To Be or Not to Be (1942): Lubitsch Vs. The Nazis

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“What he did to Shakespeare, we are doing now to Poland.” – Ehrhardt about Josef Tura

Our story begins in Warsaw during peacetime. In some sense, this is a period piece because the gulf between the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the comparably idyllic years prior could not be more starkly different. The world still maintains its innocence.

And yet, what’s this! A stir in the streets. Taxis stop. Heads turn. What are they gaping at? It’s none other than Adolf Hitler walking down Main Street! How in Hades did he get there? It catches the audience off guard, though not as much as seeing Jack Benny in a Gestapo uniform.

Of course, this sequence is all part of a performance as the stage elements fall away. The story focuses on a theater troupe trying to carry on with Europe in an uproar. From a purely theatrical perspective, this allows To Be or Not To Be license to literally lift Hamlet’s own play within a play (or in this case a movie) structure. So now with the framework set in place, there is ample space for meta qualities, breaking of the fourth wall, and with it, satirical commentary.

Joseph and Maria Tura are an acting power couple with dueling vanities headlining Hamlet. Carole Lombard, in ravishing dress, is elegance personified. Imagine, this was my first impression of her before dipping into her screwball filmography. It suits her in her final screen performance.

What an odd choice Jack Benny seems for this picture. Even today, he’s far more well-known for his radio show, violin playing, and his public persona as the hand-to-cheek comedian. He was a contemporary of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby but never managed the same share of the box office. Regardless, Lubitsch saw something in him no one else was willing to consider. He’s not exactly Laurence Olivier, but that’s precisely the point.

However, we are also reminded how theater is communal. The hammy Lionel Atwill is always pushing the envelope, both in life and reality. It takes his colleagues to rein him in. The spear holders Greenberg and Bromski, meanwhile, dream of roles that might one day actually utilize their talents. Their exacting director Dobosh (Charles Halton in one of his more animated performances) keeps the egos in check and the performances grounded in the material.

Circumstances always seem to get in the way of the best-laid plans. Maria has a handsome admirer (Robert Stack), who repeatedly visits her backstage, much to her husband’s chagrin. No, he doesn’t know about their private meetings. It’s the fact the young man gets up repeatedly during his “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy; he doesn’t take kindly to the insult. Yes, he’s a jealous husband, but his whiny, puffed-up ego is the first thing to be affronted.

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Another slap to the face comes when their new play, “Gestapo,” gets nixed because it might offend Hitler, so they keep Hamlet going instead. It signals a change. It means War! The Nazis roll into Poland, and the city takes a hit. Bressart looks on glumly, uttering a fitting observation, “There was no censor to stop them.”

The embodiment of evil — in all its grotesque idiocy is Colonel Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman) — his orders posted up all around the city. We don’t get the fine print, but we get the gist: concentration camps, the death penalty, and being shot on sight are frank enough.

But the roots of Nazism are even more insidious. They have snuck behind enemy lines. Stack is among those who band together in the Polish branch of the RAF freedom fighters. In good faith, they pass on goodwill to loved ones to a Professor Siletsky — only for his wires to get crossed. They must eradicate the mole.

This is no goofy charade and Lubitsch sells out to tell the story. In this regard, he lends his players an amount of dramatic integrity. The menace is overt throughout the picture. For instance, when Stack parachutes back into Poland and flees into the night as a patrol of German fan out to intercept him.

In her own harrowing arc, Maria Tura is taken by the Gestapo. However, there’s nothing quite so sinister about it — at least in terms of her person — they offer a proposal for her to become a spy. She has to think about it.

Her husband, Joseph, has his own conundrum in the form of a befuddling Goldilocks moment, finding a young man sleeping in his bed. He does one of his iconic double-takes followed by others in quick succession as he makes his way around the room leaning over the bed. It couldn’t possibly be his soliloquy defector, could it?

For the entire acting troupe, their greatest performances are called upon to intercept the Nazi spy with his incriminating cache of papers. They rebrand their theater as Gestapo headquarters with Tura cast as their irrepressible lead, struggling to originate such an uncharted role. He’s eventually relieved of his ad-libbing responsibilities when he can take on a more biographical role — based on, shall we say, previous experiences.

