A bad Polish actor is just trying to make a living when what should intrude but World War II in the form of an invasion. His wife has the habit of entertaining young Polish officers while ... See full summary »
In occupied Poland during WWII, a troupe of ham stage actors (led by Joseph Tura and his wife Maria) match wits with the Nazis. A spy has information which would be very damaging to the Polish resistance and they must prevent it's being delivered to the Germans. Written by
Ken Yousten <email@example.com>
It has long been controversial to make a comedy out of war and tragedy, but often it is among the best ways of dealing with a difficult subject. Being able to satirize evil and imagine humour even in the most desperate of plights is a big part of coming to terms with these things. And when done in the right way, it can make some of the most compelling works that cinema has to offer. With To Be or Not to Be, director Ernst Lubitsch, who had spent most of his career making sophisticated and often innuendo-laden comedies with absolutely no political content, surprised everyone by tackling the most urgent of topical issues head-on, yet still maintaining the frivolous comedy style that was his forte.
Co-written with Melchior Lengyel (who had provided Lubitsch with his earlier hit Ninotchka) To Be or Not to Be features a brilliant premise that of actors turning their skills to do underground work. As such it takes a light-hearted yet affectionate view of stage acting (which is where Lubitsch started out). This was a rather timely subject in Hollywood at the time. In the early days of sound, a lot of theatre actors had been called in to do the talkie business, but now the trend was shifting towards subtler, more naturalistic performances, as especially encouraged by directors like William Wyler and George Stevens. And there's nothing wrong with that approach Wyler and Stevens were making some excellent pictures but as a result the good old ham actor was becoming a somewhat marginalised figure. To Be or Not to Be makes the theatrical scenery-chewers into the heroes. The debate between the different styles is itself the subject of many of the gags, for example Lionel Atwill continually having to be reminded not to overact. The young Polish airman who woos Lombard is named Stanislaw, perhaps after Stanislavski, the nemesis of ham actors.
The casting of To Be or Not to Be is like a celebration of the little hams. You won't find theatrical legends like Charles Laughton or John Barrymore here, but supporting players like Atwill, Felix Bressart and Tom Dugan are exactly the sort of people who were now a dying breed in the Hollywood movie. Here they can be seen at their unashamed best. The two leads on the other hand are not hams at all, but they were among the best comedy actors of the era. Jack Benny was ironically a master at underplaying scenes, often at his funniest when doing very little, such as drawing out the pause before beginning Hamlet's soliloquy. Carole Lombard was a consummate comedienne, often adopting a tone of complete sincerity that made little throwaway lines (like her enraptured "It certainly does (interest me)" when Robert Stack is talking about his bomber) sound comically ridiculous. But she could turn that sincerity to dramatic purpose as well, for example her very genuine look of trepidation when she is questioned trying to leave the hotel.
And finally let us talk of Lubitsch himself. There isn't much to say about Lubitsch's direction here that I haven't said in one of my many other reviews of his pictures. One thing that is specifically worth mentioning now though is the attention Lubitsch gives to minor performers. Another feature of the more modern directors is that they gave very little screen time to bit players. The aforementioned Wyler would often get supporting players to do their scenes with their backs to the camera so as not to draw attention from the leads. Again this is not intended as a criticism it is right for Wyler's dramas. But Lubitsch was one director who always found a little bit of camera time for even the most inconsequential of actors. There are obvious examples in To Be or Not to Be with the many members of the acting troupe, but notice how in the scene with the Polish aviators in Britain, he treats several of them to close-ups. These aren't "face-in-the-crowd" close-ups that you might see in a montage. Instead it's as if each of these men has become a lead character for a few seconds, even though they will soon disappear from the story. But Lubitsch did not do this indiscriminately. In the scene where Lombard passes on the photograph at the bookstore, there are two Nazis in the background. We don't catch a glimpse of their faces, we just have to know that they exist. It seems that when Lubitsch lingers on a character's face he does so out of affection. And that is really the attitude that permeates To Be or Not to Be contempt for the villains, affection for the heroes, even through all the wit and satire. It is this ideal that really makes that fusing of the tragic and the comic work.
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