“A picture with no attempt to relieve anybody from anything at any time.”
— Ernst Lubitsch
In early 1939, director Ernst Lubitsch and independent producer Sol Lesser signed a deal that called for Lubitsch to make four pictures for release through United Artists. Lubitsch would have full control over all aspects of production. The first film resulting from this agreement was That Uncertain Feeling, a rather lightweight comedy with little of the inspired Lubitsch touch. It made money, but it was far from the success that Lubitsch had envisaged and, given the added risk that he himself was taking on, it hardly seemed worth the effort. Lesser, too, was disappointed, and the pair mutually decided to dissolve their partnership. Before that could be formalized, however, Lubitsch would have to complete a second film, for his original agreement with Lesser gave United Artists some control over the second film’s fate. With Lesser out of the picture, United Artists transferred the film over to Alexander Korda, another independent producer releasing through them, and also co-owner of the company.
For that second film, Lubitsch looked to the anti-Nazi theme popular in Hollywood by 1941. The result was To Be or Not to Be, based on an original story conceived mainly by Lubitsch himself. The story concerns a Polish theater troupe whose plans to put on a play about the Gestapo are disrupted when Germany invades Poland in 1939. The troupe’s stars are Josef Tura (“that great Polish actor”) and his wife Maria. Maria Tura has become enamored of a young Polish flyer whom she contrives to see in mid-performance during her husband’s Hamlet soliloquy, “To be or not to be.” The young flyer later makes his way to England after the Polish invasion. He eventually parachutes back into Poland in order to try to prevent Polish professor Siletsky, believed to be a German spy, from betraying Polish underground sympathizers to the Germans. He enlists the aid of the acting troupe in a plan that finds Josef Tura impersonating the local Nazi commander, Colonel Ehrhardt, in order to obtain Siletsky’s report. Siletsky becomes suspicious, however, and tries to escape, only to be shot. Tura now assumes Siletsky’s identity in order to obtain another copy of the report from Siletsky’s room, but he is intercepted by the Nazis and taken to meet with Ehrhardt (“so they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt.”) This leads to a number of complications that eventually climax in the whole troupe impersonating Hitler and his elite guards in an attempt to rescue Tura.
To Be or Not to Be benefits from some inspired casting. Lubitsch had wanted to do a film with comedian Jack Benny, and Benny was delighted to agree, doing so before the script was even written. As it turns out, he is perfect as Tura, effectively employing many of his trademark mannerisms (such as his aggrieved vanity and his deadpan reactions to events) and pulling off the various impersonations the script requires. Benny was also instrumental in getting Carole Lombard the part as Maria Tura, although Lubitsch had initially thought of Miriam Hopkins for the role. Lombard is also superb, but the pleasure of her performance is tempered by the knowledge that she died in a plane crash while participating in a War Bond sales tour before the film could be released. Robert Stack had the film’s other major role as the young Polish flyer. A memorable clutch of Golden Age supporting players round out the cast, including Sig Rumann as Col. Ehrhardt, Charles Halton as the troupe’s manager, Felix Bressart as a troupe member with a desire to play Shylock, Lionel Atwill, Tom Dugan, Stanley Ridges, and many others.
The black comedy of To Be or Not to Be was certainly not to everyone’s taste. Reactions at the time of its original release varied from those who saw the film as a masterpiece to others who condemned it for not treating the Nazi threat with the gravity it demanded. Present-day assessments are more uniformly positive, recognizing the film’s satirical approach as one of the best put-downs of the Nazis ever made — that and the fact that black comedy has since become a much more prevalent and acceptable genre than it was in the early 1940s. Lubitsch had little time for the negative assessments, although he was disappointed by them. To him, drawing comedy from the direst situations was the best way to raise awareness of them, particularly if care was taken to have the laughter derive from the characters in the situations, rather than the situations themselves. There can be little argument that it is the characters on both sides in To Be or Not to Be that generate the comedy. Still, even today there is a lingering degree of uneasiness about whether we should be laughing when we hear some of the allusions to concentration camps, no matter the context in which they are mentioned.
Warner Bros. have released To Be or Not to Be on DVD as part of its Warner Classic Comedies Collection box set, although the title is also available individually. The DVD was not released in Canada, since Warner Bros. does not have the Canadian rights to it. The full frame presentation looks fairly good. Overall the image is quite sharp, although shadow detail is somewhat lacking at times. The source material looks to have been in but middling shape, since the disc shows a fair bit of speckling with scratches and debris noticeable, particularly at the start and at reel changes. There is a small amount of grain evident. The mono sound is in good shape, delivering clear dialogue with only a very small amount of background hiss present. Supplements consist of an entertaining Jack Benny comedy short (The Rounder), and a very short war bonds promotional item that seems truncated.