Wednesday, October 20, 2021

To Be or Not to Be (1942), a Daring Mixed-Genre Satire from Ernst Lubitsch

This Hollywood-savvy item appeared in the December 1932 issue of Vanity Fair,   “…although a German director [he] is now claimed by America. His gay and cynic touch, his dramatic use of detail, have reconditioned many an otherwise anemic script and saved it from the shelf – until at one time the studio wise-crack of the hour was always, “For God’s sake, send for Lubitsch.”

Hollywood first sent for Ernst Lubitsch ten years earlier when, in 1922, Mary Pickford, impressed with his German films and by then dismissive of American directors, offered him the opportunity to direct her in a film she hoped would facilitate her transition from ingenue to mature roles as well as allow her to prove her depth as an actress. The film was Rosita (1923), an operatic period piece about a gypsy girl (Pickford) who attracts the amorous attentions of a king. The film was successful enough that Lubitsch, who saw great career promise in Hollywood, was able to settle there, making him one of the first European directors to decamp to the film capital.  Lubitsch didn’t work with Pickford again but soon entered into a sweet deal with Warner Bros. that assured him great freedom as a filmmaker. He was able to select his own projects, retain his own production staff, work only with writers with whom he wished to collaborate, and shoot and cut his films with minimal oversight.  Lubitsch would go on to make less epic, more intimate fare, eventually producing and directing a string of witty and urbane films
, primarily for Paramount and MGM but also for others, that made his name as one of the great directors of Hollywood’s classic era.

The Vanity Fair blurb appeared not long after one of Lubitsch’s early sound classics, Trouble in Paradise, was released by Paramount in October 1932. His next feature would be another cosmopolitan comedy for Paramount, Design for Living (1933). In 1934 he produced and directed the Jeannette MacDonald/Maurice Chevalier musical, The Merry Widow, for MGM and then – in a move that surprised most of Hollywood – Paramount hired him as its Chief of Production in 1935. This assignment lasted only a year and Lubitsch would hastily return to his métier with Angel (1937), an underappreciated Marlene Dietrich film. In 1939 it was on to MGM and Ninotchka and then The Shop Around the Corner in 1940. Lubitsch was now at the pinnacle of his career and a legend among his peers.

Meanwhile, war raged in Europe. The political party that came to be known as the Nazis took power in Germany in January 1933 when Adolf Hitler became chancellor and within months assumed the role of dictator. When the German army invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, World War II began in Europe.

Ernst Lubitsch was Jewish. He may have emigrated from Germany to pursue a career in Hollywood, but he had also been well aware of the socioeconomic instability and political unrest in Germany at the time he left. When Hitler later became dictator, he apparently held special enmity for Lubitsch, a Jew who had had great success in Germany but departed for even greater success in the US. Perhaps this had something to do with why Lubitsch became a Nazi target. His image was used on denigrating public posters depicting degenerate “non-Aryans,” the Nazi regime banned his films starting with Design for Living in 1933, stripped him of his citizenship in 1935, and went on to use newsreel footage of him to negatively depict him in the notorious anti-Semitic propaganda film, The Eternal Jew (1940). By this time Lubitsch had been a US citizen for four years and would soon enough respond to Nazism with his audacious masterpiece, To Be or Not to Be (1942).

With To Be or Not to Be, Lubitsch would reveal an uncanny ability to combine diverse genres, ingeniously mixing and matching elements of political satire, bedroom farce, screwball, slapstick and espionage thriller. The film opens in Warsaw on the eve of the German occupation where the Theatre Polski, a troupe of Polish actors, is rehearsing its new anti-Nazi play, Gestapo. Bronski  (Tom Dugan), the actor who is to play Hitler, is so intent on proving his credibility in the role of the Führer, he marches out into the street in costume. His appearance causes a hubbub, frightening and confusing the local citizens...with one exception...

When Polish authorities insist that the incendiary play be cancelled, the group will continue on with Hamlet, featuring the theater company's star, Joseph Tura (Jack Benny), an inveterate ham, in the lead role. The fact that the troupe got as far as dress rehearsal with the cancelled play will account for its possession of Nazi uniforms the actors will later use to disguise themselves. The staging of Shakespeare's Hamlet will bring with it the line “to be or not to be,” key to a running gag involving Tura’s flirtatious wife Maria (Carole Lombard) and the young Polish pilot, Lt. Sobinski (Robert Stack), who is smitten with the actress.

