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.