When Ernst Lubitsch’s To
Be Or Not To Be opened in the spring of 1942, just months after America
went to war, it was repudiated and even reviled by many critics who thought it
was in poor taste to juxtapose comedy against the backdrop of Poland’s invasion
by the Nazis. Black comedy wasn’t in fashion then, and the subject hit too
close to home for many audiences. Moviegoers were also upset by the recent,
tragic death of its star, Carole Lombard.
Time has been kind to this magnificent film, which has just been released on DVD and Blu-ray by the Criterion Collection. Looking back, we can fully appreciate how daring it was for Lubitsch to tackle this material when he did. What’s more, it’s one of the few films he originated rather than adapting an established novel or play; this was how he chose to deal with the Nazi threat. (Story credit officially goes to Melchior Lengyel and screenplay credit to Edwin Justus Mayer, but it’s Lubitsch’s movie through and through.) As David Kalat points out in his astute commentary track, the film isn’t so much about Nazis overtaking Poland as a troupe of Polish actors invading the world of Nazidom; therein lies its brilliance as a topical satire. The cast couldn’t be better, from its incomparable lineup of character actors to its leading man, Jack Benny, in his finest screen performance as “that great, great actor, Joseph Tura.” He and Lombard (never more beautiful) work together splendidly.
The Criterion set has a number of extras, including a first-rate French documentary about Lubitsch’s remarkable career, an amusing 1916 short directed by and starring Lubitsch called Pinkus’s Shoe Palace (with an excellent piano score by Donald Sosin), and a pair of radio shows from the Screen Guild Theater series: a 1942 adaptation of the picture featuring William Powell, his wife Diana Lewis, and original cast member Sig Ruman, plus a hilarious 1940 episode featuring Jack Benny, Claudette Colbert, Basil Rathbone, and Lubitsch himself. The accompanying booklet features a thoughtful essay by Geoffrey O’Brien and an article Lubitsch wrote in The New York Times to answer his film’s many critics.
I have had the joy of introducing this comedy to young audiences more than once. When I started teaching at USC, fifteen years ago, I closed out my second semester screening brand-new movies by introducing my students to a classic, with its costar Robert Stack as our guest. They all recognized him from television and he was a delightful guest, reminiscing about one of the happiest experiences of his career. (It didn’t take a tremendous amount of skill for him to act moonstruck over Carole Lombard—although as a young man Stack was friendly with her husband, fellow skeet-shooter Clark Gable.)
My class thoroughly enjoyed the film, although they denied it one of its biggest laughs. In 1942, the mere sight of Jack Benny walking on stage to deliver Hamlet’s soliloquy was a sure-fire laugh. Being unfamiliar with Benny in 1998, they didn’t appreciate the incongruity; fortunately, they came to appreciate his performance on its own terms. At the end of class that night, a young man approached me and said, “I never would have watched a film like that on my own, but I loved it. Now I want to get a copy of my own.” I could have hugged him.
My second experience came just a few years ago when filmmaker Edgar Wright invited Joe Dante and me to introduce a showing of To Be or Not To Be at Quentin Tarantino’s New Beverly Theatre in Los Angeles, as part of Edgar’s series of films he’d always wanted to see, but never had. There was a large and receptive audience that night, but I was distracted by my daughter Jessie, who grew up listening to Jack Benny radio shows but had never seen him onscreen. She loved the film…and I loved watching her enjoy it.
This is a film worth sharing and revisiting on a regular basis. It’s great to have a first-rate transfer and the accoutrements that make every Criterion release so welcome.