Note: This review of To Be or Not to Be appears at Wonders in the Dark in The Top 100 Comedies Countdown, placing at #26.
If I had to name the one Ernst Lubitsch film that I simply cannot get enough of, it would be his absolutely hilarious To Be or Not To Be. Now he is probably more well known for several of his lighter musical comedies with Maurice Chevalier, or his work with Garbo, or more than likely his pre-code classic Trouble in Paradise. But I love To Be or Not To Be as it’s not only a magnificently paced comedy with great performances by two terrific leads, but it’s also a really interesting farce, lampooning Hitler and the Nazis right smack dab during the midst of WWII.
The film is really the last of it’s kind during this era. The Three Stooges were the first to lampoon Hitler in their short film You Nazty Spy, which premiered on January 19th, 1940. Charlie Chaplin followed this with his classic The Great Dictator, which opened on October 15th, 1940, including the famous scene where Charlie as Adenoid Hynkel plays with the giant globe in his office. On March 6, 1942, Lubitsch’s film premiered to critics and audiences that did not appreciate it. It was the last Nazi spoof comedy of the WWII era that I can find reference to. I can certainly understand how those at the time might find it really difficult to laugh at such proceedings involving Hitler and the Nazis. Such subject matter has always come under fire, especially when involving comedic treatment. Everything from Hogan’s Heroes, The Producers, Life is Beautiful……even Tarantino’s recent Inglorious Basterds which was a tounge-in-cheek look at Jewish revenge and revisionist WWII history. It’s not hard to believe that such subject matter will always be controversial. Oh but what funny controversy is THIS film!
Lubitsch’s masterpiece, written with glorious panache by Edwin Justice Mayer from an original story by Melchior Lengyel, is that terrific combination of script and actors. Jack Benny and Carole Lombard star as Joseph and Maria Tura, husband and wife actors who belong to the same acting troupe in Warsaw, Poland. They are rehearsing for a spoof play, satirizing Hitler and the Nazis during the day, and also performing Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the evenings. Maria begins to see a young fighter pilot named Lieutenant Sobinksi, who is a fan of hers who comes to see the play every night. She tells him to visit her dressing room as soon as her husband Joseph starts into his “To be or not to be…” soliloquy. They have a terrific exchange:
Sobinksi “Goodbye….I hope you’ll forgive me if I acted a little clumsy, but this is the first time I’ve ever met an actress.”
Maria- “Lieutenant…. This is the first time I’ve ever met a man who could drop three tons of dynamite in two minutes.”
Their affair quickly comes to a close when Germany declares war on Poland and Sobinski joins the Polish RAF in England. While there, he meets a suspicious Professor Siletsky, who has obtained names of key Polish underground members and who is headed to Warsaw to meet with Gestapo. Sobinski warns his superiors of the plot and they send him back to Warsaw to stop Siletsky before he gets to the Gestapo with the names of the underground members. Sobinsky ends up needing to utilize both Joseph, Maria and the rest of the acting troupe in order to murder Siletsky, thwart the bumbling Nazis, and even portray the Fuhrer himself through a hilarious sequence of setpieces.
This is one of those films that once it gets rolling it just does not stop. There are so many wonderful scenes in this film that it’s hard to pick just a few to talk about and I want to make sure to highlight key exchanges of dialogue and a few great lines, because that's really one of the great joys of the film. There’s the scene when Jack Benny as Joseph has arrived back to his apartment to find his wife’s lover lying in his bed. He wakes him up and begins questioning him when his wife Maria comes in. There is a rapid fire sequence of dialogue between the three actors that is simply sensational and all the more funny because Jack Benny’s character is completely clueless to what is going on.
Tura- “Wait a minute….I’ll decide with whom my wife is going to have dinner with and whom she’s gonna kill!”
Maria- “Don’t you realize Poland’s at stake!?”
Sobinksky- “Have you no Patiotism!?”
Tura- “Now listen you.... First you walk out on my soliloquy and then you walk into my slippers. And now you question my patriotism. I’m a good Pole. I love my country and I love my slippers.”
Then there’s the scene where Joseph Tura must pretend to be Colonel Ehrhardt and meet with Professor Siletsky. Professor Siletsky meets him at his office (actually the theatre), in his uniform (actually his costume) and says,
Tura- “I can’t tell you how delighted we are to have you here.
Siletsky- “May I say, my dear Colonel, that it’s good to breathe the air of the Gestapo again. You know, you’re quite famous in London, Colonel. They call you Concentration Camp Ehrhardt.
Tura- “Hahaha. Yes, yes…..WE do the concentrating and the Poles do the camping.”
This scene ends with Sobinsky murdering Siletsky, which means that Tura must pretend to play Siletsky, as he has left key documents back at his hotel room, which is also where his wife was being wooed by the real Siletsky! When Tura returns to the hotel as Siletsky he meets with his wife Maria. He tells her he (as Siletsky) has to go meet the REAL Colonel Ehrhardt in the Gestapo office. He has a great line when he says, “If I don’t come back….I forgive you for what happened between you and Sobinsky. But if I come back…it’s a different matter”.
Then there’s the fantastic scene where Tura is thrown by the Gestapo into the room with the dead Siletsky and in order to avoid being found out as a fake, shaves off Siletsky’s beard and puts a false one on his face. This scene has a great lead in and Sig Ruman as Colonel Ehrhardt (Shulz!) has that terrific German accent and those great, big, bulging eyes when he pulls off the fake beard. Perhaps though, the most perfectly timed comedic moment comes as the acting troupe has dressed up as Nazis, including one dressed as Hitler so they can escape from Poland. Ehrhardt is up in Maria’s apartment accosting her as a spy and then pleading for her love when the actor as Hitler comes barging in, arriving as her "lover"…..suddenly seeing Ehrhardt he backs away out the door. She then chases after “Hitler” yelling “My Fuhrer!... My Fuhrer!”
All of the comedy in the film is terrifically hammy and farcical. Jack Benny is wonderful as Joseph Tura, a hack actor who must rise above himself to play the greatest roles of his life. His comic timing is spot-on, and he also plays the role wonderfully tounge-in-cheek. I’m not so sure he ever completely disappears into the role, but that’s part of what makes it so fun. Carole Lombard appeared here in her final film before she died tragically in a plane crash. This film highlights why she was one of the greatest, if not THE greatest comedic actress of her era. Her timing and subtlety is fantastic…. the way she makes remarks as if no one is hearing her. She somehow has a way of delivering her lines so underhandedly that you almost don’t even realize she has just told a joke. She also spends much of the film in a beautiful white gown that is simply breathtaking.
Ernst Lubitsch, a German-born Jew who left Germany in the 1920’s for Hollywood, certainly earned the right to make this film his way. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that his film was perhaps both a plea for intervention (to the U.S., which was not yet at war with Germany) and a lament for his own country’s grand mistakes. Now the film doesn’t really make direct references to Jews or Jewish persecution, but it’s certainly implied. His famous touch, which earlier in his career utilized adult bedroom humor delicately and charmingly, was put to good use here as he skillfully handled the fine line of satire and farce regarding a socially and politically charged topic, without forcing the issue or making it seem preachy in the least. I think one of the true tests of a great comedy, is that no matter how many times you see a film, you laugh just as hard if not harder the next time you see it. This is one of those. It never tires and never gets stale and always makes me laugh.