Welcome back everybody, and Happy New Year! As we start into the new year, I will be doing even fewer posts than I have been in the past (as I hinted at in yesterday’s 2022: Year In Review + Top 10 Movies Watched post), but I’m hoping that by doing so, I’ll still be able to stick around! And with that, let’s dig into our first film for the year, the 1942 comedy To Be Or Not To Be, starring Carole Lombard and Jack Benny!
Coming Up Shorts! with… Two Too Young (1936)
(available on Blu-ray as part of The Little Rascals: The ClassicFlix Restorations, Volume 6 (1936-1938) from ClassicFlix)
(Length: 10 minutes, 10 seconds)
Buckwheat (Billie Thomas) and Porky (Eugene Lee) brought some fireworks with them to school. Believing them to be too young (and wanting to play with the fireworks as well), Spanky (George McFarland) and Alfalfa (Carl Switzer) try to get ahold of them. Once again, Spanky and Alfalfa manage to bring the humor. Their attempt at portraying a “G-man” to get the fireworks was quite funny, as was Alfalfa’s recitation of “The Charge Of The Light Brigade” (with the fireworks going off in his back pocket). This one was very, very enjoyable, and worth seeing again and again!
And Now For The Main Feature…
It’s 1939, and, although the threat of war with Germany looms over the horizon, all is well yet in the Polish town of Warsaw, especially for a troupe of performers led by Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) and his wife Maria (Carole Lombard). They are rehearsing a new play called Gestapo while performing in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Maria has found herself with an ardent admirer in the form of aviator Lieutenant Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack), and she encourages him to come backstage to see her while her husband performs the “To be or not to be” soliloquy. She becomes interested in Stanislav, and sees him the next day. The troupe had been planning to premiere Gestapo that night, but their government orders them to cancel the play (since they fear the possibility of offending Adolf Hitler). So, they perform Hamlet again, and Stanislav once again walks out on the soliloquy to see Maria. He misinterprets her interest, and threatens to tell her husband (who is mainly angry that a member of the audience walked out on his soliloquy twice, but doesn’t know the reason why). However, before anything can be done, they all learn that Hitler has invaded the country. With the country quickly falling to Hitler, Stanislav ends up joining other Polish pilots in the British Royal Air Force. While on a break from their missions, the lieutenant and some of the other pilots meet Professor Alexander Siletsky (Stanley Ridges), who has been giving speeches on the radio in favor of the Polish resistance. When the professor accidentally lets it slip that he’s about to go on a mission that will take him to Warsaw, all the pilots (including Stanislav) ask him to take messages to their loved ones still in Warsaw. However, Stanislav becomes suspicious when he tries to send a message to Maria Tura, and the professor doesn’t recognize her name. When Stanislav tells his superiors about his suspicions later, they send him by plane to Warsaw to prevent the Gestapo from going after the families of the Polish resistance and pilots. However, the professor has also gotten there (but not in time to do any damage yet), and has Maria summoned to pass along the lieutenant’s message. She had already seen the lieutenant when he arrived, so she is careful of the professor (but doesn’t let on that she knows). The professor, now interested in her himself, invites her to dinner later that night in the hopes of seducing her to become a spy for the Nazis. She returns to her apartment to change, arriving in time to prevent a fight between the lieutenant and Joseph (who had just come home to find the lieutenant sleeping, but still only knows him as the man who walked out on his soliloquoy). They make a plan for later, hoping to fool the professor into giving them the information. They are successfully able to get the professor to the theatre (now disguised as Gestapo headquarters), and get him to give them everything by having Joseph pretend to be Colonel Ehrhardt of the Gestapo. However, Joseph slips up when the professor tells him about the message from the lieutenant (for Maria), and so the professor attempts to get away from them. However, in trying to sneak out of the theatre, he is fatally shot by Stanislav. Afterwards, Joseph disguises himself as the professor to get the rest of the information and get his wife out of the German-occupied hotel, but is immediately summoned by the REAL Colonel Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman). Joseph is able to keep up the ruse, and even manages to deflect the Colonel away from some of the resistance leaders. He makes arrangements with the Colonel for himself and Maria to get a plane out of Poland. The ruse starts to fall apart later when some of the Colonel’s men discover the body of the real professor when they are trying to get the theatre ready for the arrival of the Führer, Adolf Hitler, and Joseph unknowingly makes the mistake of calling the Colonel in order to meet with him again. Joseph is briefly able to evade capture by making it look like the real professor is an impostor (by removing his beard and putting on a fake one), but some of his troupe arrive in German uniforms and take him away after revealing him as a fake. They get out safely, but their interference has ruined Joseph’s plan to get out of Poland. Their producer, Dobosh (Charles Halton) borrows an idea from an old play they had done (which had flopped) to help get them all out of the country. Will his plan work? Will Joseph be able to perform Hamlet again (without interruption), or will they all be captured by the Nazis?
