Feb. 21, 2011

To Be or Not to Be (1942)
Grade: 93/100

Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Stars: Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack

What it's about. Set in 1939 Poland. Joseph (Jack Benny) and Maria (Carole Lombard) Tura are the husband-and-wife stars of an actors' troupe in Warsaw just prior to the Nazi occupation. A play mocking Hitler is about to open, but is shut down by fearful authorities. "Hamlet" is regularly staged in its place.

Maria begins a liasion with young air force officer Robert Stack, who worships her. After Hitler takes Poland, Stack and fellow Polish airmen continue to fight Germany from bases in England. Stack becomes suspicious of purported Polish hero Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges), actually a Nazi spy who elicits devastating contact information from the Polish air force emigrees.

Siletsky must be kept from delivering his dossier to the Nazi occupiers in Poland, who are led by Colonel Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman). This mission falls to the Warsaw actors' company. Maria becomes the mistress of Siletsky (within the bounds of the Production Code) to spy against him, while Joseph impersonates Ehrhardt to acquire Siletsky's dossier. After Siletsky's murder by the actor's troupe, Joseph must impersonate Siletsky to get his heroic but presumably unfaithful wife released from Gestapo headquarters.

How others will see it. To Be or Not to Be was greeted cooly upon release. Coming on the heels of Pearl Harbor and Lombard's tragic death, few regarded the Nazis as subjects fit for comedy. The film picked up only one Oscar nomination, for Werner Heymann's score.

However, time has been kind to the movie, and it is now generally regarded as the best in the careers of Lombard, Benny, and even Lubitsch, the German-born director responsible for many sterling Hollywood comedies.

In 1983, Mel Brooks attempted a remake, with himself and wife Anne Bancroft miscast in the lead roles. The remake proved only that Lubitsch was the better director.

Today, the user ratings at imdb.com are extremely high at 8.2/10, with the exception of females over 45, who grade it only 6.1. Presumably, they expected a romance (Lombard is first billed), and instead got a comedy whose subject and humor seem distant.

How I felt about it. Like all good comedies, To Be or Not to Be derives much humor from running gags. Joseph Tura is vain, and a mediocre Shakespearean actor. Maria loves her husband, but also cherishes younger male companionship. Siletsky and Ehrhardt are foolishly eager to make a mistress of Maria, whom they expect to be shallow and materialistic. They call him "Concentration Camp Ehrhardt" in England. Hitler will be named after stinky cheese. Minor Jewish player Greenberg (Felix Bressart) longs to deliver a Shylock speech concerning the humanity of Jews.

The latter "gag" isn't funny, but provides a moral undercurrent to the film, a reminder that the Nazis were evil and not merely bungling military administrators.

Joseph Tura displays remarkable courage in the lion's den of Nazi officers. Yet, with his life in constant peril, his chief concerns appear to be his status as an actor, and the fidelity of his wife. That's where the comedy comes in. But despite his jealousy, he is aware that his wife is performing a patriotic service, and his loyalty to her is unswerving.

But why does Maria have boy toys? Simply because she can, which makes her a liberated woman before it became fashionable. It appears that Joseph will just have to live with it, a reversal from the philandering role more often cinematically assigned to the husband.