To Be or Not to Be is a delightfully comic take on a dreadfully momentous topic.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Young people may not recognize Jack Benny at all, and for those old enough or interested enough the comedian is probably best remembered for his long-running radio and television shows. What folks sometimes forget is that he also starred in over a dozen full-length motion pictures, among them "Artists and Models" (1937), "Buck Benny Rides Again" (1940), "Charley's Aunt" (1941), "George Washington Slept Here" (1942), "The Horn Blows at Midnight" (1945), and his very best film, the minor comedy classic considered here, "To Be or Not to Be."

Yet it's Carole Lombard who gets top billing, and she, too, is at her best. It would, tragically, be her last film, released a few months after her death in a plane crash in January, 1942. She was only in her early thirties when she died, but she had been a star for well over a decade and had been in pictures since her early teens. She perfected her craft, and it shows, her character in "To Be or Not to Be" a subtle, sophisticated, sexy, and seductive woman who charms everyone around her.

Things begin in Warsaw, Poland, in 1939, just before the Nazi invasion. An acting troupe, which features Benny's character and Lombard's, is producing a Nazi parody, filled with hammy actors. At one point in the rehearsals, the troupe's production manager, Dobosh (Charles Halton), looks at the makeup on the actor playing Hitler and complains, "It's not convincing. To me, he's just a man with a little mustache." To which someone replies, "So is Hitler." This exchange sets the tone for the story to come; not only is the play within the movie a parody, the whole movie mercilessly lampoons the Führer and his murderous flunkies.

But before the main plot commences, there is a semi-romantic subplot that must be developed, which eventually becomes essential to the goings on. Benny plays Joseph Turu, a very bad and very conceited stage star who heads the acting company. He's so egotistical, he demands not only that his name be placed first in the billing but that it be bigger than the title of the play itself. Benny's mastery of the slow, dramatic pause was never used to better effect than when a single person in the audience keeps walking out on his "Hamlet" soliloquy.

The person walking out is young Lt. Stanislaw Sobinski (a young Robert Stack, who was in movies before Adam), a Polish aviator with a crush on Turu's wife, Maria (Lombard). Maria loves her husband, mind you, but he is something of a bore, and she is looking for a little adventure, so a possible indiscretion takes place. Anyway, Turu's "To be or not to be" line is Sobinski's cue to get up from the audience and conduct his private trysts with Mrs. Turu while the husband is away. Maria's maid, Anna (Maude Eburne), says of the young lieutenant, "What's he want you to do, adopt him?" I mean, he is a bit younger than Maria.

When her husband complains about this guy getting up and walking out, we get a wonderful exchange between him and his wife:

Tura: "It happened. What every actor dreads. Someone walked out on me."
Maria: "Maybe he had a sudden heart attack."
Tura: "I hope so."
Maria: "If he stayed, he might have died."
Tura: "Maybe he's dead already. Oh, darling, you're so comforting!"

But when Poland is attacked by Germany, the play is closed, the Nazis take over the city, and Lt. Sobinski joins the Polish Squadron of the RAF. It's here, and about time, that the main plot kicks in. Sobinski learns that a German spy, Prof. Siletsky (Stanley Ridges), is in Warsaw with papers that name members of the Polish underground. Siletsky must be stopped, and it's up to the acting troupe to come back into the picture and save the day. To get to Prof. Siletsky and his secret papers, the players pretend to be uniformed Nazis and fool him into a trap. Benny's Turu must put on the performance of a lifetime, first as Col. Ehrhardt, the Chief of the Gestapo, and then as Prof. Siletsky himself. As one member of the troupe puts it, the fate of a country is left "in the hands of a ham."

"So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt? Well, well...." --Jack Benny

The movie gets funnier and more biting as it goes along, turning from its romantic-dramatic beginnings to something far more farcical. Possibly the most uproarious scene is between Benny, pretending to be Prof. Siletsky, and the real Col. Ehrhardt, played by Sig Ruman. You may remember Ruman from the Marx Bros.' "A Night at the Opera" and "A Day at the Races," here playing the same sort of officious stuffed shirt. Believe it or not, Ruman is one of the most amusing guys in the picture, and the scene is a riot.

At the time of the movie's release, America had little knowledge about the full extent of the Holocaust in Europe. But the Jewish question is touched upon in "To Be or Not to Be" through the heroic actions of one Polish Jew, Greenberg (Felix Bressart), another member of the acting company called upon to impersonate someone--in this case, himself. Some viewers of the day found the whole idea of the film in bad taste, but since then we have come to see it as another example of the power of laughter to help deflate the world's ills. Besides, the movie never makes light of its subject matter; it only ridicules evil and goes out its way to point up the seriousness of the situation.

Mel Brooks remade the movie in 1983 with himself in the lead, his wife Anne Bancroft, Tim Matheson, Charles Durning, and Christopher Lloyd; and while it was funny, it did not match the wit or style of the original, which was directed by longtime witty and stylish director Ernst Lubitsch ("Design for Living," "The Merry Widow," "Ninotchka," "The Shop Around the Corner").

The 1942 "To Be or Not to Be" skewers the Nazi regime as a propaganda film every bit as effectively as Chaplin's "The Great Dictator," and in its own way, it's funnier. Today, the historical context is diminished only slightly, and its humor remains intact. "To Be or Not to Be" is a delightfully comic take on a dreadfully momentous topic.

The picture is presented in the usual 1.33:1 ratio format of the day (actually 1.37:1 but who's counting?) in black-and-white. There are some flecks, lines, smudges, and scratches to be seen from time to time, especially at the start of new reels, which means at the beginning at the movie, too, and I hope it doesn't discourage anyone. Once the reels get underway, the video clears up considerably. There is a touch of grain here and there as well, and overall a soft, faded quality. It's not much, but just enough to blunt the B&W contrasts a tad. Although the larger, outdoor shots and big set pieces show up worst, the smaller, more intimate scenes that comprise probably ninety percent of the picture show up in very good condition. So, parts of the film are well above average, while other parts are only so-so. I doubt that most admirers of the film will notice.

The monaural soundtrack is rendered via Dolby Digital 1.0 processing, which no doubt cleans it up quite a bit. Nonetheless, the sound is still somewhat hard and edgy, especially the Chopin polonaise playing behind the opening credits, and there is a noticeable background noise during quieter dialogue. Again, this will not distract most viewers because they'll be caught up in the film's plot and characters, but be aware this is not state-of-the-art audio.

There are really only two bonus items, and only the first of them is of any serious interest. First, Benny stars in the twenty-minute MGM comedy short "The Rounder." Filmed in 1930 and co-starring Dorothy Sebastian and George Arthur, it has its cute if rather innocuous moments. Second, Benny appears with little Carolyn Lee ("Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch") in a Wartime promo, "Buy Savings Bonds! A Patriotic Dream," that lasts all of a minute and a half and was obviously made for the government as a part of the War effort. In addition, there are twenty-six scene selections; English the only spoken language; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles.

Parting Thoughts:
As I've said, it takes a while for "To Be or Not to Be" to get rolling, but once it does, especially in the last half hour or so, it can be downright hilarious. Benny was never funnier, Lombard was never more engaging, director Lubitsch never more clever, nor Sig Ruman more scene stealing. For its drama, its satire, and its human comedy, the movie remains a minor comedy classic.


Film Value