felix Bressart—a Lubitsch favorite—who here plays low-rung actor Greenberg, desperate for his chance to utter Shylock’s famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” monologue. Benny is perfectly cast as the ham-of-all-hams Tura: this is his one great film role. Lombard worked her way up in Hollywood, playing mostly-undistinguished leads in silents and early talkies until her breakthrough in Howard Hawks’ TWENTIETH CENTURY (1934), which in turn led to further screwball gold in films such as MY MAN GODFREY (1936) and NOTHING SACRED (1937). She is at her dotty, overwhelmed best here as Maria: an actress who knows how to turn up the charm when lives are on the line. Tragically, Lombard would die before To Be or Not to Be’s release at the age of 33, killed in an airplane crash with her mother and 20 others on the way back from a war bond rally in her home state of Indiana.
Ernst Lubitsch, who so adored crafting the make-believe world of film that he famously once said that Paramount’s version of Paris was more “Parisian” than the real Paris, here gave us a peak at a tantalizing new configuration for comedy: as a fantasy antiseptic, and philosophical salvo, against dark happenings in the real world.
If you cannot get enough of the Lubitsch Touch from To Be or Not to Be many more classic films, such as NINOTHCHKA, TROUBLE IN PARADISE, THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER, THE MARRIAGE CIRCLE, HEAVEN CAN WAIT, BLUEBEARD’S EIGHTH WIFE, THE SMILING LIEUTENANT and ONE HOUR WITH YOU, are available for rental in our Ernst Lubitsch section.