When Ernst Lubitsch borrowed the title for his comedy To Be Or Not To Be from Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy, he couldn’t know how grimly apropos that choice would become. The film was already grappling with unusually weighty subject matter: Opening commercially in March 1942, less than a year after America entered World War II, it dares to poke fun at Hitler and the Nazi regime, and in a way that’s arguably more barbed than Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. But it also turned out to be the final film made by its female lead, Carole Lombard, who died in a plane crash seven weeks before its release. That’s a somber legacy for a gag machine, even one as serious-minded as this. Contemporary reviews reportedly praised Lombard to the skies, but sniffed that the rest of the movie was in regrettably poor taste. Only with the distance of many years were people finally able to recognize it as a classic.
Even if this weren’t the case, it would still be notable as one of the very few movies to feature radio and TV legend Jack Benny in a role more substantial than a cameo. He and Lombard play actors in a Polish theater company who, thanks to Lombard’s flirtation with a pilot (Robert Stack), inadvertently find themselves working with the Resistance, using all the tricks of their mutual trade. Lombard pretends to seduce a Nazi spy (Stanley Ridges), while Benny impersonates both that spy and a Gestapo colonel (Sig Ruman), doing his best to spout totalitarian talking points (“We do the concentrating, and the Poles do the camping.”) even as he tries to prevent the Nazis from taking possession of a secret list containing the identities of the Polish Resistance fighters. Everything comes to a head in a theatrical production attended by Hitler himself, at which Benny and Lombard’s troupe attempt to take the Führer’s place and flee the country.
Because the second half of To Be Or Not To Be, once Benny starts impersonating Nazis, is so outlandishly hilarious, it’s easy to forgive the film’s comparatively sluggish first half, which is mostly setup for gags to come (and which heavily features Stack, who wouldn’t become funny until Airplane! nearly four decades later). On his long-running radio and TV program, Benny more or less invented, and perfected, the archetype of the self-regarding schlemiel; here, he plays that character again, but in a context that continually requires him to pretend to be the very people he despises, thereby transforming that persona into an aggressive form of self-loathing. It also affords him endless opportunities to mine humor from desperate improvisation, parroting phrases he’d previously heard from Ruman. And all the while, without sacrificing laughs, he manages to convey the true gravity of the situation—so strongly, in fact, that it’s hard to believe that contemporary audiences and critics found the film offensively glib; it’s anything but.
It’s also easier now to recognize Lombard’s performance as sturdy support for Benny rather than as the career highlight emotionally necessitated by her sudden death. Lombard was a great comedian, but she did much of her best work in lesser-known films like Hands Across The Table and The Princess Comes Across (both opposite Fred MacMurray, a great foil for her), which gave her more room to cut loose. No matter the context, however, she was able to put a dizzy spin on lines that would choke another actress. When Stack tells her he’s nervous because he’s never met an actress before, she replies “Lieutenant, this is the first time I’ve ever met a man who could drop three tons of dynamite in two minutes”—which is a great double entendre on paper, but gets transformed into something more rapturous by her dreamy delivery, then punctured by a breezy “Bye!” spoken in the very same breath. It takes a genius to make “Bye!” the funniest part of that exchange, and it’s our good fortune that such moments were captured in a medium that endures—allowing the answer to Hamlet’s question to be, “Both.”
Also this week:
In a sparse week for catalog titles, Universal releases a stand-alone Blu-ray of Alfred Hitchcock’s divisive Marnie (1964), starring Sean Connery, which was previously available only as part of a massive box set. Kino adds A Bay Of Blood (1971) to the titles in its Mario Bava Collection, while Creepshow 2 (1987) offers three more horror tales adapted from Stephen King stories, including the gruesome “The Raft.”
Sarah Polley’s acclaimed personal documentary Stories We Tell is the highlight of the new releases, which also include Michael Shannon as The Iceman, Colin Firth as Arthur Newman, and various Cockneys and zombies as Cockneys Vs. Zombies. The black-and-white silent Spanish import Blancanieves has a stellar reputation, and there were smaller pockets of critical support for both Rob Zombie’s The Lords Of Salem and Studio Ghibli’s animated From Up On Poppy Hill, two films that otherwise have exactly nothing in common. Finally, the asshole-magician thriller Now You See Me and the deliberately craptacular Sharknado also hit stores, just in case people have run out of matches and can’t actually set their money on fire.