"To Be Or Not To Be" Shuffles Back On The Mortal Coil Review

One of the best lines uttered by Alan Alda's insufferable buffoon in Crimes and Misdemeanors is that comedy equals tragedy "plus time", arguing that anything, no matter how horrible, becomes funny if you've waited long enough (the same idea was explored memorably by South Park). There's a kernel of truth in there, but as a maxim, it's almost wholly refuted by Ernst Lubitsch's comedy To Be Or Not To Be. Released in 1942, To Be would be roughly analogous to a 2002 biopic of Osama Bin Laden featuring Adam Sandler and Rob Schneider. Starring your grandmother's favorite comedy duo of Jack Benny and Carole Lombard, the film has the almost queasy effect of laughing down a gun barrel, almost knowing full well that the worst was yet to be revealed. In the hands of lesser talent, it almost surely would have been a disaster, but To Be is so sharp, so verbally dense that you hardly get a moment to think about what they're really saying.

At the time the film came out, the full extent and specificity of the Holocaust was not yet known, nor was the nature of his racial enmity. Hitler had made statements regarding the Jews, but he was known, as much as anything as one of any number of fascist dictators devouring Europe at the time. So when he directs his attention to the Warsaw theater company that houses Joseph and Maria Tura (Benny and Lombard), it's part of an ongoing war on intellectuals, creative types, and actors as much as on Jews (the fact that they're producing a comedy called Gestapo certainly didn't help). Thrust out of work and into the underground, the company takes up with the Polish resistance; much to Joseph's consternation, his wife Maria takes up in more ways than one. Infuriated by a young lieutenant's (Robert Stack) advances, Joseph looks to take on the greatest roles of his life: Nazi Colonel Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman), in a bold play to save the resistance movement from the double-crossing Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges). What follows is as hare-brained (in planning and execution) a scheme as ever came out of screwball comedy. To reveal in full would be criminal, but suffice it to say that it is a plan that could only be conceived by actors. It is fault-ridden, impractical, and entirely self-indulgent; then again, the Gestapo were prepared for spies. Who knows if they had a contingency plan for Shakespearean hams?

Two years prior, Charlie Chaplin released The Great Dictator, that other great takedown of racists, Nazis, and people who take themselves too seriously. While that film was no less bold, Chaplin couldn't resist adding a sentimental call-to-arms at its closure, ending the film on a rather hopeful note. No such comfort is to be found in To Be Or Not To Be. Its portrait of both Nazis and those fighting them is merciless and irreverent as even The Producers dared not to be. The SS could hardly be more ridiculous, turning the phrase "Heil Hitler" into a Pavlovian call and response, while the actors in the Polish underground never miss an opportunity to indulge their trade, even when disaster is imminent. But throughout, the threat of Nazism is never minimized, particularly when the ghoulish form of Professor Siletsky is nearby or the images of bombed out buildings sit collapsed in the background. Rather than stifling the comedy, it serves to remind us that Lubitsch knew exactly how much he was flirting with disaster, and just how appalling his sense of humor really is. Because it never seeks to distance itself from its subject, To Be Or Not To Be is just as shocking as it is hilarious, and a potent call to never forget.

SPECIAL FEATURES

The disc also contains Pinkus’s Shoe Palace, a 1916 German silent short by Ernst Lubitsch, with a new piano score by Donald Sosin, Lubitsch le patron, a 2010 French documentary on the director’s career, and two episodes of The Screen Guild Theater, a radio anthology series: Variety (1940), starring Jack Benny, Claudette Colbert, and Lubitsch, and To Be or Not to Be (1942), an adaptation of the film, starring William Powell, Diana Lewis, and Sig Ruman. There's also the signature booklet featuring an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien and a 1942 New York Times op-ed by Lubitsch

"To Be Or Not To Be (The Criterion Collection)" is on sale August 27, 2013 and is not rated. Comedy. Written and directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Starring Jack Benny, Carole Lombard, Robert Stack, Stanley Ridges.

Sep
10
2013
Anders Nelson • Associate Editor

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