Well folks, it looks like it’s time to poke fun at Nazis again. And this time, a little more directly and forcefully. No, the film we’ll be highlighting today doesn’t feature quite as much vitriol and righteous anger for Nazi Germany as The Great Dictator did a couple weeks ago, but it’s still interesting to see Hollywood’s interest at dealing with the rising horror of World War II by screwball mockery. And what wonderful mockery we have to discuss today. Because we get to talk about the incredibly bizarre, and almost impossible to believe film, To Be or Not to Be. It’s a movie that when you give someone the elevator pitch on, they kind of can’t believe it’s real. Especially when you toss in the fact that it’s a comedy. But it works. It works beautifully, giving me the confidence to label it my favorite film of 1942, in spite of the rather massive shadow another film from the year casts on Hollywood history. No, not Bambi. As fate would have it, another massive film that tackles the burgeoning second World War and the threat of Nazi Germany would be released in ’42. Casablanca. Now, Casablanca is a film that holds a lot of esteem in the world of American cinema. It’s one of those movies that frequently shows up fairly high on lists of “greatest American films.” And, it’s really good. I like Casablanca quite a bit, and the fascinating way that it manages to synthesize noir, romance, drama, and war together to create a film that feels rather unique from anything else that was being released at this time in Hollywood cinema really does earn it its reputation. But, while I really enjoy Casablanca, there’s just something about To Be or Not to Be that manages to push it over the top for me. It’s a movie that will inevitably put a smile on my face for almost the entire run-time, and is just such a perfect example of this type of comedy for me.
America had only entered World War II a few weeks before To Be or Not to Be was released, showing that even though America wasn’t technically working against Nazi Germany during the production of the film, there was still enough animosity and fear towards the regime that such a film could be made. German director Ernst Lubitsch became fascinated with the idea of a film lampooning the horrible things that Nazi Germany were doing, and helped bring To Be or Not to Be to life, making it a timely mockery of an incredibly serious threat. Lubitsch specifically designed the character of Joseph Tura for comedian Jack Benny, hoping to help the actor’s career broaden. And, after some issues with the original actress picked to co-star with Benny, Lubitsch decided to bring on the veritable queen of the screwball comedy, Carole Lombard. And, sadly, it would be Lombard’s final film, because shortly before the film was released she was involved in a tragic plane-crash, ending her life incredibly short. But, between Benny and Lombard, the film was a comedic dream-team. Unfortunately, the public wasn’t quite sure what to make of To Be or Not to Be when it was first released. The general consensus was that the film was in bad taste, that it’s poking of Nazi Germany was too soon, and shined too comedic a light on such a dark subject matter. Especially coming from a German director. But, over the years as the film got farther and farther away form the historical reality of what the film was mocking, an audience began to grow for the film. It’s now thought of as one of the finest comedies from this era of Hollywood, and it’s easy to see why. This film is a hoot.
To Be or Not to Be takes place in Warsaw, shortly before the Nazi invasion. It focuses on a local acting company, primarily the two stars, Josef and Maria Tura. The Tura’s are two of the most famous actors in Warsaw, and have proportionally huge egos thanks to that. The story begins during a performance of Hamlet, Josef’s favorite role, and while he’s out acting we learn that Maria has begun flirting with a young pilot named Stanislav Sobinski. Maria is flattered that the young man is enamored with her, and invites him back to her dressing room during the play, telling him to sneak off during Hamlet’s monologue beginning with the titular “to be or not to be.” Maria and Stanislav have a nice evening together, while Josef is more concerned that someone walked out on his monologue, but the next day they get ready for their newest production, an original play that satirizes Nazi Germany. Unfortunately, they’re ordered to quash the play, and have to put on Hamlet once more, giving Stanislav another chance to sneak off and infuriate Josef. But, while he continues to woo Maria, trying to convince her to leave Josef and marry him, some distressing news breaks. Germany has just invaded Poland. They’re now at war, and Stanislav is needed. He leaves the theater, and after several months of war, ends up relocating to England to continue aiding the Allies in the war against Nazi Germany.
And it’s in England that Stanislav meets a professor known as Siletsky who is working with the Allies, and is presumably from Warsaw. He’s heading out on a mission to the Polish capital, and offers to deliver some words of encouragement to the Polish soldiers’ families when he visits. But, when Stanislav mentions Maria Tura, Siletsky has no idea who she is, and he begins getting worried. He becomes convinced that Siletsky is actually a German spy masquerading as a Polish professor to learn about the families of these Polish resisters, and convinces his superiors to let him travel back to Warsaw. They agree, and Stanislav flies back to Poland, and begins working with Maria to warn the Polish resistance about Siletsky. Unfortunately, they learn that Siletsky has gotten to Warsaw before Stanislav, and is supposed to be picked up by feared Gestapo member Colonel Ehrhardt and deliver the list of names. So, they decide they need to replace Siletsky and bring him down. Maria does her part by trying to seduce Siletsky and learning the location of his list of names, and Josef is brought into the plot, and with him he rest of the acting troupe. Together they turn their shut-down theater into a fake Gestapo headquarters, dress up as Nazis, and convince Siletsky that they’re the legitimate Gestapo. They bring Siletsky back to the theater and try to pump him for information. However, Josef isn’t exactly a terrific improviser, and things don’t go very well. Especially when Siletsky mentions that he has a date with Maria Tura, and learned about her from a soldier she’s having an affair with. Josef looses his cool, and Siletsky realizes that he’s in a scam, and confronts the actors. They struggle, and Siletsky ends up being killed. Which isn’t good, since the Gestapo is actively looking for him.
