Not many people of my generation probably remember comedian Jack Benny. I knew of Jack Benny through my father who liked to do an imitation of Benny, tilting his right cheek against his open palm (like Benny) and exhale exasperatingly,"Well!" Benny was a staple on Bob Hope Specials and Johnny Carson's the Tonight Show, often playing a violin as a prop for comic effect when I was growing up in the 1970s. But little did I know that before I saw the comedian Benny on television, he was acting in movies in the 30s and 40s including the great Ernst Lubitsch's WWII comedy TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942).
Modern filmgoers might remember Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft starring in a remake of TO BE OR NOT TO BE in 1983 directed by Alan Johnson but a WWII comedy in the 1980s didn't have the same impact as 1942 when the war was actually going on. Besides a young Jack Benny, TO BE OR NOT TO BE was the last film starring the gorgeous platinum blonde actress Carole Lombard (MY MAN GODFREY). Tragically, Lombard would die in a plane crash in Nevada after filming and did not live to see the release of TO BE OR NOT TO BE.
When we think of great comedy directors of the 30s and 40s, Frank Capra and Preston Sturges usually rise to the top. But Ernst Lubitsch, born in Berlin, Germany, is beloved by many as a top comedic director (Lubitsch was Billy Wilder's favorite director) although his resume isn't as lengthy as Capra or Sturges. TO BE OR NOT TO BE is clever farce, mixing comedy and suspense and some nice jabs at Der Fuhrer. TO BE OR NOT TO BE was written by Edwin Justus Mayer based on an original story by Melchior Lengyel. Screenwriter Mayer seemed to be good at writing comedies taking place abroad as his resume includes THEY MET IN BOMBAY (1941), A ROYAL SCANDAL (1945) set in Russia and MASQUERADE IN MEXICO (1945).
TO BE OR NOT TO BE begins in Warsaw, Poland in the summer of 1939. A Polish theater group is rehearsing a new play called Gestapo. The troupe consists of married actors Maria Tura (Carole Lombard) and Joseph Tura (Jack Benny), veteran ham performer Rawitch (Lionel Atwill), Greenberg (Felix Bressart) who longs to play an important role like Shylock instead of holding spears as a bit player, and Bronski (Tom Dugan) who plays Hitler in the stage production and tries to add a funny line (without success). Much to the dismay of the theater's producer Dobosh (Charles Halton), the Polish government has reservations about the play, concerned it will anger the real Hitler. They cancel the premiere. The troupe returns to performing Shakespeare's Hamlet. As Joseph begins the famous soliloquy 'To Be or Not to Be' a young man exits the performance, irking Joseph. The young man is Lieutenant Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack), a Polish pilot who's in infatuated with Joseph's wife Maria. Maria is flattered but not interested. Then, Germany invades Poland and everything changes.
Warsaw is bombed. The city is in ruins. Sobinski along with many other pilots flee to England where they join the RAF (Royal Air Force) to fight the Germans. A fellow Pole who has befriended the pilots Professor Alexander Siletsky (Stanley Ridges) tells the men he's headed to Warsaw on a secret mission. The pilots ask Siletsky to pass on their regards to friends and family and give him a list of names. Sobinski asks Siletsky to give his regards to the great Polish actress Maria Tura. But Siletsky doesn't know the name. Sobinski suspects the Professor might be a double agent bent on destroying the Polish underground. With British approval, Sobinski secretly flies back to Poland, parachuting at night, chased by the Germans, to stop Siletsky from passing the names to the local Nazi commander Colonel Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman).
Sobinski hides out in Maria's apartment where Joseph discovers him. Sobinski explains the dire situation. Joseph concocts a plan with the rest of the theater group. Using the Nazi army wardrobe from Gestapo and turning their Polish theater into a mock Gestapo headquarters, Joseph will pose as Colonel Ehrhardt, trying to detain Professor Siletsky while Maria tries to grab the dossier of names from Siletsky's room at the Hotel Europa. But Siletsky becomes suspicious. As Siletsky tries to escape the theater, he's shot and killed. With the spy dead, Joseph now has to impersonate Siletsky to stall Ehrhardt.
Joseph's ruse as Professor Siletsky works until the Germans discover the real Siletsky is dead. Ehrhardt tries to set up Joseph, placing him in the same room as the dead Siletsky. But Joseph manages to turn the tables and convince the Germans he's the real Siletsky. Ehrhardt announces that the real Hitler is coming to Warsaw for a reception. The Polish acting troupe once again comes together to pull off one final charade, every player from Joseph to Rawitch and Greenberg playing their roles perfectly to rescue Maria, keep the Polish underground names from the Germans, and escape to Scotland.
TO BE OR NOT TO BE surprisingly walks a fine tightrope between comedy and suspense. As much as I laughed watching this terrific comedy, the suspense side of the film gnawed at my insides. I found myself always a little nervous that Benny, Lombard, and the rest of the theater group were going to be discovered by the Nazis and hung. Benny as Tura with his ego keeps overplaying the real life situation. As the Producer Dobosh laments, "I hate to leave the fate of my country in the hands of a ham." In fact, the spy Professor Siletsky figures out that Tura is a fake and not Ehrhardt (only to be killed before he can tell Ehrhardt). Then, the real Ehrhardt discovers the real Siletsky's body and once again Tura (now posing as Siletsky) seems destined for the gallows. But the filmmakers cleverly figure out a way for Tura (courtesy of a fake goatee) to turn the tables and make Siletsky still appear to be the imposter.
