Friday, May 15, 2009

To Be Or Not To Be (1942)

Norweigan film poster.

To Be Or Not To Be
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
USA 1942
99 min

See it on YouTube here.

The year is 1939. A vain actor and theatre manager in Poland, Joseph Tura (played by Jack Benny, who Lubitsch had in mind when he wrote the part), slaughters Shakespeare's Hamlet on the stage while constantly struggling with his flirtatious wife Maria (played by the adorable Carole Lombard in her last role before her tragic death). All the while he's working on a play, Gestapo, satirizing Hitler. (Just like this film does. Meta?).
Soon he and his theatre group gets more serious things on their minds, as Nazi Germany invades Poland. Soon the whole tribe is pulled into a mess of espionage, traitors and impersonations of Nazis, where their acting abilities really are put to the test.
And I guess that no one is surprised to see Sig Ruman in the role of a Nazi villain. But since he's wonderful in those kind of roles, why not?

Tom Dugan's Hitler impersonation in the famous introduction scene.

Today it may not be so easy to imagine what a controverse this film caused. Ernst Lubitsch had as a German Jew moved to America in the 1920's, and had at this time made a name for himself for his stylish, inimitable comedies. Even though he at first was hesitant about the idea of this film, his ambition was to use his famous "Lubitsch touch" to bring the Americans' attention to the occupied Poland. The result was ingenious and brilliant, but shocking to the contemporary audience who didn't feel comfortable to joke about the cruelty of The Second World War. The film flopped. In countries like Sweden the film did not reach the theatres until 1947, a decent amount of time after the war had ended and the subject had cooled down.

Today, however, the greatness of this black comedy has been appreciated, and in 2006 Premiere voted this film as number one on the list of "The 50 Greatest Comedies Of All Time".

Carole Lombard talked herself into the role, that at first was meant to be a smaller comeback for Miriam Hopkins, who's career had started to slow down. The latter declined the part since she couldn't stand Jack Benny. Lombard's husband at the time, Clark Gable, had a feeling about the reception of the film and tried to talk her out of it. As one can see, he did not succeed - all to our greatest delight.

After the filming Lombard said many times that the filming of To Be Or Not To Be was the happiest experience in her life. She died in a plane crash two months before its release. Due to that, the line "What can happen on a plane?" was cut out, since it was considered to be in poor taste after the tragedy. In later restorations the line has been put in again, but no matter how hard I've tried to locate such a version, I've failed.

Scene: A collection of scenes from the film, beginning with the godforsaken "To be or not to be" speach. You have to be a great actor to act so badly.


Josef Tura: I went to Dobosh and told him when he advertises the new play to put your name first.
Maria Tura: Did you, darling? Oh, that's sweet of you, but I really don't care.
Josef Tura: That's what Dobosh said, so we left it as it was.

Josef Tura: [disguised as Professor Siletsky - speaking about Maria Tura] Her husband is that great, great Polish actor, Josef Tura. You've probably heard of him.
Colonel Ehrhardt: Oh, yes. As a matter of fact I saw him on the stage when I was in Warsaw once before the war.
Josef Tura: Really?
Colonel Ehrhardt: What he did to Shakespeare we are doing now to Poland.

Anna: What a husband doesn't know won't hurt his wife.

Professor Alexander Siletsky: Shall we drink to a blitzkrieg?
Maria Tura: I prefer a slow encirclement.

Carole Lombard as Ophelia. Colorized by Lolita.


Millie said...

Oh, I LOVE this movie! I watch it over and over and over! Carole is just amazing in it.

I do believe my DVD has the line "What can happen on a plane"...but I'm not certain. Guess I'll have to watch it (yet) again and find out...

Elizabeth said...

What a great movie! I'm a huge fan of Jack Benny! I'm glad you did a post on it!

Lolita said...

Oh, do that! And if you find that the line is in, please let me know - I'd like to know what DVD edition I should buy! (Yes, shame on me for not having it yet...)

Great that you liked it! I've posted no less than three times today, I hope not too many missed my chain-smoking-women-tribute two posts ago!

Anonymous said...

Oh Lolita, I'm watching it right now! I blame you =D

I forgot how much I, like Millie, LOVE this film! It's funny that after Tom Dugan salutes himself, one of my most favorite parts, I banged my fist on the armchair at the exact same time Dobosh banged his fist on the table.

It's such a gem, j'adore it so very much!

Classic Maiden said...

As everyone else, I love this movie SO MUCH. Ernst Lubitsch was a master director no doubt, and seeing Lombard and Benny together is just wonderful.

I've had it on a bad VHS for many years, and ironically I just bought it on DVD the other day hehe finally! :)

best wishes,

Lolita said...

Haha! Yes, I laughed so much at his nonchalant handwave and "Heil myself." Oh, and when Lombard has found "the perfect dress" for her concentration camp scene, haha!

Classic Maiden:
Oh, really a coincidence, indeed! Damn, I need it...

VP81955 said...

Keep in mind that "To Be Or Not To Be" was nearing completion at the time Pearl Harbor occurred. Had that attack not happened (forcing the U.S. into active participation in World War II), the film might have been received more warmly by American audiences.

Of course, had Pearl Harbor not been attacked, Carole Lombard likely would have been alive at the time the film opened (another reason it did poorly; given the public's dour wartime mood, this wasn't the movie they wanted to remember her by).

Lolita said...

Thanks for completing the information! Stories around the production of films can be really interesting and fascinating. And it's so damn typical that we loose the promising actors and actresses early, Lombard was an ingenious comedienne.

Meredith said...

this is one of my favorite films, and the opening sequences is one of the greatest opening sequences EVER imo. the first time i watched it i could not stop laughing (and i still can't). bahh carole =/

Anonymous said...

Elsie said...

Such a great, quotable movie!!