To Be or Not to Be

To Be or Not to Be
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Screenplay: Edwin Justus Mayer (original story by Melchior Lengyel)
Stars: Carole Lombard (Maria Tura), Jack Benny (Joseph Tura), Robert Stack (Lieut. Stanislav Sobinski), Felix Bressart (Greenberg),Lionel Atwill (Rawitch), Stanley Ridges (Professor Siletsky), Sig Ruman (Col. Ehrhardt), Tom Dugan (Bronski), Charles Halton (Producer Dobosh), George Lynn (Actor-Adjutant), Henry Victor (Capt. Schultz), Maude Eburne (Anna), Halliwell Hobbes (Gen. Armstrong), Miles Mander (Major Cunningham)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1942
Country: U.S.
To Be or Not to Be Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
To Be or Not to BeErnst Lubitsch’s suspenseful screwball thriller To Be or Not to Be was one of the first openly anti-Nazi films to be produced in Hollywood, and while it was not well received during its initial theatrical run because many thought it tasteless in “exploiting” Nazi-occupied Poland, it has since come to be recognized as one of the great classical comedies and quite possibly Lubitsch’s masterpiece (in his book Hollywood Bedlam, William K. Everson asserts “If this book had to limit itself to only ten screwball classics, then To Be or Not to Be would certainly be one of them”). That it was misunderstood at the time is not surprising, given that it was a daring foray into using black comedy as a means of sending up the Nazi threat without underestimating just how deep their menace runs. The fact that film was made at all is all the more impressive given that, in the previous decade, the studios had largely played nice with the Third Reich, toning down or halting production on any films that might be considered anti-German for fear of losing those markets (if one accepts the thesis in historian Ben Urwand’s controversial new book The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact With Hitler, the studios did much more than simply kowtow to Hitler’s regime).

Like Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940), To Be or Not to Be was produced independently, in this case by British producer Alexander Korda, and distributed by United Artists. The complex story, penned by prolific screenwriter and sometimes playwright Edwin Justus Mayer from an original story by an uncredited Lubitsch and his regular collaborator Melchior Lengyel, involves a troupe of actors in Warsaw who become involved in a spy plot after the Nazis take control of Poland. The two main characters are Joseph and Maria Tura (Jack Benny and Carole Lombard), married thespians with matching egos whose love for each other is threatened at various points by both personal and professional jealousy. Maria is pursued intensely by Lt. Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack), a young, handsome Polish pilot who goes to see her every night and slips into her dressing room while Joseph is delivering Hamlet’s famous soliloquy (the recurring gag of Stack getting up and leaving as soon as Benny utters the line “To be or not to be” is a brilliant moment of both physical and emotional comedy as Joseph is offended that anyone dare walk out during his great performance when he should be incensed that the man is going to see his wife backstage). Of course, there are no real shenanigans going on, as Maria remains faithful and committed to Joseph even as she entertains the young man’s attention to feed her own ego (it’s amusing that Joseph and Maria’s egos are being fed simultaneously, his on-stage and hers backstage).

The Turas and the other actors in their troupe get involved in thwarting a spy named Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges) from relaying information about the Polish Resistance to the Nazi authorities. This involves an increasingly complex series of masquerades and subterfuges. Maria must pretend to be interested in Siletsky both romantically and politically in agreeing to his invitation for her to become a Nazi spy. Meanwhile, Joseph must first pretend to be a Nazi commander named Colonel Ehrhardt in an attempt to convince Siletsky that he has relayed the information to the Gestapo and later pretend to be Siletsky himself in meeting with the actual Colonel Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman), a comical blowhard who relishes the idea that he is known in Polish circles as “Concentration Camp Ehrhardt,” but lives in constant fear of offending the Fuhrer with his comical asides. His repeated, agitated cry of “Schultz!” to pass blame down to his second-in-command every time he screws up (which is often) is one of the movie’s most amusing verbal refrains.

