To Be Or Not To Be is the first film I have ever seen directed by Ernst Lubitsch. I wanted to mention that because I typically like to draw comparisons to other films by the same director to get a frame of reference in their career. That said, I think this is an excellent starting point to raise interest in Lubitsch. On the strength of this film as a newcomer I immediately bought Design for Living, one of his pre-code efforts. It should arrive in the mail soon and I will review it once received. I was excited to watch this film because I had read that Wes Anderson was heavily influenced by Lubitsch and the writings of Stefan Zweig in his writing of The Grand Budapest Hotel, which was my personal favorite film of last year. I am a huge Wes Anderson fan, so on a whim I ordered this Criterion Blu-ray and a beat up paperback of The World of Yesterday by Zweig (which is excellent so far.) I know. I’m an obsessive.
Luckily, art begets art, and great art begets great art. To Be Or Not To Be is easily one of the best films I have seen from the 1940s. Comedies in particular are a tough sell from this time frame to be relatable to us now. I do enjoy screwball comedies like The Philadelphia Story or a Preston Sturges film, but this may take the prize for my favorite comedy I have seen from that era. The film works today for laughs just as well as it did back then. It is also very easy to see how much this film affected Mel Brooks, who loved it so much he would remake this film in 1983.
The plot of the film revolves around an acting troupe in Poland in 1941. Originally the troupe plans on doing a drama concerning the rise of Hitler. Due to circumstance this is scrapped to do Hamlet instead. In the acting troupe is Maria Tura (Carole Lombarde,) the most famous actress in Poland, and her far less famous husband Joseph (Jack Benny.) Joseph is a ham of an actor and extremely insecure. To make things worse, right as he starts to go into the opening soliloquy of Hamlet, a man in one of the front rows is continuously walking out on his performance. It is giving him a terrible case of nerves. What he doesn’t know is that man is a young soldier having an affair with his wife backstage. His name is Lieutenant Stanislav (Robert Stack) and he is off to England to help fight the Nazis. After this set up, the Nazis invade Poland. Lieutenant Stanislav sends a message back to Maria from England through Professor Siletsky who is coming back from England to Poland. Stanislav figures out that Siletsky may be taking names to the Gestapo so he races back to Poland to stop him. Through these turn of events the acting troupe and the nazis will come face to face while Stanislav comes face to face with Joseph Tura.
Obviously, the plot is extremely involved. Luckily, everything flows extremely well. The pacing of the film is perfect as it slides through scenes like slicing through butter. As hard as the plot was to describe above, when you watch the film it will make perfect sense. The film impressed me with its incredible comedic timing and very clever plot mechanics. Also, the acting is very well done. Jack Benny steals the show in every scene he is in. His delivery is as good as I have seen in a comedic actor. Carole Lombarde is fantastic in the film. I can’t believe this was her last role! I wish that fate had dealt her a better hand so I could have seen her in more films. Robert Stack was very funny and I had no idea what a handsome guy he was back then. I grew up watching him in Unsolved Mysteries so it was fun to see him back then.
Putting this film in context with the time of its release makes it even better. Lubitsch very ably demonstrates the horror of the Nazis for Jews at the time in the opening thirty minutes of the film. He then proceeds to make absolute buffoons of them for our enjoyment. It’s all very well done, and I could not have been happier to watch it.
Video: How’s it look?
Criterion did an excellent job on the transfer of the film. The movie retains a good amount of grain to leave in details. Depth and clarity are excellent. There are some scratches that pop up occasionally but they are very minor and don’t distract from the film at all. The black levels are excellent. This transfer is one of the better looking transfers that I have seen from a film of this age, reminiscent of the excellent job done with the Casablanca Blu-ray. Fans of the film should rejoice to see it in the hands of Criterion.
Audio: How’s it sound?
This is a monaural track so it is relatively limited. That said, Criterion have done a tremendous job in preserving clarity in the audio. The Oscar nominated score sounds great and dialogue is very easy to understand. There is nothing to fear about this track. Sounds great!
Supplements: What are the extras?
Lubitsch le patron – this documentary, written by film scholar N.T. Binh and directed by Jean-Jacques Bernard in 2010, focuses on the legacy of director Ernst Lubitsch. I enjoyed this documentary, although the second half went by a bit slower than the first half. Worth watching. In French, with optional English subtitles. (54 min, 1080i).
Schuhpalast Pinkus – Pinkus’s Shoe Palace is an early film directed by and starring Ernst Lubitsch. I found it a bit dry, but still could see glimmers of the greatness to come. If you are a fan of silent film this may be up your alley. If not, I would start with a Chaplin or Harold Lloyd before watching this. (45 min, 1080p).
The Screen Guild Theater – two episodes of the radio anthology series The Screen Guild Theater.
1. Variety (1940) – Jack Benny, Claudette Colbert, Basil Rathbone, and Ernst Lubitsch play themselves in this episode from October 20, 1940. This was pretty funny and enjoyable. Jack Benny nails it. (30 min).
2. To Be or Not to Be – an adaptation of the film, starring William Powell (Joseph Tura), Diana Lewis (Maria Tura), and German actor Sig Ruman (Colonel Ehrhardt). The episode was originally broadcast on January 18th, 1943. I found this interesting to compare to the film version as numerous changes were made for brevity’ sake.(26 min).
Commentary– Film historian David Kalat discusses To Be Or Not To Be and the people involved. This was one of the best commentaries I have heard in recent memory. It is extremely knowledgable and entertaining. One of the most striking aspects of the commentary is the discussion of how short the lives were of most of the people involved. If you like the film, this commentary comes extremely highly recommended. Great stuff.
Booklet – an illustrated booklet featuring an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien.
The Bottom Line
If you have not seen this film, you are really missing out. It is funny as hell, and still manages to get across a few great reminders of how terrible Hitler was to the Jews. The impact this film had on Mel Brooks is obvious. I don’t think there is any feasible way that we would have The Producers without To Be Or Not To Be. I am so struck by this movie that I plan on seeking out Lubitsch’s other films. Criterion did an excellent job on the transfer and really outdid the,selves with the supplements. It’s a shame that both Carole Lombarde and Lubitsch died so young. Here they are both in perfect form. In great news for the reader, if you want to watch the film before you purchase it, it is available to stream on Hulu.