- Director: Ernst Lubitsch
- Writers: Melchior Lengyel and Edwin Justus Meyer
- Starring: Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack, Felix Bressart, Sig Ruman, Lionel Atwill, Stanley Ridges, Tom Dugan, and Charles Halton
- Accolades: 2008 Cahiers du Cinema Top 100 list (#13), 1 Oscar nomination (Best Original Score)
- Where to Watch: Free Streaming on Kanopy (library app), Stream with subscription on HBO Max or the Criterion Channel
The opening scene of To Be or Not to Be is set in a Nazi military office. Jack Benny is playing a Nazi officer. There is a running joke about all of the characters constantly saying “Heil Hitler” to each other. After a while Hitler himself walks in, pauses for comic effect, then says “Heil me!” A director yells “Cut!” We see that these are actually Polish actors rehearsing a play satirizing Nazi Germany. Then Carole Lombard wanders on stage to ask the director what he thinks of her new, slinky dress. “That’s not what you’re wearing for the concentration camp scene, is it?” he asks in horror.
Pretty much the entire movie is like that. It would be transgressive today, but To Be or Not to Be came out in February 1942. When it was conceived and shot, America had not yet even entered World War II (America is not really mentioned at all in the movie, in fact). Both reviewers and audiences found that they had no idea what to make of it. Jack Benny would later describe his father walking out of the theater, unable to bear seeing his son in a Nazi uniform. Many critics simply felt that it was in bad taste to make jokes about such a grave threat as the Nazis. I mean, can you imagine a satire about Islamic terrorism coming out three months after 9/11? Director Ernst Lubitsch took these criticisms in stride, feeling satire like his movie was important. What he did not take in stride were the handful of more extreme voices who argued that he, who had grown up in Germany, was making a movie making fun of the Nazi invasion of Poland because his sympathies were with the Nazis. He vociferously argued that he had made the movie to satirize the Nazis and “their ridiculous ideology.” With the advantage of distance, the movie is certainly effective on that front. We are introduced to the movie’s most prominent Nazi officer, Col. Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman), as he yells into a phone “Arrest them! How many times do I have to tell you, when in doubt, arrest them! Arrest everybody!”
To Be or Not to Be tells the story of a troupe of Polish actors in 1939 Warsaw, led by the husband and wife team of Joseph (Benny) and Maria Tura (Lombard). He considers himself one of the world’s greatest actors, though others do not necessarily share this opinion (Col. Ehrhardt notes at one point, “What he did to Shakespeare, we are doing now to Poland”). Maria, fed up with him, is having a liaison with a handsome fighter pilot, Sobinski (a young Robert Stack). That’s when the Nazis invade. Sobinski escapes to Britain, where while serving in the RAF he realizes that a messenger sent to the Polish Underground, Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges), is actually a spy. When he gets a message to Maria, it sets off a long series of hijinks in which the members of the troupe use their acting skills and props from their Nazi satire to fool the Germans in various ways.
In a climactic sequence that Quentin Tarantino 100% had seen before making Inglorious Basterds, they crash a theater where Hitler is going to attend a Nazi celebration, complete with one member of the company in costume as Hitler (Lionel Atwill), and convince his guards that a Jewish actor (Felix Dressart) is trying to assassinate Hitler, so they all have to leave right now and get back on Hitler’s plane. Once aloft, “Hitler” convinces the unquestioningly loyal guards to jump out of the plane without parachutes, and the rest of the gang flies away to safety in Britain. “Hitler,” still in costume for some reason, floats down into a Scottish haystack via parachute, causing a grousing farmer to cry, “First Hess, now this!”
The relative lack of renown of To Be or Not to Be today, at least in the US, is likely a result of seemingly “difficult” subject matter, but it’s so well made and acted, not to mention actually funny, that for all that it’s an easy and enjoyable watch. That sly, smooth surehandedness can be attributed to Lubitsch, and is a common feature of most of his movies. Having come over from Germany during the silent era, he became one Hollywood’s most beloved directors of his era with classics like Trouble in Paradise and Ninotchka. His movies were promoted by Paramount as having “the Lubitsch Touch.” He unfortunately passed away in 1947, at 55. After this, the great director Billy Wilder always kept a sign above his desk reading “What would Lubitsch have done?”
After our feature on Rebel Without a Cause a few days ago, this week is developing an unfortunate theme. Just as that movie came out less than a month after the death of its star, James Dean, To Be or Not to Be was released about a month after the untimely death of Carole Lombard. She was among the biggest Hollywood stars of the 1930s, and was considered among the pioneers of the Screwball Comedy in hits like Twentieth Century and My Man Godfrey, as well as playing the role that would later be taken up by Angelina Jolie in the original Hitchcock Mr. & Mrs. Smith. She was also part of the “Brangelina” of her day, if you will, through her marriage to Clark Gable. They were the ultimate Hollywood power couple of their day.
Immediately following Pearl Harbor, Lombard threw herself into the war effort however she could, including setting off on a whirlwind tour to promote War Bonds. In January 1942, her flight back to LA at the end of the tour crashed into Mt Potosi southwest of Las Vegas, the beacon at the top of which had been turned off due to wartime restrictions. I have actually been to the Goodsprings Saloon, a western-themed watering hole at the foot of the mountain, where Gable drank himself into a stupor for days while waiting for word on whether rescue teams could find any survivors. They did not. The next room is basically wallpapered with Lombard and Gable memorabilia.
Though I really enjoyed it, I do think that To Be or Not to Be might play differently in countries with a different experience of World War II than America. In the French poll by Cahiers du Cinema that we reference here occasionally, it is the highest rated comedy of all time, bar none. Perhaps counterintuitively, maybe it is easier to swallow jokes about being occupied by Nazis if your grandfather actually lived through a Nazi occupation, and so did everyone else’s grandfather. One bit I found interesting is how often both concentration camps and Nazi oppression of Jews are mentioned in this movie, given that usual narrative that the Allies didn’t completely believe the reports about the Holocaust at the time. There is a running joke about how pleased Col. Ehrhardt is that, in Britain, he is nicknamed “Concentration Camp Ehrhardt.” And the big emotional payoff of the movie goes not to the leads but to a Jewish member of the troupe, played by Felix Dressart, who, before the invasion, complained about how he is always given bit parts and dreams of playing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. We find out he’s Jewish when he tells one actor, “What you’re doing up [on stage], I wouldn’t eat.” “How dare you call me a ham!” When, at the end of the film, he has to convince Nazi guards that he is out to assassinate Hitler, he delivers an impassionate version of Shylock’s most famous speech: “If you prick us, do we not bleed!” You might think this seems a bit obvious, but I would say we need a plea for tolerance today just as much as we ever have.