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To Be Or Not To Be

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by Peter Bogdanovich
April 22, 2012 7:02 PM
7 Comments
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Perhaps the first modern black comedy is the one the incomparable Ernst Lubitsch made a couple of years after his most heartwarmingly human film The Shop Around the Corner (1940); I’m referring to that brilliantly mordant satire on actors and Nazis, the 1942 swan’s song for the luminous Carole Lombard, and Jack Benny’s finest big-screen hour, TO BE OR NOT TO BE (available on DVD).

Lombard’s shocking death at age 33 in a plane accident shortly before the release of this picture threw an irretrievable shroud over the work, a dark glass through which its built-in gallows humor became blacker and bleaker than intended. There was vast controversy at the time, too: How could Lubitsch make light of a situation as terrible as Hitler’s invasions? As though he was.

Ernst Lubitsch (1892–1947)

To Lubitsch--a Polish German Jew who had lived more than half his life in Europe--this war was far more real than to Americans who criticized the film’s wickedly sophisticated brilliance. In Lubitsch’s view, one of the Nazis’ worst traits was their bad manners, and the director understood all things with the sublime sense of inversion conveyed in Thomas De Quincey’s famous maxim: “If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination.”

Times have finally caught up with To Be or Not to Be, today’s prevalent black humors and irreverence being perfectly suited to a movie in which one of the key jokes involves the often repeated line: “So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt?!”

No other picture I can think of has so accurately portrayed a theatre company, and especially the actors in it. Benny and Lombard are incomparable as a famous Polish husband and wife acting team--their competitiveness, her deft manipulation, his susceptibility to flattery. And now that just about everyone in the cast has passed on, Lombard’s death has been erased as a burden on the movie, and she and Benny and all the others are equally alive in this vivid treasure from the Golden Age’s World War II.

Especially memorable in the supporting cast---besides dear Robert Stack, who is golden boy-beautiful and innocent in this his first screen appearance--is the sublime Felix Bressart, who had just played Jimmy Stewart’s best friend for Lubitsch in The Shop Around the Corner, as well as one of the main three Russians with Garbo in Lubitsch’s 1939

Ninotchka. Bressart plays a lowly bit-part actor in the company, but Lubitsch’s intensity in Bressart’s scenes is palpable, and he gives Bressart the famous Shylock speech from The Merchant of Venice, especially apt as the Holocaust was beginning: “Hath not a Jew eyes...?

Bressart’s running gag-line in the picture is: “It would get a terrific laugh..!” in response to a rejection by the stage director of some comic idea he had suggested. “It would get a terrific laugh” could have been Lubitsch’s motto, as well, and Bressart becomes the filmmaker’s mouthpiece all the more when he even goes for a laugh on: “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you poison us, do we not die...?” by letting the breaths of the “p”-sounds blow the other actor’s hair a touch. The Lubitsch Touch: delicate as a feather, lethal as only the best artists can be.

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7 Comments

  • Adam Whyte | April 27, 2012 9:15 AMReply

    Thanks for this interesting piece on one of my favourite movies ever. Has there ever been a better single-line review than 'What he did to Shakespeare, we are doing now to Poland.'

  • mike schlesinger | April 26, 2012 1:11 PMReply

    One of the most brilliantly written movies ever, no question about it. Incidentally, when Lombard signs the register at Nazi headquarters, there's a quick insert of the page--and the name above hers is Schindler! A coincidence, of course, but what a fascinating one.

  • MAK | April 24, 2012 5:35 PMReply

    Another astonishingly original work from Lubitsch.
    However, Stack didn't debut here, but back in 1939, playing a sort of modern Prince Charming and giving Deanna Durbin her first screen kiss in FIRST LOVE, a surprisingly clever film from Henry Koster. Stack is even more memorable, chillingly so, for Frank Borzage in the heartbreaking anti-Nazi pic THE MORTAL STORM in 1940 which I would bet is a favorite of yours.
    BTW - some critics have scratched their collective heads over the very idea of Jack Benny as a Shakespearean - even a Polish Shakespearean. Yet, anyone living at the time couldn't help but notice that Benny was an absolute 'ringer' for Maurice Evans, the biggest Shakespearean star of the day, with long runs in HAMLET and RICHARD II on B'way.
    www.MAKSQUIBS.blogspot.com

  • PB | April 24, 2012 7:11 PM

    Mak, you're absolutely right about Bob Stack! And you're also right about "The Mortal Storm"--it's a brilliant, heartbreaking film. Got my dates all screwed up. Thanks for the correction.

  • Jeremy Fassler | April 23, 2012 3:13 PMReply

    To Be or Not Be is just about perfect. It's amazing how so many thought it in such bad taste when it came out. It really was ahead of its time. And Jack Benny is just perfect.

  • Christopher Denny | April 23, 2012 2:24 AMReply

    I was looking for a selection for my Sunday Nite Insomnia Theatre I have every week on Facebook and, low & behold, I found The Horn Blows At Midnight (starring Jack Benny; directed by Raoul Walsh):
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4bbDZgCyk-o
    I haven't seen this in decades, but I hope it hold up. Can't wait for the coffee cup scene--or was it a teapot ?

  • Christopher Denny | April 23, 2012 12:00 AMReply

    I saw this film when I was a kid (5 or 6) and I thought it really odd. But I loved Jack Benny and had seen enough war films & comedies to where I didn't think too much about why it seemed peculiar (i.e. satiric black comedy). On the other hand, I totally "got" The Horn Blows at Midnight. I think that's been long out of print, but in the 70s it was a Late Late Show favorite. (Perhaps because of the title.)...Some other early black comedies that come to mind are Slight Case of Murder (the original), Capra's Arsenic & Old Lace and Preston Sturges' Hail the Conquering Hero...I can't wait to revisit To Be Or Not To Be, with Mr. Bogdanovich's observations in mind.

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