Tuesday, September 1, 2009

To Be Or Not To Be

It's an irreverent, silly, lightweight World War II comedy/thriller that plays fast and loose with historical facts, including having some fun at Hitler's expense, with a grand climax at a theater, where actors mingle among the Nazi elites. And no, it's not Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. (Though, as promised, more on that tomorrow at The House Next Door.) It's Ernst Lubitsch's To Be Or Not To Be, released in 1942, just shortly after the US finally entered World War II. It's an interesting film, mixing elements of drama and thriller plotting with lightly comic sexual wordplay and dark-edged satire. The film centers around the Polish underground resistance during the Nazi occupation, particularly the actors in a theatrical troupe who get mixed up in a plot to prevent a Nazi spy from delivering information to the gestapo. The Polish bomber pilot Sobinski (Robert Stack) returns to Warsaw on the trail of Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges), who is supposed to be working with the Polish resistance but instead plans to turn everything he knows over to the Nazis. In order to prevent this, Sobinski reunites with some friends back in Warsaw — or more accurately, one friend, the famed theater actress Maria Tura (Carole Lombard), and her jealous actor husband Joseph (Jack Benny), who suspects, perhaps rightly, that his wife was having an affair with the young Sobinski.

These melodramatics are pushed aside, of course, in order to foil Siletsky's planned rendezvous with the Germans, and that's when the fun really starts. The film opens slowly, particularly when dealing with the possible romance between Sobinski and Maria. These scenes, set immediately preceding the Nazi invasion of Poland, establish the characters at the theater: the domineering director Dobosh (Charles Halton), the hammy Rawitch (Lionel Atwill), the earnest Greenberg (Felix Bressart), who was born to play Shylock, and the sidelined Bronski (Tom Dugan), who doesn't even get a big break when he's asked to play Hitler in a forthcoming play. His ad-libbed line, "Heil me," does indeed, as Greenberg says, get a big laugh, though Dobosh won't allow such innovations from the lowly actors. In any event, the Hitler play gets put off by the arrival of the real Germans, and the film's uneven pacing finally begins to kick into high gear once Sobinski arrives back in Warsaw. Lubitsch skims over the details of his arrival and various escapes from the Germans, eliding much and skipping straight ahead to the sight of the young soldier sleeping in Maria's bed. This in turn leads into a complicated and very funny three-way exchange of wits between Maria and Sobinski, who are trying to halt a spy plot, and Joseph, who can't get past the fact that there's a young man in his wife's bed.

The arrival of the young man in question gets Maria and Joseph, along with the rest of the actors, embroiled in a plot to stop Siletsky and destroy all the evidence he planned to hand over to the Germans. From this point on, the film is a delight as Lubitsch revels in the deceit and disguises and elaborate performances within performances: no one is who they seem, everyone's playing a part, and life frequently imitates art. At one point, Joseph poses as a Nazi officer for Siletsky, and later finds himself in the exact opposite position, playing Siletsky in front of the real Nazi officer he'd imitated earlier. He's gratified to find that the real officer is using some of his own lines: "yes, that's how I thought you'd react," he says after the officer unknowingly repeats one of Joseph's own ad-libs, and the officer misses the hidden double meaning, the satisfaction of an actor who realizes he'd played his part well. Moreover, the officer repeats a joke that was told earlier in the Hitler comedy the theater troupe had been planning to put on, and Joseph naturally falls into the rhythms of the scene, letting it play out the way it had in the script.

This kind of joking interplay between reality and art reaches its peak at the climax, an absurd farce in which Bronski's turn as Hitler comes in handy, and a couple of actors get to lead around an SS troupe, blithely commandeering an enemy plane for themselves. Even better is the moment when Bronski, still disguised as Hitler, sneaks into an apartment, confusing a Nazi officer who thinks the Fuhrer is here for a secret tryst. These confusions and missed meanings proliferate throughout the film, in which dual identities and fake beards are everywhere, so much so that Rawitch's line as a fake Nazi officer — "What do you have to say for yourself? Here is a man with a beard and you didn't even pull it?" — actually makes a weird kind of sense. It's great fun, but always tinged with an element of dark humor, and an acknowledgment of the genuine horror of the Nazis. Sig Ruman and Henry Victor, as a pair of bumbling Nazis, are cartoonish but also casually evil, reporting on shootings with a smug satisfaction; their tone implies, "of course we shot him." Lubitsch treats them as ridiculous, and pathetic, completely blind to their own evil. Ruman's Nazi colonel is fascinated by the Fuhrer as though Hitler was a glamorous celebrity, and he eagerly awaits anecdotes about his leader, basking in the presence of someone who's even met the great man. Lubitsch makes these characters absurd, but no less dangerous for it — they're cruel and stupid in roughly equal measures.

