Before my best friend suggested this film for our fortnightly movie night, I had never heard of it. I know, it’s quite surprising, but like most people, I’d always associated Carole Lombard with My Man Godfrey and the other screwball comedies that she shone in.
But the thing about To Be or Not To Be, is that it’s like a screwball comedy that’s been transplanted into 1942. But before I get into that, let me tell you a little bit about the absolutely raucous plot.
Carole, and Jack Benny play Maria and Joseph Tura, Polish actors who are quite renowned in their home country for their Shakespearean work. Although Joseph is nowhere near as good an actor as Maria is beautiful. When the Nazis invade Poland, things begin to change. Not only is everyone rather petrified of being outed to the Gestapo, but the theatre troupe that Maria and Joseph are part of, are told to not put on a show entitled–well– Gestapo, as no one wants to further inflame things. However, this is the least of Joseph’s problems. Unbeknownst to him, Maria is carrying on with a soldier, who keeps having assignations with her during Joseph’s ‘To Be Or Not To Be” monologue, causing him great professional distress. And on top of all that, Maria and Joseph become embroiled in a plot, thanks to Maria’s young soldier lover, to kill a Nazi spy, and try not be killed by the Nazis themselves. Everything farcical and ridiculous that could happen, does, to absolutely hilarious effect.
There are many things that I adore about this movie, but first and foremost, I think that Ernest Lubitsch is in absolute top form. With his usual wit and wisdom, he crafts a tale which both conveys the seriousness of the Nazi occupation in Europe and shows the lunacy of bureaucracy and war.
“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 of how dangerous the situation might be, which I believe is a true observation. It can be argued if the tragedy of Poland realistically portrayed as 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…
In any other director’s hands, this film would fall apart at the seams with alarming effect, but Lubitsch keeps the pacing so perfect, that you find yourself descending into paroxysms of laughter, and keen to know what new hilarity will befall our heroes and heroines.
A prime example of this brilliant pacing, are the scenes in which Jack Benny first pretends to be a senior Nazi officer so that he can route out the dangerous double agent; and then pretends to be said spy so that he can cover up the real fate of the spy. This kind of portrayal of the complexity of espionage and wartime politics with such facetiousness, would later be repeated in Allo, Allo!
Like René in that classic British farce, Lombard and Benny find themselves in increasingly dangerous, but absurd, situations. And Benny is made both a cuckold and shown to be rather cowardly, throughout the film, only coming out as a hero in the end due to sheer happenstance and the work of others. The final sequence of the film, where he once again feels utterly affronted because a young man gets up during the titular monologue, reinforces his ego and lack of awareness. Benny plays the scene so well that you find yourself laughing right through the credits.
As for Carole Lombard, our lady of the hour, she shines as always. She looks absolutely heartbreakingly beautiful in this film, and her acting is of the highest calibre. There are few actresses who possessed or possess the comedic timing which Carole made look so effortless. Throughout the film she easily moves between the beautiful, knowing and unfaithful wife, to the very brave actress turned spy. She and Benny have fantastic chemistry, matching each other beat for beat, him with OTT glee and her with a subtle eyebrow raise and tilt of her lovely chin.
Carole shows her incredible timing in one of my favourite scenes of the film. When the double agent tries to seduce Carole’s character, Maria, and recruit her as a spy, the entire scene is made even more fantastic by the way in which Carole pokes fun at the vamp image. Although she is dressed in beautiful evening clothes and giving faux smouldering looks, you want to giggle the entire time, because the physicality of her performance, especially her face, is so hilarious, and at odds with her appearance.
Another scene in which she also sparkles, is when another Nazi tries to seduce her, and her facial expressions are even more hilarious and beautifully timed. The scene ends with her running after a fellow actor who is dressed as Hitler, shouting “Mein Führer!” in a delicious parody of that offensive title.
This was to be Carole’s last film, released posthumously after her tragic early death. But I think that it is a film worthy of such a talented comedic actress, who was so passionate about the war effort in real life. While her other screwball comedies, such as My Man Godfrey, are rightly associated with her, I think that this film deserves more recognition, and I am most pleased that it is being more associated with her legacy now.
This is my extremely late contribution to the always patient In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood, and Carole & Co’s Carole Lombard Memorial Blogathon. Please visit their blogs to read more tributes to this timeless star of the silver screen.