#235) To Be or Not To Be (1942)
OR “Spying is Easy, Comedy is Hard”
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
Written by Edwin Justus Mayer. Story by Melchior Lengyel.
Class of 1996
The Plot: It’s 1939 Warsaw and Joseph and Maria Tura (Jack Benny & Carole Lombard) are the most famous couple in Polish theater. Joseph is a bit of a ham and is devastated when an audience member (Robert Stack) walks out on his “Hamlet” two nights in a row. The man is Lt. Sobinski, a pilot who uses the “To be or not to be” soliloquy to head backstage and have a dalliance with Maria. All of this is pushed aside when the Nazis invade Poland, and the theater is closed down. When Sobinski discovers that resistance ally Siletsky (Stanley Ridges) is actually a Nazi spy, Joseph and Anna do their part to save their troupe from the Third Reich. Despite the above plot synopsis, the whole thing is actually hilarious.
Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “a complex and timely satire that delicately balances humor and ethics.” There’s also an essay by author/professor/Hoosier David L. Smith.
But Does It Really?: You might need a little historical background to fully enjoy it, but “To Be or Not To Be” is still a thoroughly funny movie. Lubitsch somehow manages to make a movie that is both a satirical farce and a dark reportage of a country caught in war. Lombard and Benny are both excellent, but the whole cast is flawless. “To Be or Not To Be” tends to get lost in the shuffle of great comedies, but its sharp comedy and bold storytelling have helped it persevere over the years, and it is a welcome addition to the Registry.
Everybody Gets One: A successful vaudevillian and radio star, Jack Benny wasn’t quite able to jumpstart his film career. Benny was surprised when Ernst Lubitsch approached him with not only the lead role in his next film, but a lead role written specifically for him. His film career may have peaked with “To Be or Not To Be”, but Benny stated years later it’s the only one of his films he truly loves.
Wow, That’s Dated: The wartime setting is your first clue. Of the other dated parts, offering cigarettes in a formal setting is my favorite.
Seriously, Oscars?: Released shortly after the death of Carole Lombard (and America’s entry into WWII), critics and audiences weren’t quite ready to laugh at Lubitsch’s dark comedy. The film did, however, manage to snag one Oscar nomination: Best Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture. It helps that “To Be or Not to Be” was one of 18 films nominated in that category. No offense to Werner Heymann, but the score for this film isn’t too memorable, and lost to fellow NFR entry “Now, Voyager”. [UPDATE: Further research reveals that in the early ’40s – the last era of studio system monopolies – each studio was allowed to submit one movie for the Best Score categories, with a guaranteed nomination for their submission. “To Be or Not To Be” made the list because Romaine Film Corp./United Artists submitted it. Seriously, Oscars?]
- As previously mentioned, Carole Lombard was killed in a plane crash along with her mother in January 1942, one month before this film’s release. Only one line was deleted from the film in response to her death: Maria’s unfortunately ironic “What can happen in a plane?”
- So a few things: The whole plot stems from Maria having her rendezvous with Sobinski while Joseph is performing the “To be or not to be” monologue from “Hamlet”. But the very next scene in Hamlet features Ophelia (“Get thee to a nunnery”). On the assumption that Maria is playing Ophelia (they never say who she is, but playing Gertrude would be…one interpretation) wouldn’t Maria have to be onstage immediately following the monologue? How long does Joseph take to deliver it? And why does she make Sobinksi wait until the third act to see her? Of course if you’re looking for logistics, “O, That This Too Too Solid Flesh Would Melt/Thaw and Resolve Itself Into a Dew!” is a terrible title for a movie.
- Maria’s maid is either Shirley Booth or Marie Dressler. Ask your great-grandparents.
- The thing about this movie that’s fascinating is how dark it is. We were still in the middle of WWII and not sure what the outcome would be. There’s a lot of this movie that focuses on the grim uncertainty of being this close to Nazis.
- Obviously no one knew this would be Lombard’s final performance, but her Maria is as great as any of her other performances. In an interesting way it’s her most subtle performance. And while Benny never quite equals Lombard’s screen presence, his comic timing is, unsurprisingly, perfection.
- At one point Sobinski tells Joseph that this is his “zero hour”. Not yet, Stack.
- Shoutout to Sig Ruman as what may be filmdom’s first great cartoon Nazi (“Great Dictator” aside).
- The jokes-per-minute ratio in this film isn’t as high as other comedies, but when the jokes do show up, they more than make up for lost time.
- About 80 minutes into the film, Erhardt directs Joseph to his living room, and a weird figure appears in the right corner of the screen. Was it a crew member? What the hell was that?
- One of my notes reads “just the best timing”. I’m pretty sure that was about Jack Benny, but really it could be about anyone.
- “To Be or Not To Be” was remade in 1983 as a vehicle for real-life couple Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft. It can’t beat the timing of the original, but the 1983 version holds its own as a lighter variation of the same story. It’s also Mel Brooks’ best film performance.
- Speaking of Mel, the line “Heil Myself” was lifted from this film and used by Mel in the musical version of “The Producers”.
- Mickey Dolenz of “The Monkees” was inspired by “To Be or Not To Be” to write the song… “To Be or Not To Be”.
- A comedy about a theater troupe seems an obvious choice for a play. A stage adaptation of “To Be or Not To Be” finally made it to Broadway in 2008, and quickly closed after being lambasted for departing too far from the film.
Listen to This: Jack Benny rose to fame with his long-running radio show, where he perfected his miserly persona. The National Recording Registry has preserved the episode that aired March 28th, 1948, featuring the pause heard ‘round the world.