Siletsky, on the other hand, is not so stupid, though he is perhaps just as easily fooled by the disguises and guile of actors. He's also of course easily seduced by a pretty face, and Maria allows herself to be wooed by him at one point, woozily slurring "heil Hitler" after being kissed, as though his affection had changed her affiliations. The film all works on cartoon logic like this, and at its best it has a kind of Looney Tunes energy, as in Joseph's uncomprehending double takes upon finding Sobinski in his wife's bed. There's also of course much wit in the sexual double entendres of the script. In one of the best, Siletsky asks Maria, "should we drink to a blitzkrieg?" Her retort, delivered with a deadpan purr and a raised eyebrow: "I prefer a slow encirclement."

To Be Or Not To Be is a charming, sophisticated black comedy, one which simultaneously mocks the Nazi enemy and exposes the ugliness of the situation, the terrible things done by these ludicrous cartoons (there's a montage of Nazi street signs early on, promising multiple varieties of horrible death for various minor infractions). The film is far from perfect, and gets bogged down in its first half-hour by routine melodramatics and the boring performance of Stack as the would-be young lover. It's also marred by the periodic appearance of an overbearing "stirring" voiceover, which thankfully disappears once the main story starts coming together. A more basic problem is the inconsistent accents and the fact that Germans and Polish alike are all speaking English. This is to be expected, of course, in a Hollywood film of the time, but it's always distracting in films like this, especially ones where the differences between languages are so crucial to the plot. One inevitably wonders how the Poles keep posing as German soldiers so convincingly. The accents, some of them theatrically British and some of them more authentically eastern European, are a further distraction.

Even so, within this context Benny and Lombard deliver fine comedic performances, broad and delightfully hammy, particularly in the scenes where Maria has to convince her husband that he's a fine actor before each performance. These scenes are hilarious because it's so obvious that Maria is acting, that this is a routine and that there's no real feeling in all their melodramatic spats and tearful reunions. They're characters who, as with Lombard's earlier, similar turn opposite John Barrymore in Twentieth Century, are always acting. The film doesn't always hold together, and its nonsensical plot is just the flimsiest of excuses on which to hang its comic set pieces. But it is a weird and low-key delight all the same.


John said...

The opportunity to see Benny and Lombard together is worth the price of admission, and more. Granted the film does not hold together all the time, it is slow going at the beginning and you do have to deal with Robert Stack as his usual constipated self but for me those are minor complaints.

I think your statement here says what is best about this film.

“To Be Or Not To Be is a charming, sophisticated black comedy, one which simultaneously mocks the Nazi enemy and exposes the ugliness of the situation…”

Well done as usual!!

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, John. I agree that Benny and Lombard provide the highlights. It's fun to watch the two of them together, gleefully hamming it up.

Sam Juliano said...

"And no, it's not Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds."

LOL Ed!!!! Indeed it's not, even if the new Tarantino film is really generating delirious discourse everywhere you look. It's actually closer to Chaplin's THE GREAT DICTATOR. Your ever-perceptive review admits there are some minor issues here, and I say kudos to you. This is NOT as great a film in the Lubitsch catalogue as TROUBLE IN PARADISE or THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER, and there are some tedious sections. But Benny's attempts at Hamlet's soliloquies are priceless, and the chemistry that both you and John speak of here between Lombard and Benny is magnificent. The heavenly Lombard was killed after this film, always placing her performance now in a much more poignant aspect. It's almost tearful to look at her and imagine what could have been. The title has to do with Poland's fate, but of course the Shakespearean context runs throughout.

My favorite line of this typically trenchant review is this:

"The film all works on cartoon logic like this, and at its best it has a kind of Looney Tunes energy, as in Joseph's uncomprehending double takes upon finding Sobinski in his wife's bed."


I will be sure to stop in at The House Next Door sometime tomorrow.

Krauthammer said...

This is a film I really need to rewatch. My dad showed it to me when I was still in elementary school, and I remember loving it but little else.

Tom said...

Hilarious movie!

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Sam. Lombard's death definitely casts a bit of a pall over this film, and the knowledge that this is her last role gives her good-humored mugging some added poignancy. She was always so much fun to watch.

Krauthammer, your dad must be cool.

Tom, I agree!

Dave said...

Ed - Excellent review of a movie that I've been re-watching lately myself. I've been on something of a Lubitsch kick and this ranks among his very best. I'll slightly disagree with Sam -- I DO think this is a better film than "The Shop Around the Corner." In fact, I would put it behind only "Trouble In Paradise" when trying to rank his amazing body of work.

I think John is spot on that the beginning is a little slow going, but once I got wrapped up in the film the first time around I was completely sold. I consider to it be one my favorite comedies of all time.

And I still chuckle to myself whenever I think about lines like "They call you Concentration Camp Ehrhardt" and "Yes, yes, we do the concentrating and the Poles do the camping." Or possibly my favorite: "What he did to Shakespeare we are doing now to Poland."

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Dave, I agree about all the lines you cite, which are great; I'm laughing now just thinking about them. I'll add though that The Shop Around the Corner is a real favorite for me, pretty much a perfect movie, and it definitely beats out the much rougher charms of To Be Or Not To Be.

sarcastig said...