The plot deepens. Following the German invasion, Lt. Sobinski discovers that a resistance leader, Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges), is actually a Nazi spy who is about to betray the Polish underground by turning over a list of names to the Gestapo. Before Siletsky can do this, the theater troupe lures him into a trap where he is dramatically dispatched. Joseph Tura will then impersonate the traitor in a series of tense encounters that culminate in confrontations that are resolved with - the yanking off of a false beard. Maria Tura will use her formidable charm to beguile and outwit libidinous Nazis, and though she does this with amusing panache, even she faces moments of terror. Bronski will have an off-stage opportunity to again portray Hitler and in doing so will save the day  – twice. Lowly bit player Greenberg (Felix Bressart) will be given a crucial role in the troupe's eventual escape plan, delivering lines he has practiced many times, Shylock’s famed speech from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, which he does in a heartfelt outpouring:

Referring to To Be or Not to Be's convoluted storyline, Francois Truffaut once declared that "...even if you've just seen it for the sixth time, I defy you to tell me the plot of To Be or Not to Be. It's impossible." There may be an element of truth in Truffaut's words, but the fact remains that the film is also a thoroughly entertaining, intelligent, brilliantly written and directed, perfectly cast tour de force. However, at the time of its release many critics were put off by To Be or Not to Be, particularly Bosley Crowther, the powerful, sometimes contemptuous critic with the New York Times. Perplexed by what he considered the film's "jangling moods and baffling humors," he wrote that it would be an understatement to call it "callous and macabre." Crowther panned the film more than once, prompting Lubitsch to pen an op-ed in reply. He wrote, "I am accused of...having violated every traditional form in mixing melodrama and comedy-satire or even farce; of endangering our war effort in treating the Nazi menace too lightly; and of exhibiting extremely bad taste in having chosen present-day Warsaw as a background for comedy." Lubitsch explained that he had intentionally moved "away from the traditional moving-picture formula" with To Be or Not to Be, " I was tired of the two established recognized recipes: drama with comedy relief and comedy with dramatic relief. I had made up my mind to make a picture with no attempt to relieve anybody from anything at any time; dramatic when the situation demands it, satire and comedy whenever it is called for. One might call it a tragical farce or a farcical tragedy - I do not care and neither do the audiences...The picture plays - and that is the only important thing..." Lubitsch would go on to defend lampooning the Nazis along with other aspects of his approach that had been critically slammed. Read the full text of his rebuttal here.

The Polski troupe: actors rehearsing, seeking shelter as bombs fall, outsmarting Nazis and...(over)acting

To Be or Not to Be would develop a reputation of having flopped at the box office. The timing of its release was terrible. It came out less than three months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor triggered America's entry into World War II and only six weeks after Carole Lombard's tragic death in an air crash. As mentioned, the film received little critical support, and United Artists wrote it off not long after it opened. But in reality, during its release To Be or Not to Be grossed twice the one million dollars it cost to produce. That's a moderate success, not a flop. And it would go on to earn an Oscar nomination for its score. Still, it was a film ahead of its time. Only later would Hitchcock have enormous success mixing genres (comedy/suspense thriller). Later still, Kubrick would concoct one of the blackest of all anti-war satires with Dr. Strangelove (1964). And even in the modern era To Be or Not to Be's relevance endures; in 2014 Wes Anderson cited its influence on his multiple award-winning showpiece, The Grand Budapest Hotel.

As sometimes happens with a true classic, time has been kind to To Be or Not to Be, now an acknowledged masterwork. Among filmmakers and film buffs, Ernst Lubitsch continues to be referenced with a phrase that was coined in his lifetime (1892 - 1947), "the Lubitsch touch." On revisiting To Be or Not to Be, Billy Wilder's thoughts on his mentor's enviable gift as a filmmaker seem apt:

"The Lubitsch touch is a light touch. But there are serious overtones in Lubitsch. He understood life..." 

and

"It was the elegant use of the Superjoke. You had a joke, and you felt satisfied, and then there was one more big joke on top of it. The joke you didn't expect." 

