Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
Prior to its DVD release (about 2005), I knew nothing about the movie To Be or Not to Be. When it came out, I was excited because I saw it had been directed by Ernst Lubitsch (Trouble in Paradise, The Shop Around the Corner) — one of my favourite directors.
Then I saw it starred Carole Lombard, an actress I’ve always liked.
And then I saw it also starred … Jack Benny?
Yes, Jack Benny. I only knew Jack Benny as a guy who stood with his chin resting in the palm of one hand, the crook of the arm supported by his other hand. He was a guy who stood in the middle of the stage telling self-effacing jokes, playing bad violin and occasionally calling, “Rochester. Oh, Rochester.”
So the idea of Jack Benny in what is essentially a romantic comedy was odd, to say the least.
But Jack Benny did appear in movies, – IMDb lists 30 of them. And he’s quite good in To Be or Not to Be, though to some extent he’s playing his Jack Benny persona.
The movie, though good, is not great, however. It’s a bit uneven but this is largely because of the film’s historical context. It’s a 1942 film and this places it just a little after the United States entered World War II. The movie is uneven because it starts fairly strongly, then veers off into a patriotic middle portion, then finally returns to its story with a brilliant concluding act where Benny really shines.
The movie is about an acting company. The two main stars are a husband and wife, Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) and Maria Tura (Carole Lombard). Maria is the real star, however. Joseph is mainly just a self-centred acting ham (consistent with the Jack Benny routine).
But then the Nazis invade Poland. The troupe’s play, which lampooned Hitler (as does the film), is closed.
With the Nazis in Poland, it soon develops that the troupe goes underground, getting involved in the resistance. As the film develops, Benny’s Joseph is called upon to play several Nazis. The movie becomes the story of how they (the troupe) best the Nazis.
At the same time, there is another plot line about the husband and wife (the Turas) and Joseph’s belief his wife may have fallen for a young soldier (played by a youthful looking Robert Stack).
Essentially the movie is a merciless satire of the Nazis, interrupted briefly in the middle for some patriotic moments. But there is also some wonderful romantic comedy in the film. As well, Carole Lombard looks beautiful and gives a tremendous performance, moving easily from great comic scenes to dramatic ones which she carries off with nice degree of subtlety.
It’s actually quite an accomplishment on the part of director Ernst Lubitsch. Despite the subject matter and the satire, he still manages to bring a sophisticated quality to the film. This is partly through the casting of Carole Lombard as the wife, Maria Tura, and partly the movie’s dialogue which, if you listen, is quite entertaining and witty. It’s not something you normally would find in a movie of this kind.
And Jack Benny is a surprise as well, at least for those of us who were unfamiliar with his work in film. He, too, is nicely cast in the movie.
A satire like this often requires its historical context to work. In other words, as the world changes the movie loses its impact. This is one of the few movies of this kind that manages to continue working. The comedy, and the story, still work. To Be or Not to Be is funny, entertaining and definitely worth seeing.