Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942) was, like Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, a gutsy satire to pull, taking on the evil of Nazi Germany by making fun of it. And while The Great Dictator was first, To Be or Not to Be was produced after the U.S. entered the war and the horrors of Hitler were starting to be understood. It took the mix of grace, sex, and slapstick energy that makes up the Lubitsch touch to create the funniest film ever made about the German invasion of Poland.
All the world’s a stage as egotistical Polish theater star Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) becomes an unlikely resistance hero when he masquerades as a Nazi spy to save his troupe and his wife Maria (Carole Lombard). Self-effacing Benny and sexy whirlwind Lombard seem an unlikely duo, but onscreen their two conceited hams are a natural match for one another, a natural pair that clicks in all the right scenes. Their marriage is hardly perfect, but there is a real devotion there, even as Lombard plays around with flings between her cues.
A very young and green Robert Stack hasn’t any of the command of his stars but his gee-whiz patriotism, youthful confidence, and social naiveté makes his Polish Air Force officer the kind of All-American hero that 1942 audiences could embrace. And Lubitsch made him funnier than he ever was again, at least until Airplane!
Lubitsch is no mere farceur; under the humor lies the threat of death (how many of the jokes revolve around murder and execution?) for both our heroes and their loved ones. The chorus is embodied by stage company spear carrier Greenberg (Felix Bressart), a born vaudevillian who instinctively plays for laughs while doing utility work on high drama and Shakespeare tragedy. He keeps those twin themes alive through the film as he dreams of playing Shylock (and does so in a beautiful scene) yet is always the first to defend his improvisations with the promise that “It’ll get a laugh.” Lubitsch could be defining his own sensibility.
Lionel Atwill, so often a villain, gets to ham it up as a member of Tura’s acting company, Stanley Ridges is Professor Siletsky, a mentor to the pilots who may in fact be a Nazi spy, and Sig Ruman plays it big as the preening German Colonel Erhardt, a blowhard whose incompetence is matched only by his cowardice.
Critics at the time were split on whether the Nazis were an acceptable topic for comedy and the film received a single Oscar nomination for its score but time has only made the film look better, smarter, and funnier. It was added to the National Film Registry in 1996.
Mel Brooks produced and stars with his wife Anne Bancroft in the 1983 remake, a respectable effort that will always remain in the shadow of the original masterpiece.
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To Be or Not to Be (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
To Be or Not to Be (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]
To Be or Not to Be [DVD]
The Criterion Collection Blu-ray and DVD special edition are mastered from a restored 2k digital transfer. Both feature commentary by film historian David Kalat, the 1916 silent short “Pinkus’ Show Palace” directed by and starring Lubitsch (with a new piano score by Donald Sosin), the 52-minute 2010 French documentary “Lubitsch le patron,” and two radio shows from “The Screen Guild Theater”: “Variety” (1940) with Jack Benny, Claudette Colbert, and Lubitsch, and the radio adaptation of “To Be or Not to Be” (1942) with William Powell, Diana Lewis, and Sig Ruman. The accompanying booklet features an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien and 1942 New York Times op-ed by Ernst Lubitsch.