So, Josef decides to work up a Siletsky costume, and starts pretending to be Siletsky. He’s eventually brought in to meet with the real Colonel Ehrhardt, and the two actually hit it off pretty well, especially since Josef just uses the same lines that the real Siletsky used on him. He also gives false information that supposes that the Polish resistance was ran by people who have already been killed, giving them no leads. They then plan to meet the next day and discuss an upcoming visit from Hitler himself. Unfortunately, the next day the real Siletsky’s body is found, and Ehrhardt decides that a trick is afoot, and plans a dramatic reveal to mess with Josef. They’re both put in the same office, and Josef, thinking on his feet, shaves off Siletsky’s beard and puts on a false one, so that when the Gestapo agents come in they can reveal that the real Siletsky is a false one. This actually works, until the rest of the theater troupe arrives and “arrest,” Josef. So, the Polish resistance is safe, but now the theater troupe is in grave danger. They then devise a plan to sneak out of the country when Hitler arrives. They dress themselves up as Gestapo agents, and even one of them as Hitler, and manage to fake their way onto Hitler’s plane, fleeing Warsaw and getting sanctuary in England. There they’re treated as heroes, and are allowed to perform Hamlet as a reward. The only problem is that when Josef reaches his monologue, a different man gets up an excuses himself, baffling both Josef and Stanislav.
To Be or Not to Be is an absolute miracle of a movie. The screwball farce can be such a difficult movie to pull off, and even if you do pull it off it tends to age very poorly. Comedy is a genre that can often have a real problem connecting with people from different generations, primarily because by the time a person in 2018 watches a comedy from the 40’s they’ve seen other movies that are descendants, from a humor point of view, of the film, making it seem a little old-fashioned. But, when done right, there can be a timeless quality to comedy, and this film manages to pull that off. Jack Benny and Carole Lombard are obviously the main draws for this movie, but really everyone in it is terrific. Every single actor in this film has stunning comedic timing, holding their own in the all out blitz of quips and gags that this movie is producing. Lubitsch managed to wrangle together a stunning crew of comedians, giving each and every character a shocking amount of personality, even when they’re just playing little bit roles. But, the real stars are Benny and Lombard. Lombard is terrific as the vain and kind of shallow Maria Tura, and when she suddenly finds a cause worth fighting for she becomes a pretty efficient spy, even though she’s just winging it for most of the time. Similarly, Jack Benny does a fantastic job at handling the ridiculous shtick that’s written for him in this film (the fake beard scene is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen) but he also does a good job at portraying a man completely out of his depth in the world of espionage. They’re both truly hilarious, and bring an insane amount of levity to a story that could conceivably be done as a straight drama.
This movie shouldn’t be nearly as funny as it is. When you tell someone the basic plot, that a group of theater actors in Warsaw attempt to scam some invading Nazis and save the lives of resistance leaders, you probably don’t assume it’s going to be a laugh-riot. But, it really is. This is a movie that helps prove that when done correctly, humor can be found from anything. I completely understand why people at the time were a little put off by the film, claiming that it was too soon, and poked fun at subject matter that was too dark. And, I wouldn’t be surprised to see if the creators of this film would think that maybe they went a little too far with some of the gags being as they didn’t know the true extent of the horrors of Nazi Germany at the time of the filming. And yet, the film helps remind us that humor is a coping mechanism. It’s a way to look at the insanity of the world, and process it in a way that doesn’t lead to depression or anger. Everyone involved with this film were watching as the world was being dragged kicking and screaming into a World War, and in the face of that horror they decided to poke some fun at it. They looked at the monstrous figure that was Adolph Hitler and laughed at him. And, yeah, I could see how you could have an issue with that. But, I also see the power in that. The idea that even in humanities darkest times we can band together and laugh in the face of cruelty and evil, to prove that we’re not going to let it bury us, that they haven’t taken away our ability to enjoy our lives. The horrors of Nazi Germany are no laughing matter. But, sometimes humor can be a way to deal with horror, and this film is a perfect example of that mentality.
To Be or Not to Be was written by Melchior Lengyel, Edwin Justus Mayer, and Ernst Lubitsch, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, and released by United Artists, 1942.
Categories: Cinematic Century