Director Ernst Lubtisch had previously started his own production company to produce his comedy That Uncertain Feeling (1941), with plans to follow that up with an original idea for another comedy (an idea that would become To Be Or Not To Be). However, That Uncertain Feeling did poorly in theatres, resulting in the production company being dissolved. The result was that Alexander Korda, a co-owner of United Artists, financed the film over at United Artists while agreeing to let the director have control over casting, writers and the final cut of the movie. At first, the director thought about casting Maurice Chevalier in the lead, but instead decided to go with comedian Jack Benny, whom he built the film around. Miriam Hopkins was considered for the female lead, but she turned it down, complaining about Jack Benny getting all the funny stuff. Carole Lombard saw the role as being more than just Jack Benny’s “straight man,” and got the part. There were some minor troubles on the film (mostly to do with the film’s satire of the Nazis), but for the most part, the cast had a lot of fun doing the film. As much fun as Carole Lombard had doing the film, it ended up being her last, as she died in a plane crash upon returning from a war bond drive. Her death, combined with the film’s comedic treatment of the Nazi menace, left the film getting heavily criticized by both critics and audiences. However, time has been favorable to the movie, as it has become not only one of the director’s best known films, but also a well-regarded film for both of its major stars.
I first saw To Be Or Not To Be (1942) a number of years ago, and didn’t immediately take to it. Part of that was the fact that I had also seen and liked the later 1983 version with Mel Brooks beforehand (since I more or less grew up with Mel Brooks’ style of humor via the likes of Spaceballs and Robin Hood: Men In Tights, not to mention the classic TV show Get Smart). However, I’ve had the desire to revisit the 1942 film for a number of years now, and I finally got the opportunity to see it again in preparation for this review. All I can say is, “Wow! Time has certainly changed my opinion of this movie!” The film’s more dramatic moments really pull you in, helping you to feel for the characters and worry about their safety. Of course, this film knows the value of a laugh, and it does indeed provide many! The main moments that stick out were Jack Benny’s Joseph Tura masquerading first as Colonel Ehrhardt (“So they call me ‘Concentration Camp’ Ehrhardt?”) when meeting with Stanley Ridges’ Professor Siletsky (the only character who is played completely straight/dramatically), and then when he disguises himself as the late professor when meeting with the real Colonel Ehrhardt, as played by Sig Ruman. Speaking of Sig Ruman, his role as the Colonel is one of the funniest in the whole film, especially when (after initial prompting by the fake professor) he continually tries to place the blame for all of his mistakes on his own lieutenant, Captain Schultz (as played by Henry Victor), even at the end of the film. How I went so long without watching this movie (or enjoying it), I’ll never know. But I will readily admit to this film’s greatness now, and I highly recommend it for a good laugh (from start to finish)!
This movie is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Criterion Collection.
Film Length: 1 hour, 39 minutes
My Rating: 10/10
List Of Actor/Actress Filmographies/Collections
Nothing Sacred (1937) – Carole Lombard
Broadway Melody Of 1936 (1935) – Jack Benny
Nice Girl? (1941) – Robert Stack – Great Day In The Morning (1956)
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