I seem to be in the minority here: I absolutely loved To Be or not To Be, and was a bit disappointed when I saw Trouble in Paradise for the first time a few weeks later: it just didn't have the laughs, maybe because it lacked the surprise (or maybe BF and I were just in a better mood for TBonTB). I do dearly love The Shop around the Corner, though: it's the movie I always point my romcom loving friends to as an example of how much better the genre can be - though alas, they rarely listen

Dave said...

Ed - Don't get me wrong, I agree that The Shop Around the Corner is an outstanding film. I guess it just goes to show that when you're differentiating between the top work of a great director, it's tough to choose one film over another!

As I've discussed recently at other sites, I've really been into comedies of this era lately, particularly those of Lubitsch and Preston Sturges. So it was great to see this review from you yesterday. Great stuff.

Ed Howard said...

Sarcastig: We wholeheartedly agree on Shop Around the Corner, at least. Along with the work of Eric Rohmer and the screwball comedies of Howard Hawks, it's one of the most persuasive proofs of the fact that "romantic comedy" need not mean soulless sentimental pablum.

Dave: Very true, when a director is working at as high a level as Lubitsch is, all comparisons like this are strictly relative. It's all good stuff.

VP81955 said...

Some thoughtful comments on this film. I'm delighted mor and more people are discovering the charm and sharp wit of Lubitsch, whether it be in "To Be Or Not To Be" or his early talkies with Maurice Chevalier and/or Jeanette MacDonald. (Jazz up your lingerie!)

I run a blog dedicated to Lombard's life and times, "Carole & Co.", and last month I discussed the problems United Artists had in marketing this film:


nem baj said...

Just my two zlotys...

As noted, Tura's scene as the fake Ehrardt with the real Siletsky is mirrored with himself as the fake Siletsky with the real Ehrardt. Shylock's plea, first introduced while Greenberg is moving snow with Bronski, is mirrored twice : once with Siletsky alongside Maria Tura ('we are human...'), and last of course with Greenberg and Bronski again, this time in costumes (costumes which, as often in Lubitsch, make the man) - but within an inverted scenery : in the theater backstage has become the stage, the restrooms are used as dressing rooms and the play occurs behind the cabins. Several times in the movie the parts and/or the scenery are reversed, each time with a heightened tension.

For the longer 'To be or not to be' goes on, the more people must play if they don't want to die : this is of course true of the Polski theater company, but true also of the Nazis, including Ehrardt and Siletsky (a spy, an actor). Tura must play a living Siletsky in front of his dead model, in order not to become a corpse himself - the ultimate part, promised to Tura a few scenes earlier by Siletsky ('Did you ever play a corpse, Mr. Tura?') in a line that will be echoed years later in Hitchcock's North by Northwest - another movie with a Hamlet title - by Vandamm and Kaplan. No wonder M. Stack seems out of tune : he's the only one in the cast who never set foot on a theater stage.

Once the nazis are in Warsaw, the whole Lubitsch decorum crumbles down. The archetypal door eiher won't open, putting the life of Tura in danger. Or it will be waited upon in fear (Maria Tura in the hotel room). Or it will be closed on death (Ehrardt's), or opened on death (the two german pilots). Caviar and Champagne can't be enjoyed. Sex is bargained for a few eggs. Language is reduced to either gimmicks or orders ('Jump!'). It is not only about war : although none of the bunch of central european exiles that have participated in this movie have experienced first-handedly - except for Félix Bressart - the actual rule of fascism, 'To be or not to be' is a remarkable expression of the inexorable shrinking of life that characterized the era (abundantly described, from Viktor Klemperer's or Mihail Sebastian's diaries, to Polanski's Pianist).

'To be or not to be' is imho one the most complex movies of Ernst Lubitsch. It is also a poignant tragicomedy reaching to human truths through a mad carousel of lies, as I can't help thinking that the elaborate rubik's cube which helps the company get away, however elegant and hilarious, is no match for the situation they're dealing with - which can alas only be rendered in the awe and disbelief of so many faces in close-up shots.

PS : about the actors speaking English - does anybody care if Hamlet doesn't speak Danish ?

Ed Howard said...

Fantastic comments, nem baj, thanks for chiming in. There's definitely a lot going on in this movie, and I like how you've drawn out the relationship between play and survival, the necessity for doubles and mirrorring and duplicity - art and theater are presented as a kind of necessary lie, lies that sometimes also contain the truth that can't be spoken directly.

As for my quibble with the language in the film, it's just that, a quibble, and one I often have problems with. When a film relies, as this one does, on ostensible differences in language and accent, it causes some cognitive dissonance to hear English and know that sometimes it's actually German, sometimes Polish, etc. A very minor complaint though. It bothers me not at all in Shop Around the Corner, for example.

nem baj said...

Well, I do understand that it may not be everyone's favourite Lubitsch movie, and it's not mine either, however I think it should not be underestimated at all - something I actually indulged in for a long time. Beware of the reformed!

About the language : your quibble is of course justified. However 'To be or not to be' may not be about Germany invading Poland, but rather telling the fight of the Witz against the Geist...