~

 This is my entry for the Classic Movie Blog Association's 2021 fall blogathon, "Laughter is the Best Medicine." Click here for links to participating member blogs. And enjoy!

 

 References:

How Did Lubitsch Do It? by Joseph McBride, Columbia University Press, 2018

"The Play's the Thing" by Geoffrey O'Brien for the Criterion Collection, 2013

Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, from Lubitsch to Sturges by James Harvey, Alfred A. Knopf, 1987 


 

20 comments:

  1. My appreciation for Lubitsch and for To Be or Not to Be never wans, however my knowledge can always be expanded and I have you to thank for the enlightenment.

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    1. If I've in any way added to your interest in/admiration for Lubitsch and To Be or Not to Be, I've done my job as a blogger :)

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  2. Beautiful post. Besides being funny and oh so poignant due to Lombard's death, it remains a brave and fearless comedy. And yes, you really do have to pay attention not to miss anything, it's that rich. It's one film that took a while for the world to catch up with.

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    1. I didn't mention in my post that I watched TBoNtB four times recently and each time I noticed something I'd missed up 'til then. As you say, it IS that rich. Thank you, my friend.

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  3. A magnificent post about a magnificent film. Jack Benny never had a great big screen career except for this classic and brave work for its time. A wonderful choice.

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    1. Jack Benny is so good in this that it's surprising he didn't get better offers after. He and Carole Lombard are sensational together.

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  4. I adore Lubitsch and his brand of sophisticated but absurdist comedy. Trouble in Paradise is my favorite of his, but To Be or Not to Be is a close second. I feel like this is a film that is best appreciated on a second viewing, which I had the good fortune to do on the big screen at one of my local cinemas. Perhaps not surprising that it wasn't an immediate hit.

    Thanks for linking Lubitsch's career and struggles with the Nazis with this film - a new dimension for me that helps me appreciate the film even more.

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    1. I agree that To Be or Not to Be is better appreciated on a second viewing. And it gets even better with a third and fourth and so on. I hope to have the chance to see it on a theater screen one day, always the best way to experience films. Glad to know you found the backstory interesting.

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  5. A wonderful essay on this wonderful film.

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  6. This is a perfect movie, in my opinion. Like you pointed out, Lubitsch creates a joke and keeps building on it, which is pure genius.

    I always learn about film when I come here.

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    1. The "Superjoke" is well illustrated in To Be or Not to Be. The very last scene is a delayed Superjoke. Hilarious. And genius, yes.

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  7. While I enjoy many of Lubitsch's earlier classics, I think To Be or Not to Be is his best, most polished Hollywood film. As you wrote, he effortlessly blends genres and creates a potent movie that's also very funny. Jack Benny and Carole Lombard make a delightful duo. While the Mel Brooks remake pales in comparison, it's still a surprisingly entertaining film with a first-rate Anne Bancroft performance.

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    1. It's such a perfect film and the mixing of genres is amazing. I think TBoNtB is not only Lubitsch's best but also his last great film. Definitely Benny's best work on film and arguably Lombard's. I saw the Mel Brooks version long before I saw the original, but I don't have much memory of it.

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  8. First-rate write-up, Patty. I especially enjoyed learning a bit about Ernst Lubisch -- I love his movies, but never knew much about him. Thanks for this great choice!

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    1. Thanks, Karen. There is, of course, much more to Lubitsch's story and there are two great bios out there, the Joseph McBride that I referenced and an older one from Scott Eyman.

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  9. I shamefully haven't watched this film yet, even though I've watched the 1983 remake with Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft. For sure this is a more poignant movie, made during the war and by Lubitsch. Great review!
    Thanks for the kind comment,
    Le

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    1. Thanks, Le. I've seen both versions of To Be or Not to Be, and I'll give credit to Mel Brooks for taking on a remake, but the one to see, the version that you'll return to, is Lubitsch's.

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  10. This was the film that first exposed me to Lubitsch and his genius. I searched it out after watching the Mel Brooks version. Love your write-up - always top quality!

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    1. Thank you so much. And what a great introduction you had to Lubitsch. I imagine you must've quickly searched out more of his films after seeing it.

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