Director Lubitsch obviously condemns the Germans invading Poland but TO BE OR NOT TO BE spends as much time poking fun at actors and their insecurities then Hitler and the Nazis (although he still gets in his shots at the terrible regime). Lubitsch shows actors in every form: egotistical (Joseph Tura), scene stealing hacks (Rawitch), unappreciated bit players (Greenberg and Bronski), and diva leading ladies (Maria Tura). Benny's Tura is always looking for praise from his peers, the audience, or the Nazis but humorously never quite finds that recognition. But while his Hamlet is mediocre, Tura pulls off two of his greatest performances when he impersonates both Colonel Ehrhardt and Professor Siletsky. And the use of Shakespeare's greatest play Hamlet in the story as well as borrowing the title TO BE OR NOT TO BE from Hamlet's best known soliloquy is a fond wink to the old Bard and theater in general.
Even though they're married, Maria and Joseph compete as actors whether upstaging one another on stage or trying to get top billing on the poster. Maria welcomes secret admirers like the handsome pilot Sobinski to the chagrin of her husband. Sobinski lavishes her with flowers and adulation but proves to be overly enthusiastic. Maria's frustrated with Joseph but not unfaithful. The invasion of Poland by the Germans and acting to stay alive proves to be the cure for the Tura's marital spats. Joseph risks his life to win his wife back, event though she's never really left him.
This is the only Carole Lombard film I've seen so far and she's breathtaking. Beautiful, funny, and statuesque, Lombard is a tour de force who was taken from us way too early at the age of 33. Lombard was married to actor Clark Gable prior to her death. TO BE OR NOT TO BE was filmed just as the United States entered World War II. Ironically, Lombard was returning from her hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana from a war bond rally when the plane she and her mother and twenty other people were on crashed near Las Vegas. Lombard worked with some great directors in her brief career besides Lubitsch including Howard Hawks in TWENTIETH CENTURY (1934) and Alfred Hitchcock in one of his few comedies MR. AND MRS. SMITH (1941). She was nominated for an Oscar for MY MAN GODFREY (1936) but her turn as Maria Tura in TO BE OR NOT TO BE may be her finest role.
Watching Jack Benny in TO BE OR NOT TO BE you would think he played dozens of comedic roles in the 30s and 40s. Although he also starred in the film version of the popular play CHARLEY'S AUNT (1941), Benny never really appeared in another hit comedy although he often played himself in films like LOVE THY NEIGHBOR (1940) or IT'S IN THE BAG (1945) alongside comedy partner Fred Allen. Television is where Benny's fame would grow and endure. His own TV show THE JACK BENNY PROGRAM ran from 1950 to 1965. But Benny's performance as Joseph Tura is one of the best comic performances I have ever seen. Benny's deadpan reaction as Sobinski walks out of his 'To Be or Not To Be' soliloquy not once but twice is priceless.
Some of my favorite supporting actors appear in TO BE OR NOT TO BE. Call it typecasting but Lionel Atwill, more familiar to horror fans from MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933) and MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935), is perfect as the overly dramatic thespian Rawitch. Catch Atwill in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) where he gives an incredible over the top performance as Inspector Krogh, matched only by Basil Rathbone's equally excitable Baron Wolf von Frankenstein. German born and Lubitsch favorite Sig Ruman often played Nazis like the pompous Colonel Ehrhardt in TO BE OR NOT TO BE or the seemingly sympathetic German guard Schulz in Billy Wilder's STALAG 17 (1953). Ruman has great comic timing and facial expressions in TO BE. But Ruman could play more than just commanders and guards such as part bartender, part Air Mail Express owner Dutchy in Howard Hawks ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (1939).
A young Robert Stack plays Polish pilot Stanislav Sobinski in one of his early film roles. Stack is handsome and charming in TO BE OR NOT TO BE in a role that's typically fluff. Stack would later become famous as Eliot Ness in the TV show THE UNTOUCHABLES (1959-1963). Later in his career, Stack would unexpectedly find a second career as a comedy actor in the Zucker Brothers spoof of airplane disaster movies AIRPLANE! (1980). And the duo of Felix Bressart (another Lubitsch regular) as Greenberg and Tom Dugan as Bronski are perfect as bit players, under appreciated until they're needed to play the roles of not only a lifetime but for their survival.
Count me as a new fan of director Ernst Lubitsch. I can't wait to check out his two other classic comedies NINOTCHKA (1939) co-written by Billy Wilder and starring Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas and THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940) starring Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart which was remade (like TO BE OR NOT TO BE) as YOU'VE GOT MAIL (1998) starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan and directed by Nora Ephron. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Besides TO BE OR NOT TO BE having been remade in the 1980's, the influence of Lubitsch's comedy can even be seen in Quentin Tarantino's INGLORIOUS BASTERDS (2009) which has a sequence involving a German actress (Diane Kruger) working undercover with a British intelligence officer (Michael Fassbender) and American soldiers, disguised as Nazis, to try to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Lubitsch would be pleased to know how beloved his little comedy has withstood time and remains a classic, poking fun at his theater roots while condemning a mad dictator and his murderous regime as the Great War began.