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To Be or Not to Be

It happens twice in Ernst Lubitsch's Nazi-mocking burlesque, To Be or Not to Be. Carole Lombard — playing a Polish stage actress plotting against the Gestapo amid the rubble of occupied Warsaw — puts a comic spin on a line of dialogue by lilting her delivery up as if her voice is preparing to pop a champagne cork. Then with a smile she stops and says — pop! — "Goodbye!" Conversation ended. Surprised, we blink, then laugh as if our bubbly came served in a dribble glass. For such a throwaway bit, it's a marvelous dollop of performance and timing, a jazzy grace note from a pro having a good time. Being Carole Lombard, she can't help but be lovely and sexy. Her character, in fact, depends on it to keep the Nazis from crushing the underground Polish resistance. But from her first pop! she's also disarming and approachable in a way that helps us believe that Mrs. Clark Gable is, in the film, married to Jack Benny. No one could have known during production that her jaunty "Goodbye" would imbue To Be or Not to Be with extra poignancy. Three weeks after production wrapped, while returning home from a war-bond sales tour, her plane crashed into a mountain near Las Vegas, killing everyone on board. That her death added a tragic subtext to Lubitsch's farcical comedy seems appropriate (mordantly so, granted).

When To Be or Not to Be premiered in 1942, some critics lambasted the great German ex-patriate director for the "bad taste" of framing a knockabout lampoon within the deadly serious tragedy of the Nazis' invasion of Poland. "To say it is callous and macabre is understating the case," harrumphed that blinkered old pedant Bosley Crowther in The New York Times, adding that "one has the strange feeling that Mr. Lubitsch is a Nero, fiddling while Rome burns." Like Chaplin before him in The Great Dictator, Lubitsch aimed a wet raspberry in Der Führer's face. This time, though, America had finally joined the war, and the public mood helped audiences miss the point of Lubitsch's "fiddling."

Casting Jack Benny as Polish prima donna Josef Tura must have felt like typecasting to the film's original audiences. Benny worked for decades off his refined reputation as a ham, and one of Lubitsch's jokes has a German officer setting the tone early by declaring, "What he did to Shakespeare we are doing to Poland." Tura and his wife Maria (Lombard) were the stars of Warsaw's preeminent theater troupe before the tanks blasted in and closed down their anti-Nazi play, Gestapo. Now they perform safe Shakespeare, with Tura obsessing over a young man who, night after night, sees their Hamlet but walks out every time Tura begins the "To be or not to be" soliloquy. The man is a handsome Polish bomber flyboy (Robert Stack) in love with Maria. She's swooning in return as well ("What a husband doesn't know won't hurt his wife"), and his nightly exit is to meet her in her dressing room, where he impresses her with the size of his bombing load. Because he's also working for the underground, his lovestruck delusions pull Maria, and then Josef, into a spy-thriller scheme. So that she can prevent the names of the local resistance fighters from being delivered to the Gestapo, Maria must allow herself to be seduced by traitorous Prof. Siletsky (Stanley Ridges). And even though Tura wonders if his wife is slicing off an extra portion of Polish sausage on the side, he sees where his larger priorities lie and employs his, and his troupe's, acting skills to impersonate the nasty Nazis and intercept the documents that could crush the resistance beneath a thousand jackboots.

To Be or Not to Be has some points of contact with Casablanca, which came out the same year. Here the chief Nazi antagonist goes to Sig Rumann, whose hapless colonel trying to ferret out the underground leaders is a boob even less threatening than the Nazi mug he later mustache-twirled against the Marx Brothers. But for all its freedom-fighting similarities, Lubitsch's film has at least as much in common with Warner Brothers' anti-Nazi propaganda cartoons that started in '42 with "The Ducktators." Lubitsch's Nazis are straight out of the newspaper caricatures, hilariously snapping to "Heil Hitler!" at the drop of any potentially misconstrued remark.

If "the Lubitsch touch" can be defined as his ability to harmonize different emotional pitches with an apparently effortless style and wit, we can see it here, for example, when the comedy doesn't pull back from the plight of its Jewish characters. Now only a spear-carrier, Greenberg (Felix Bressart) dreams of playing Shylock, and ultimately gives literally the performance of his life by stalling a squad of Nazi goons with the "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" speech. One of his Jewish colleagues, meanwhile, finally gets to do his impersonation of Hitler, "just a man with a little mustache," to outwit the brown-shirts. The screenplay, or else the editing, is missing some connective tissue, presumably in favor of pacing, so the film is pretty ragged and uneven. But the dialogue bubbles nicely — Siletsky: "Shall we drink to a blitzkrieg?" Maria: "I prefer a slow encirclement" — and today comes with an extra snap in our era when "controversy" gets focus-grouped out of major studio comedies. (Siletsky: "You're quite famous in London, Colonel. They call you Concentration Camp Ehrhardt." Tura, in disguise: "Yes, yes. We do the concentrating and the Poles do the camping.") Benny and especially Lombard are delightful, and are surrounded by first-rate second-tier plays.

Today, hindsight supports To Be or Not to Be as one of Lubitsch's best films, even if for the rest of his career he remembered the critical and commercial thumping that greeted his seltzer-bottle mockery. It's not The Shop Around the Corner or Trouble in Paradise, perhaps, but it's a Lubitsch film and it's about something. It still works as a rip-the-Reich comedy unmatched in its audacity until Mel Brooks' The Producers, which captured its spirit better than Brooks' own remake in '83. And while it's also remembered as Lombard's last film, it's good to know that she considered it the happiest experience of her career.

*          *          *

For 20 years Lubitsch was one of Hollywood's most popular and admired producer-directors. Because he is criminally underappreciated these days, any new release of a Lubitsch film is worth some celebration. So it's a shame that To Be or Not to Be is treated as the awkward stepchild in Warner Home Video’s "Classic Comedy Collection," where it did not receive the red-carpet treatment given to its more well-known box mates. The image quality is good enough, meaning that it arrives with a low-contrast, somewhat too-bright, slightly faded source print. Overall the print is clean; just expect visible wear to mar a few scenes. The DD 1.0 audio is perfectly okay.

For extras, we get two items of marginalia not directly related to the film. Buy Savings Bonds: A Patriotic Drama (1:33) stars Benny and child star Carolyn Lee in a "buy bonds" promo that plays on Benny's skin-flint rep. More substantial is the 1930 MGM comedy short starring Benny, The Rounder (20 mins.), which does little more than warm over old vaudeville drunk acts, although it's good to see Benny in a role other than his familiar TV and radio persona. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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