Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack. Dir: Ernst Lubitsch
Carole Lombard- amazing once again and for the last time in her career, arguably one of the best comedic actresses of all time. Her timing is always perfect and she always has great chemistry with her leading men. To Be Or Not To Be was released slightly less than 2 months after she died in a plane crash in Nevada, returning from a rally to sell war bonds (she sold a record breaking $2 million worth in one evening). She was supposed to have taken a train home, but wanted to get back earlier, and her traveling companions (which included her mother and a press agent) wanted to keep their original plan of taking the train. They left it to a coin toss and Lombard won. She was married to Clark Gable at the time. My mother was born a little over a year after Lombard’s death and my grandparents named her Carole, in her honor.
But let’s talk about happy things. Like this movie, which is about Hitler. Okay, a) that’s not happy, and b) that’s not specifically true. It’s about a Polish acting troupe during Hitler’s march on Poland, and what this troupe does because of it. And that’s all you’re getting out of me.
It’s a comedy. Maybe I should have said that earlier, but really it only occurred to me just now to point that out. And because Ernst Lubitsch was a genius, it’s hilarious. Lubitsch adapted it from a book by someone whose name I can’t pronounce, and did a really great job with it. When he was writing it, he had Jack Benny in mind as the lead, and who can refuse that honor? Certainly not Jack Benny. Lubitsch also wanted Miriam Hopkins to be in it, but shortly after beginning the project, Hopkins dropped out because she and Benny couldn’t get along. So Carole Lombard stepped in, having always wanted to work with Lubitsch. As much as I love Miriam Hopkins, I really can’t imagine anyone else in the role.
Also in the film is a young Robert Stack, who plays a rockstar military pilot (and I mean rockstar in the figurative sense, given that there were no rockstars in 1942). His character vexes Benny’s character a great deal, but I’m not going to tell you how. I will tell you, however, that it is not by removing sunglasses at poignant moments.
I have to say that, prior to seeing this film, I was not aware of the depths of Jack Benny’s talents. I thought he was always the exasperated, deadpan comedian like from his tv series. He does that here too, but also so much more, and that is worth seeing in itself.
This movie was remade in 1983 with Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, and the remake was the first version I saw. Mostly I don’t like remakes, but this one is different. It’s as good as the original, and where it falls behind in ability, it makes up in substance. They were able to talk about more of the things that Hitler was doing and the atrocities that he was responsible for. The original circumvented several subjects, mostly because in 1942 these were things you couldn’t say in movies, and when filming began on it, the United States hadn’t even entered the war yet, so there was much that the typical American movie viewer was not yet aware of.
When the movie came out, it was not well-received because it was a comedic treatment of a horrific situation. But what else is there to do, really? Nobody was laughing at Hitler’s victims, they were lampooning Hitler himself. How do you reduce the power of the truly evil? Make them look foolish. And this movie does.
To see or not to see? There really is no question. Watch it. It’ll make you laugh. And you need that.