The petty feud and marital jealousies between Mr. and Mrs. Tura remain an undercurrent to all their valorous acts. One of their constant marks is the oaffish tyrant portrayed by Ruman and his bumbling underling Captain Schultz. In fact, with Rugman later playing a joking barracks guard in Stalag 17 (1953), it’s hard not to see the origins of Hogan’s Heroes own roly-poly Sergeant being conceived.

There’s an obvious issue at the core of the story. Because, despite their best efforts, there are now two Siletskys running about. It leaves a lot of explaining to do, and the Nazis are reasonably suspicious.

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The final act is the finest. They make the most solemn Nazis out of the bunch the night of the show. Even if it is fiction, it still makes the hair on my arms stand on edge — all the men in Nazi uniforms streaming into the theater, standing in unison to salute.

Felix Bressart finally gets his chance to play Shylock in the most crucial turn of his career, and he brings every ounce of pathos he has into the performance. The recontextualization of the passage takes on new import pregnant with so much meaning. It is an assertion of such dignity in the face of such an egregious and ugly juggernaut as the Nazi war machine.

Truthfully, one of the hardest elements to appreciate about To Be or Not to Be is just how layered and multifaceted it remains. Being bred on Hogan’s Heroes and knowing a bit of the Lubitsch repertoire, there are some preconceived notions about what we might be exposed to. And the film certainly has wit, but we must be careful here lest the indignant get the wrong idea.

It’s quite alright to not like the film. I can only gather there are many detractors because this history is so deeply devastating. It carries so many wounds and grievances for the atrocities committed against not only Poland, but the Jews, and anyone else who was considered a target of the Nazis. The controversy is founded for these reasons. Rightfully so, I might add. Perhaps the picture is making light of this.

In my earlier days, I even believe I tried to defend this and other earlier films suggesting they could not have known the extent of the Nazis. This too seems a weak argument. And yet when I watched the film this time, I was reminded just how sincere even profound it is in-between the lines.

Yes, Benny at the center seems vain and conceited — this American comedian known for a very particular shtick — but then I look to Carole Lombard. Never has she been more majestic and extraordinary. Then the likes of Felix Bressart and Tom Dugan are forlorn while still carrying a quiet dignity about them. They get the laughs but with a straight face. They understand the gravity of what they are taking part in.

It’s too convenient to say To Be or Not To Be was ahead of its time. Certainly, there was controversy and the resolution to WWII was far from a foregone conclusion. Thus, it makes Lubitsch’s perceptiveness all the more startling. Likewise, there’s the defense he made of his work even going to the papers to do so. This is an excerpt of what he said:

“What I have satirized in this picture are the Nazis and their ridiculous ideology. I have also satirized the attitude of actors who always remain actors regardless how dangerous the situation might be, which I believe is a true observation. It can be argued if the tragedy of Poland realistically portrayed in To Be or Not to Be can be merged with satire. I believe it can be and so do the audience which I observed during a screening of To Be or Not to Be, but this is a matter of debate and everyone is entitled to his point of view.”

Ironically, here the touch of Lubitsch is not so much a comic fingerprint or sophisticated implementation of visual or even sensual comedy. What I am left with is the veracity and the bravery of his humanity. Not many men would be bold enough to make this film and then double down on what they had created.

4.5/5 Stars

Hollywood Canteen (1944)

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This propaganda extravaganza showcases Hollywood in all its glory from the Brown Derby to the Hollywoodland sign and of course the pride and joy of wartime morale-boosting, the Hollywood Canteen.  It’s a bit of a faux reality, Hollywood’s rendition of what real life might actually be like since the Hollywood Canteen did in fact exist.

Historically, it began as an effort by John Garfield and Bette Davis of all people to support the troops and give them quality entertainment from the entertainment capital of the world. Though newsreel footage might serve as a better historical marker (albeit still biased), there’s no questioning the patriotic waves flooding through this picture.