Perhaps what is most impressive about To Be or Not to Be is the way it navigates the tricky balancing act between screwball comedy and wartime suspense (Lubitsch referred to the film as “a tragical farce or a farcical tragedy”). Lubitsch, a German expatriate who had settled comfortably into Hollywood in the early ’30s and was best known for his sophisticated romantic comedies like Trouble in Paradise (1932), proved to have just as deft a touch in generating suspense as he had in generating laughs. The movie is replete with one-liners and double-takes (most of the comedy is verbal and interpersonal, rather than directly physical), but it also abandons comedy for long stretches and becomes the kind of straight-up suspense thriller you might associate at the time with Fritz Lang. Granted, the suspense is punctuated now and again with verbal and visual gags, but it never comes at the expense of narrative tension. One of the film’s best sequences finds Joseph impersonating Siletsky and walking into a potential trap because Colonel Ehrhardt has discovered that the real Siletsky has been killed. Joseph, in full make-up and false beard, finds himself locked in a room with Siletsky’s corpse while Ehrhardt and the other Nazi commanders wait outside to see his response. His escape plan is brilliantly and hilariously executed—right up until the point when his fellow actors show up and inadvertently sabotage it.

The idea of actors making great spies has its own built-in amusement, especially since their plans are constantly threatened by their perceived need to play up their roles and get more attention (Lubitsch, who had started his career as an actor in the silent era, clearly enjoys jabbing at the profession and the egos that often go with it). The film works largely because of the sublime performances by the impressive cast, starting with Benny, who was making the transition from radio to film, and Lombard, who was tragically killed in a plane crash just before the film’s release, making it her last on-screen appearance. Stack is appropriately earnest as the lovestruck pilot, and he and Benny have a fantastic square-off when Joseph finds him sleeping in his bed (it’s not what you think). The most memorable character, though, is arguably Sig Ruman’s blustery Colonel Ehrhardt, who is both the movie’s chief villain and its primary comic foil. Watching him humiliated again and again is gratifying on an ideological level, but it also has an oddly humanizing effect, to the point that we almost feel sorry for him by the end when the acting troupe has tricked him yet again and is beating a hasty exit from the country. It is not surprising that audiences at the time didn’t fully appreciate the film’s witty sense of danger, but in hindsight it is not hard to recognize it as one of Lubitsch’s greatest works and one of the most inventive anti-Nazi films to emerge from Hollywood.

To Be or Not to Be Criterion Collection Blu-Ray
To Be or Not to Be is also available from The Criterion Collection on DVD.
Aspect Ratio1.33:1
AudioEnglish Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • Audio commentary by film historian David Kalat
  • Pinkus’s Shoe Palace (1916), German silent short directed by and starring Ernst Lubitsch
  • Lubitsch le patron (2010) documentary
  • Two episodes of The Screen Guild Theater “Variety” (1940) and “To Be or Not to Be” (1942)
  • Insert booklet with an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien and a 1942 New York Times op-ed by Lubitsch
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateAugust 27, 2013

    Criterion’s newly restored 2K digital film transfer, taken from the original 35mm nitrate camera negative and a 35mm nitrate composite fine-grain print, is duly impressive, with excellent contrast and detail. The black-and-white cinematography by Rudolph Matè looks superb throughout, as the transfer maintains a pleasant sense of film grain while digital restoration has removed virtually all instances of age and wear. The image is sharp, stable, and thoroughly pleasing. The monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm optical soundtrack print, is solid for its age. Dialogue is clear, ambient hiss is pretty much nonexistent, and Werner R. Heymann’s excellent musical score is generally robust, despite emanating from a single channel.
    The new audio commentary by film historian David Kalat, who has previously contributed audio commentaries to Criterion’s releases of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933) and Godzilla (1954), is an excellent listen and provides an invaluable critical understanding of the film. Kalat offers a great deal of history as well as close reading of the film itself, and he places it within the contexts of World War II-era comedies, the war itself, and Ernest Lubitsch’s career. The next two supplements focus expressly on Lubitsch himself: Pinkus’s Shoe Palace, a 1916 German silent short film (it actually runs about 45 minutes, so it is really in-between a short and a feature) directed by and starring Lubitsch that features a new piano score by Donald Sosin and Lubitsch le patron, a 2010 French documentary that covers the entirety of the director’s career. Also on the disc are two episodes of the radio anthology series The Screen Guild Theater: “Variety” (1940), starring Jack Benny, Claudette Colbert, and Lubitsch, and an adaptation of “To Be or Not to Be” (1942) starring William Powell, Diana Lewis, and Sig Ruman. The insert booklet includes an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien and a 1942 New York Times op-ed piece by Lubitsch responding to the film’s most vocal critics, particularly Times critic Bosley Crowther.

    Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick

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    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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