The original “To Be or Not to Be,” starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard (who was killed in a plane crash just two weeks after the filming of the movie ended), co-written (uncredited) and directed by Ernst Lubitsch, is one of the funniest satires I have ever seen.
It is on today, Saturday, Nov. 1, at 5 p.m. Pacific time (8 p.m. Eastern time), uncut and without commercials on TCM (Turner Classic Movies). If you don’t have a chance to see it or record it then, it is also available 24/7, for free, to stream on Hulu’s non-subscription service. It’s also uncut on Hulu, but it’s interrupted with commercials. Currently the movie is not available to stream on either Netflix or Amazon. [NOTE: The movie was remade, with the same title, starring Mel Brooks, in 1983. This commentary is not about that version.]
“To Be or Not to Be” was released in March 1942, just three months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and at the time of its release the war was not going well for the Allies. Here’s first word of the film written in The New York Times, in an article that was published, ironically, on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941: “Having spoofed the Russians two years ago with ‘Ninotchka,’ Ernst Lubitsch is now turning his attention to the Germans in ‘To Be or Not to Be,’ which he is producing and directing for United Artists. The story, he says, involves ‘the Lunt and Fontanne of the Polish theatre’ (played by Jack Benny and Carole Lombard) and their melodramatic adventures after the German capture of Warsaw” in 1939.
In fact, as Scott Eyman writes in his insightful, engrossing 1993 biography “Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise,” “ ‘To Be or Not to Be’ begins as a backstage farce, turns into a wartime melodrama, then begins intermingling the strands until, finally, it returns to farce at the end.”
Eyman adds: “At its comic heart ‘To Be or Not to Be’ is a black comedy. … The critical trouble Lubitsch encountered derived from the simple fact that black comedy wouldn’t be invented for twenty more years. While other directors — good ones — like George Stevens (‘The More the Merrier’) or Leo McCarey (‘Once Upon a Honeymoon’) were playing the war safe, sappy and ultimately sentimental, Lubitsch dared to satirize oppressor and victim alike.”
The critics who didn’t like the movie were merciless in their criticism, led by two critics writing for The New York Times. Critic Theodore Strauss, calling 1942 “a good year for bad pictures,” listed “To Be or Not to Be” as No. 3 (after “Two-Faced Woman” and “Bahama Passage”) on his list of the ten worst films of the year: “Jack Benny and Carol [sic] Lombard as a Polish acting team crack wise during the agony of Warsaw in a film that was one of the more offensively conceived efforts of the year. The so-called Ernst Lubitsch ‘touch’ developed calluses in this one.”
The Times’ lead movie critic, Bosley Crowther, was even more dismayed: “There is certainly no artistic warrant for such a shocking confusion of realism and romance as is especially notable in ‘To Be or Not to Be.’ And you’d think that the feelings of most persons would be completely outraged by a picture which airily banters within the wretched confines of Nazi-invaded Warsaw.”
Crowther notes that in the film Lubitsch shows Warsaw being bombed and the results of that bombing.
Then he writes: “Frankly, this corner is unable even remotely to comprehend the humor — or possibly the satire — in such a juxtaposition of fancy and fact. Where is the point of contact between an utterly artificial plot and anguish of a nation which is one of the great tragedies of all time? … [A]ll the way through this picture runs a strange imperception of feeling. You might almost think Mr. Lubitsch had the attitude of ‘anything for a laugh.’ ”
Some respected contemporary critics like the film no better. The late Pauline Kael of the New Yorker wrote that “Ernst Lubitsch, who directed, starts off on the wrong foot and never gets his balance; the performers yowl their lines …” She also says the pairing of Benny and Lombard is “bizarrely cast.”
One of my grandfathers came to this country from Poland, yet I disagree with both Kael’s criticism and the criticism that the film is a misfire and is offensive. Lubitsch was certainly not the first filmmaker to make fun of Hitler. Most notably Chaplin did it two years earlier in “The Great Dictator.” But Chaplin later apologized for making light of such evil.
But instead of having me defend Lubitsch, here’s Lubitsch defending himself, in a rebuttal he wrote to The New York Times that was published March 29, 1942. An excerpt:
I am accused of three major sins — of having violated every traditional form in mixing melodrama with comedy-satire or even farce; of endangering our war effort in treating the Nazi menace too lightly; and of exhibiting extremely bad taste in having chosen present-day Warsaw as a background for comedy.
It is true that I have tried to break away from the traditional moving-picture formula. I was tired of the two established, recognized recipes: drama with comedy relief and comedy with dramatic relief. I had made up my mind to make a picture with no attempt to relieve anybody from anything at any time; dramatic when the situation demands it, satire and comedy whenever it was called for. One might call it a tragical farce or a farcical tragedy — I do not care and neither do the audiences.
On the taste issue, Lubitsch asks whether the audiences who are laughing at “To Be of Not to Be” do so because they have bad taste. He says, resoundingly, no. Then he asks about the audiences:
Aren’t they aware of what happened to Poland? Did I try to make them look at Poland through rose-colored glasses? Nothing of the kind. I went out of my way to remind them of the destruction of the Nazi conquest. Should American audiences be so callous that those burning ruins of Warsaw make no impression on them? I don’t think that any one of us believes that. On the contrary, the many audiences I observed were deeply moved whenever the picture touched the tragedy of Warsaw. Never once have they laughed at the expense of Poland or the Polish people. They laugh at actors, they are amused by the antics of ‘hams,’ they laugh at something that is in no way typically Polish, but universal.
Do I really picture the Nazis so harmless that it might be a dangerous misleading of the American people by making them underestimate the enemy? I admit that I have not resorted to methods usually employed in pictures, novels and plays to signify Nazi terror. No actual torture chamber is photographed, no flogging is shown, no close-up of excited Nazis using their whip and rolling their eyes in lust. My Nazis are different; they passed that stage long ago. Brutality, flogging and torturing have become their daily routine. They talk about it with the same ease as a salesman referring to the sale of a handbag. Their humor is built around concentration camps, around the sufferings of their victims.
Are those people really so harmless? Do I minimize their danger because I refrained from the most obvious methods in their characterization? Is whipping and flogging the only way of expressing terrorism?
No — the American audiences don’t laugh at those Nazis because they underestimate their menace, but because they are happy to see this new order and its ideology being ridiculed.
Lubitsch must have known what a critical lashing the movie would take, given the sensitivities during the war. But he courageously made the movie his way anyway, and produced a brilliant film that simultaneously skewers the Nazis, makes fun of the vanity of some actors and their sometimes “ham” nature, and yet, ultimately, celebrates the best side of our humanity.