True, even in this film there are anecdotes that point to a slightly different reality. Namely the fact that this was meant to be a Hollywood wide endeavor but all other studios balked and so the lineup is filled out by Warner Bros. catalog of stars and them alone.

Furthermore, it’s easy to surmise that far from being overcome by patriotic fervor, Joan Crawford probably took her role because the alphabetical billing conveniently put her above a couple perennial rivals in Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck.

Even with its authenticity in question, there’s no doubt that the film boasts talent. There’s an inexhaustible array of song & dance from the likes of the Andrew Sisters, Roy Rogers (with Trigger) and Jimmy Dorsey.  The stars also come out in full force with cameos from everyone conceivably under contract to Warner Bros from Kitty Carlisle, Jack Carson, Joe E. Brown, Ida Lupino, Jack Benny, and of course Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet staying in character. Each one provides enough star power to fill in the idle moments around our main love story.

Still, there’s no doubt that Joan Leslie was one of America’s sweethearts and it’s no coincidence that our protagonist falls head over heels for her all the way in the South Pacific. The pair of lovebirds represents all that is seemingly good and upright about American ideals even if she is a movie star and he is only a common soldier.

That makes the prospect of actually meeting her beyond his wildest dreams, but Hollywood purportedly is in the dream making business and so Slim gets his wishes granted. A date with his dream girl is soon arranged by those tactful matchmakers Davis and Garfield.

Robert Hutton is almost uncannily reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart who was at the time leading bombing raids over Germany. It seems little coincidence that he would then land the crucial role as the universal soldier Slim — a man who saw his share of action and is home for a short spell — before heading out on his next tour of duty.

He represents all the boys fighting for not just the Red, White, and Blue but every color and creed. In his very starry-eyed and candid way, he mentions each one as the camera picks each out of the crowd. Curious the only group not mentioned were members of the Japanese-American infantry. Yet another incongruity with the world at large. But the red carpet that is rolled out for him at the Hollywood Canteen is meant to be only a small recompense for all his service to his country.

Delmer Daves’s picture much like Stage Door Canteen (1943) fits the realm of saccharine propaganda, even blatantly so, but if you allow yourself to be carried away by the historical moment it has its certain charms.

True, the Home Front or the Allied cause isn’t quite as unified and squeaky clean as it claims to be just as humanity on the whole and the stars behind Hollywood rarely could hold up to scrutiny. However, there’s still something here that can make you smile. Publicity stunt or not. Maybe it’s the romantic in me that likes to believe there’s at least a kernel of truth in here and if nothing else there’s honest to goodness sincerity.

3.5/5 Stars

To Be or Not to Be (1942)

Starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard with director Ernst Lubitsch, the film follows a group of actors in Poland during the outbreak of World War II. All too soon their act seems to be in jeopardy and they must put on the most important performance of their lives. Benny and Lombard are a husband and wife acting duo, who with the help of their troupe must stop a spy from giving damaging information to the Nazis. With the help of their acting and disguises, they are able to pull off the monumental task. This satire is so extraordinary because it made fun of the Nazis and found humor in that subject at the same time their villainy was occurring. Benny certainly seems out of place in Poland and he is not much when it comes to performing Hamlet, but I suppose that’s part of his charm. He is so vain and suspicious of his wife and yet he ends up a hero.

When I first saw this film I expected major laughs and it really does not have that, at least not in the way that Chaplin lampooned Hitler in the Great Dictator. Here Lubitsch weaves a somewhat darker story and yet it causes us to smile because of this Polish acting troupe that embodies the words of Shakespeare that “All the world’s a stage.” He meant it to be metaphorical but they take it to heart and their acting turns into reality. The bit player Greenberg goes as far as reciting the Jewish part of Shylock from the Merchant of Venice and it ultimately saves their lives. As such the film often switches back in forth from stage to actuality and pretty soon it is hard to separate them. The the plight of these people was close to Lubitsch, but he also was adept at the romantic comedy. Thus, despite the constant bickering and the trials faced by Joseph and Maria Tura, we cannot help but laugh at their love story. To Be or Not to Be is not your everyday comedy, but instead it occupies its own unique niche. Hopefully no one walks out on it!

4/5 Stars