To Be Or Not To Be: Criterion Collection
September 5, 2013
Released on the eve of the United States entering World War II, To Be or Not To Be (1942) was scorned by critics and underperformed with movie-going audiences of the day. Perhaps the razor-sharp satire that saw popular comedian Jack Benny up against Nazis with jokes about mass murder and concentration camps was too much for a global conflict that was still raging. Fortunately, time has been kind to Ernst Lubitsch’s film, which is regarded as a classic screwball comedy chock full of witty dialogue and hilarious set pieces.
It’s August, 1939 in Warsaw, Poland and Hitler is spotted walking the streets, looking in store windows as the voiceover narration breathlessly sets the stage. Der Fuhrer is actually being played by an actor trying to prove a point and who is part of theater troupe. At the heart of the company is competitive husband and wife team Maria (Lombard) and Joseph (Benny) Tura. At one point she quips, “If we should ever have a baby I’m not so sure I’d be the mother,” to which he deadpans, “I’m satisfied to be the father.” They love each other almost as much as they love themselves.
While starring in a production of Hamlet, Joseph suspects that an audience member is hitting on his wife. It’s true. A good looking aviator by the name of Lieutenant Sobinski (Stack) repeatedly sends Maria flowers and even goes to see her back stage during Joseph’s “To be or not to be” monologue, much to his consternation. However, this is all put on the backburner when the Nazis occupy Warsaw as WWII kicks off. The Turas and their theater company soon become embroiled in a spy plot where their gestating play about Hitler comes in handy.
Lubitsch doesn’t candy coat the devastation of Warsaw at the hands of the Nazis, showing German soldiers marching through bombed out remains of the city. He understands that comedy and tragedy go hand-in-hand as two actors, who earlier complained of their bit parts in Hamlet for comedy, takes on a somber tone later one as they ruminate over it again while walking through the war-torn city streets.
While To Be or Not To Be is predominantly a comedy, Lubitsch also presents moments of tragedy and danger. He doesn’t make light of the war, but rather attacks Hitler and the Nazis with his spot-on satirical jabs. Jack Benny and Carole Lombard make a fantastic comedic team – easily one of the best – and play well off each other with top-notch comedic timing. The brilliantly written screenplay is chock full of classic lines of dialogue (For example, one actor says to another, “What you are, I wouldn’t eat,” to which he replies, “How dare you call me a ham!”) and features all kinds of engaging characters. Hollywood, in its infinite wisdom, remade it in the early 1980s with Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft that, while entertaining in its own right, doesn’t hold a candle to the original.
The first disc features an audio commentary by film historian David Kalat who puts To Be or Not To Be in context of other WWII era comedies and Lubitsch’s career as a whole. He analyzes the tricky juggling act of tone that the film plays with throughout. Kalat expertly analyzes how the film works on multiple levels. He points out how Lubitsch managed to steer clear of censors of the day. Kalat even goes so far as to explore the film’s influence on Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009).
The second disc starts off with “Lubitsch le patron,” a 2010 French documentary that examines the director’s career from his beginnings in German cinema to his fantastic run in Hollywood. It also paints a fascinating portrait of the man and serves as an excellent primer.
“Pinkus’s Shoe Palace” is a 1916 silent short film that established Lubitsch as a director or merit and also showcased his acting talents and comedic chops with a recurring screen persona.
Finally, there is “Screen Guild Theater,” which features two programs from the popular radio anthology series The Screen Guild Theater. Variety starred Jack Benny and Lubitsch while the other is an adaptation of To Be or Not To Be with William Powell.