Saturday, July 5, 2008

Target #221: To Be or Not to Be (1942, Ernst Lubitsch)

TSPDT placing: #94
Directed by: Ernst Lubitsch
Written by: Melchior Lengyel (story), Ernst Lubitsch (story) (uncredited), Edwin Justus Mayer (screenplay)
Starring: Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack, Felix Bressart, Lionel Atwill, Sig Ruman, Stanley Ridges

With my supply of Billy Wilder pictures rapidly dwindling, I decided to turn my attention to the filmmaker who is generally agreed to have been the writer/director's foremost inspiration. Born in Berlin in 1892, Ernst Lubitsch began his film career as an actor in 1912, and writing and directing duties followed just two years later. He swiftly made a name for himself in German cinema, and, recognising the greater resources to be found in Hollywood, relocated to the United States in 1922, under contract with Mary Pickford. Talented writer Billy Wilder – also born in Germany – worked with Lubitsch on two pictures, Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938) and Ninotchka (1939), and the influence to be found in Wilder's later work is unmistakable. Stalag 17 (1953) was a courageous comedy picture in its own right, approaching Nazicism and prisoners-of-war in a lighthearted fashion, but Lubitsch's To Have and Have Not (1942), released at the height of World War Two, is in a completely different league of audaciousness. War-time propaganda has never been so much fun!

The picture opens with a peaceful street in Warsaw, Poland in 1939, where humble citizens are leisurely going about their business. Suddenly, everybody turns in shock, staring in disbelief at the person who has just sidled up to Mr. Maslowski's delicatessen window – could that possibly be Adolf Hitler? It turns out, however, that he is merely an actor engaged in a local theatre production, where famous performers Joseph and Maria Tura (Jack Benny and Carole Lombard) are staging a Nazi satire. On the eve of opening night, political forces prevent the play from being performed, but those sets and costumes certainly aren't going to go to waste. After Hitler's army marches into Poland without warning, throwing Warsaw into disarray, it falls to these actors to prevent the leakage of top-secret Allied documents to the Gestapo. To avoid execution, Joseph Tura must deliver the acting performance of his career, all the while keeping an eye on his wife, whom he suspects of being unfaithful with a handsome Polish pilot (Robert Stack).

The early years of the 1940s provided a unique assortment of Hollywood pictures, with war-time propaganda reaching its manipulative, patriotic climax. Most filmmakers responded to the current political climate with super-serious and often unconvincing drama, but a select few – including Charles Chaplin with The Great Dictator (1940) – decided to unveil the comedic side of war, often layered beneath the tragedy of conflict and persecution. To Be or Not to Be spends a few too many minutes on Robert Stack's comparatively uninteresting Allied spy, but, as soon as Jack Benny re-enters the equation, the farce kicks into full-gear. German-born Sig Ruman is hilarious as the bumbling Col. "Concentration Camp" Ehrhardt, and Billy Wilder obviously thought so highly of the performance that he cast the actor as the very-similar Sgt. Johann Schulz in Stalag 17. We always enjoy seeing our film heroes cleverly out-wit the foolish bad-guys, and when the bad-guys are none other than Adolf Hitler and his band of Nazis, victory is very sweet, indeed.

Currently my #2 film of 1942:
1) Casablanca (Michael Curtiz)
2) To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch)
3) The Major and the Minor (Billy Wilder)
4) The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles)
5) Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (John Rawlins)

16th Academy Awards, 1943:
* Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture - Werner R. Heymann (nomination)

National Film Preservation Board, USA:
* Selected for National Film Registry, 1996

What others have said:

"Ernst Lubitsch indulged in a bit of wartime duty with this classic, carefully mixing his usual brand of sophisticated humor with a bit of bittersweet. Jack Benny stars as Joseph Tura, a Polish actor playing the most unlikely Hamlet in the universe... It's a great setup, but things fall apart when the Nazis attack Poland. The theater troupe finds itself in a deliriously sticky plot, which has Tura disguising himself and his wife playing into the hands of a Nazi sympathizer. That Lubitsch can balance all this with the same grace and fervor is only a small testament to his genius. Yet because of its upsetting subject matter, To Be or Not to Be is not usually the Lubitsch I reach for when I'm in the mood for a smart comedy. Chaplin did a slightly better job on a similar topic two years earlier with The Great Dictator."

"It's held up marvelously over the years, hurtling forward with its dizzying blend of laughs and intrigue. Jack Benny and Lombard star as the Turas, Poland's most celebrated stage performers and part of an acting troupe that eventually finds itself involved in a complex scheme to stop a Nazi spy from exposing the members of the Polish underground. Character actor Sig Ruman scores his best role as a bumbling German officer... whose ineptitude foreshadowed the Nazis on Hogan's Heroes, while 33-year-old Lombard's final appearance ably showed her adeptness at both comedy and drama. The script is jam-packed with memorable quips, though I've always had a soft spot for Tom Dugan's ad-lib in a play in which his character portrays Der Fuhrer: "Heil Hitler!" "Heil myself."

"Today, hindsight supports To Be or Not to Be as one of Lubitsch's best films, even if for the rest of his career he remembered the critical and commercial thumping that greeted his seltzer-bottle mockery. It's not The Shop Around the Corner or Trouble in Paradise, perhaps, but it's a Lubitsch film and it's about something. It still works as a rip-the-Reich comedy unmatched in its audacity until Mel Brooks' The Producers, which captured its spirit better than Brooks' own remake in '83. And while it's also remembered as Lombard's last film, it's good to know that she considered it the happiest experience of her career."

No comments: