When it was released in 1942 Ernest Lubtisch’s To Be Or Not To Be was considered in poor taste; its wicked satire about a troupe of Polish actors masquerading as Adolph Hitler and his high-ranking Nazi stooges completely going over the heads of most critics, perhaps understandable in light of America’s looming involvement in the European conflict that had engulfed half the hemisphere in flames. That the film has acquired something of a cult following over the years is a testament to Lubitsch’s brilliant handling of the material which could have so easily devolved into rank cornball comedy or even immature slapstick. It does neither.
Rather, Lubtisch uses the glitz and froth of the sophisticated European romantic comedy – undeniably his forte – to create a brilliant burlesque; as deliciously devious in its premise as it scathingly flies in the face of Hitler’s tyranny. Such indictments of Nazi Germany were unthinkable only a few years earlier, until Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) debuted; Hollywood’s appeasement largely predicated on keeping their foreign distribution markets open just a little while longer.
But by 1942, Europe had bigger issues to contend with than what was playing at the local Bijou on a Saturday night – if, in fact, anything was playing there at all. Hence, the Hollywood machinery did an about face, flooding the market with anti-Nazi wartime propaganda and patriotic flag-wavers. These became all the rage and arguably, the norm.
Yet upon further analysis, To Be Or Not To Be is quite unique for its time. Indeed, I cannot think of another movie that so completely defies Hitler’s might with an intellectual smite of its own. First, it dares to reincarnate the scourge of Europe as a misguided mania set into motion by buffoons, enterprisingly thwarted in its penultimate triumph by a troupe of arguably cruddy actors fronted by an A-1 ham (played to mellifluous perfection by Jack Benny). Second, it treats neither the occupation nor the conflict as anything but grand amusement; the jesters wily and spirited, their Nazi counterparts, mere victims of a silly farce. Perhaps the creative choices made by Lubitsch and screenwriter Edwin Justus Mayer were deliberately designed to blunt the ruthless realities of the war for audiences back home in 1942: negating a Nazi Germany that was cold, calculating and determined to exterminate one third of the population under its absolutism.
But I have always believed that Lubitsch had a more ingenious purpose in mind; namely to debunk the myth of Nazi Germany as an unstoppable mechanized force and to bolster support and morale for the Allied Forces. You can get away with a lot using comedy to tell a more revealing truth; in effect sugar-coating what was then a very bitter pill for Britain and America to swallow; the tide of the war not yet having turned in either’s favor. And To Be Or Not To Be is perhaps the pluperfect illustration of that inefficiency – nee, rank evilness of Nazism – reflected as nothing better than common stupidity run amuck; ergo, easily penetrable and ultimately doomed to defeat.
Our story begins under a thoroughly brilliant and absolutely false premise; Adolph Hitler’s arrival in Warsaw, Poland; screenwriter Edwin Justus Mayer’s reflection on world events already taken place but yet to occur within the context of the actual film; thus, foreshadowing the clever deceptions yet to follow. However, the Hitler that crops up in front of a delicatessen in downtown Warsaw is actually Bronski (Tom Dugan) a second-string actor cast as Der Fuhrer in the Polish repertory company’s planned spoof, Gestapo, currently in rehearsals. Told by his stage manager that his performance is entirely unconvincing, Bronski decides to take to the bustling streets in full Nazi regalia, convinced he will be accepted by the crowds. At first the hoax seems to be working. Fearful onlookers gather as Bronski strikes an intimidating pose on the street corner. But then a young girl cautiously approaches to ask for his autograph, adding “Thank you, Mr. Bronski.”
All of this is merely prologue. For our story really isn’t about Hitler or the looming invasion of Poland, but actually a takeoff of spousal infidelity inadvertently turned into international espionage. We meet the feuding Tura’s; Joseph (Jack Benny) and Maria (Carole Lombard). He’s a ham actor with an invidious jealous streak. She’s a minor diva who takes her art more serious. Joseph needs constant reassurances that he is a fine actor – perhaps because he’s not - his ego intermittently placated by Maria who arguably doesn’t believe any of the accolades she affords him.
The transparency of their love is tested when Maria decides to invite Lieut. Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack), a handsome flyer, backstage during Joseph’s Hamlet’s soliloquy, the line “to be or not to be” becoming their code for Sobinski to exit the theater for another flirtatious rendezvous with Maria backstage. Sobinski’s departure rattles Joseph’s fragile sense of self-importance. But he needn’t worry about Maria’s fidelity.
In point of fact, Maria isn’t serious about Sobinski and proves it when he suggests they break the news of their being “mad about each other” to Joseph and she informs him that there is absolutely nothing to tell. Meanwhile, rehearsals for Gestapo are delayed, then indefinitely suspended when the government intervenes, suggesting that a satire of Hitler would not only be lacking tact but may further incur Der Fuhrer’s wrath. War is declared and Sobinski is recalled to the RAF in England where he meets Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges) who announces to the men under his training his own intentions to return to his beloved Poland.
The flyers all give Siletsky the names of their friends and family that they would like him to contact upon his arrival. But when Sobinski asks Siletsky to get in touch with Maria Tura, using the code ‘to be or not to be’ as his message, he takes distinct notice that the Professor does not know who she is, suggesting to Sobinksi that Siletsky has not been in Warsaw before or at least for some time and that his trip to Poland now is predicated on ulterior motives.
Sure enough, imparting this discovery to his superiors, Sobinski learns that Siletsky is working for the Nazis. In haste, Sobinski rushed back to Warsaw to forewarn the resistance, the city already under siege from Hitler’s blitzkrieg. After parachuting behind enemy lines, Sobinski barely escapes the Nazis, hurrying to Maria’s apartment. She agrees to carry his message to the nearby bookseller (Wolfgang Zilzer) - also working for the underground - by slipping a photo of Siletsky with an explanation inscribed on the back between the pages of a copy of Anna Karenina. Siletsky sends two Nazi soldiers to collect Maria and bring her to the hotel he is staying at, actually a stronghold commandeered by the Nazis. Fearful that she has been found out, Maria realizes Siletsky’s motives are of a more lascivious nature and decides to play along for the sake of deflecting her involvement in the resistance.
Meanwhile, Joseph returns to his apartment to discover Sobinski fast asleep in his wife’s bed. Assuming the worst, Joseph confronts Sobinski just as Maria returns with news that Siletsky has invited her to dinner. Dressing her best for the part, Maria entertains Siletsky’s overtures to a point; even allowing him to kiss her. But just then Rawitch (Lionel Atwell), another member of the theatrical troupe decked out in Nazi finery, arrives at the hotel, declaring that Siletsky is needed immediately at headquarters.
Instead, Rawitch takes Siletsky to the theater where Joseph, disguised as Nazi Colonel Ehrhardt, is waiting to confiscate Siletsky’s documents; thus preventing them from falling into the wrong hands. At first Joseph’s subterfuge works and Siletsky hands over his attaché. However, as the two continue to awkwardly wax about future fortifications, Siletsky becomes increasingly suspicious of Joseph. When Siletsky suggests that he should return to his hotel because he is planning to seduce Maria, and furthermore, divulges that a Polish flyer also gave him a message, ‘to be or not to be’ to give to her, Joseph flies into a rage, revealing his true self and forcing Siletsky to hold him at gunpoint.
Attempting an escape through the theater, Siletsky is gunned down by Sobinski on the stage. Returning to Siletsky’s hotel on a mission to destroy the rest of his detailed documentation about the resistance still contained inside one of his trunks, Joseph, in an impeccable disguise is instead met by the real Col. Ehrhardt’s adjutant, Captain Schultz (Henry Victor). Schultz’s orders are to immediately escort Siletsky to the real Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman). Passing himself off as Siletsky, Joseph attends Ehrhardt and learns of Hitler’s pending arrival in Warsaw the next afternoon.
Unfortunately, the next morning the Nazis discover the real Siletsky’s body hidden in the theater they hoped to use for Hitler’s evening reception. Ehrhardt sends for Maria and informs her of the murder. She feigns astonishment and sorrow, but then rushes back to forewarn the theatrical troupe that the jig is up. Unfortunately, she arrives too late. Joseph, disguised as Siletsky, is already well on his way to a rendezvous with Ehrhardt prearranged from the night before.
Smelling a rat, Ehrhardt plays along with Joseph but then pretends to be interrupted with an important communiqué from Berlin and asks if Joseph would not mind waiting in the next room until the matter is resolved. Joseph agrees and quickly discovers Siletsky’s body propped in an armchair. Realizes he has walked into a trap, Joseph regroups with a brilliant plan.
He shaves Siletsky of his real goatee and then affixes the spare of his own fake he carries around in his pocket for emergencies to Siletsky before recalling Ehrhardt and his men into the room with an air of confidence to declare that Siletsky is the imposter. Removing the fake goatee to prove his point, a befuddled Ehrhardt apologizes to Joseph. It is a near-perfect swindle until Rawitch and other members of the resistance barge into the room dressed as high-ranking Nazi officials, unmasking Joseph and pretending to place him under house arrest. Rawitch threatens Ehrhardt that Hitler shall hear of his incompetence; an ongoing gag leading Ehrhardt to chronically blame Schultz instead.
Regrettably, Rawitch’s intervention is only partly successful. For having revealed Joseph as a fraud to Ehrhardt he cannot now escape aboard the plane Ehrhardt had arranged for Siletsky and Maria. Since it is only a matter of time before the entire resistance is exposed, the actors band together for one last coup. On the eve of Hitler’s arrival at their theater, Bronski – once more disguised as Hitler, hides in the men’s bathroom together with Joseph and the rest disguised as Nazis while another from their group, Greenberg (Felix Bressart) slips into the women’s bathroom and pretends to be an Allied spy.
Emerging at just the right moment, Greenberg is apprehended by real Nazi soldiers who are there to guard the real Hitler, but interrupted in their interrogation by Joseph and his men. Believing that Bronski is actually Hitler the soldiers release Greenberg into Joseph’s custody. Everyone hurries downstairs to get into the entourage of vehicles that brought Hitler and his men to the theater in the first place.
Joseph loses his fake moustache in the car, ergo he cannot return to the hotel to collect Maria. Bronski agrees to go in his stead. In the meantime, Ehrhardt, still believing that Maria is on their side, has come to her apartment to make his own romantic overtures known. Maria informs him that she is waiting for another man. But he is relentless until Bronski’s arrival as Hitler. This leaves Ehrhardt completely flabbergasted. Maria escapes with the rest of the actors aboard the plane arranged by Ehrhardt. Once in mid-flight, Bronski orders the Nazi pilot (Helmut Dantine) to bail out. Believing this to be a direct command the pilot obliges and Sobinski takes the controls to charter everyone to freedom. Bronski parachutes down over Scotland, a pair of farmers amazed to discover him still dressed as Hitler. In the final moments, Joseph is seen performing Hamlet on a stage in England, his line ‘to be or not to be’ prompting a handsome RAF pilot seated directly behind Sobinski to suddenly hurry away – presumably for his own rendezvous with Maria, much to both men’s chagrin.
To Be Or Not To Be is an exceptional wartime comedy. But it also remains a very sad farewell to Carol Lombard; the actress killed in a plane crash on Jan. 16, 1942 while on a war bond mission. Lombard’s on-screen image as a much cherished madcap is more subdued herein, her moments of comedic brilliance derived from an almost intuitive understatement and the occasional improvisation. It is, of course, just an act. Lubitsch tirelessly coached both Lombard and Jack Benny in their performances.
Benny always gave Lubitsch full credit for his and in point of fact has never been better in the movies. Sig Ruman and Felix Bressart are old pros; both giving their characters their all, particularly Bressart, whose impassioned delivery of Shylock’s speech from The Merchant of Venice (‘Hath a Jew not eyes...etc., etc., etc.’) that his character Greenberg always hoped to play on the stage now becoming a pivotal and, indeed, impassioned moment of introspection in the movie after he is apprehended at the theater.
Criterion unveils To Be Or Not To Be is a stunningly handsome transfer, its 1.37:1 B&W image derived from original camera negatives. With the exception of two or three brief scenes, the image is razor sharp, with exceptional contrast and accurately reproduced grain. Warner Home Video released To Be Or Not To Be to DVD back in 2002. But then the image suffered from age-related artifacts and an annoying gate wobble during the last third. All of these aforementioned shortcomings have been corrected on Criterion’s HD release. The transfer is clean and sparkling. So too has the mono sound greatly improved from its predecessor with crisp dialogue and exceptional clarity between dialogue and effects.
Historian David Kalat gives us one of the best audio commentaries heard in a very long time, supremely detailed on the film’s production as well as world history, and also, making clear and concise comparisons to other WWII movies that really crystalize the reasons why To Be Or Not To Be is such an exemplar of the genre. Criterion also gives us Lubitsch le patron: a near hour long tribute to the director from 2010 that is fairly comprehensive. We also get Pinkus’ Shoe Palace; a 1916 German silent not only directed by Lubtisch but also stars him as well. Two Screen Guild Theater radio broadcasts round out the extras. There’s also a 25-page booklet featuring solid insight from historian Geoffrey O’Brien. Bottom line: given the quality of the transfer and the extras this time around, this is the definitive rendering of To Be Or Not To Be on home video It belongs on everyone’s top shelf!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)