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Comedies rarely stand the test of time - this one does: one of the
funniest films I have ever seen.
When I was 16 (20 years ago, sigh...), this was re-released for a short time in a local art-house cinema, and my father insisted I go watching it with a friend. Well, teenagers don't normally line up to see 50 year old black and white comedies, but - man, was I glad I did!
This is a pitch black comedy that feels as fresh today as it must have then; in fact, this must have been kind of a shock in 1942. There are no cheesy clean characters or cringe-worthy lines: this is a firework of fast, witty dialogue with an edge and the sexiest, cleverest (and most morally ambiguous) female protagonist I have ever seen in a film before the "New Hollywod" era.
Even the structure and the way the story evolves are very modern; there are flashbacks and twists and turns that might be very common in contemporary films but must have seemed almost "avant-garde" at the time.
The biggest fun, of course, is how Lubitsch takes the pi** out of Hitler's blind, fanatic followers. I don't believe the Nazis have ever been mocked better than in this comedy masterpiece (and I only hope old Adolf has seen it, too). Mel Brooks' remake is not bad, but the original is simply killer.
See it, and then see it again (and again).
Priceless. 10 out of 10
Favorite films: http://www.IMDb.com/list/mkjOKvqlSBs/
Lesser-known Masterpieces: http://www.imdb.com/list/ls070242495/
Favorite Low-Budget and B-Movies: http://www.imdb.com/list/ls054808375/
Favorite TV-Shows reviewed: http://www.imdb.com/list/ls075552387/
There is a famous review of this film by the late Sunday Times critic,
Dilys Powell which begins 'Is the joke funny?'... what Miss Powell was
getting at was that, given the horror of the Holocaust, it is
appropriate to laugh at the Nazis. The answer is, ultimately,
irrelevant to the viewing of this modest masterpiece.
Lubitsch was, by this time, coming to the end of an exquisite career that defined the nature of sophistication in 'light' cinema. 'To Be or Not To Be' skips lightly over all of the minefield of a subject like this and it is difficult or impossible to think of any other filmmaker who might have managed it (if you look at Mel Brooks' limp remake, you can see why).
In 1996, I presented a massive season of 'the greatest' films in Belfast for the centenary of cinema - 250 titles in 9 months. Of all of them, this was the film which got the greatest ovation - about 5 minutes with a nearly full house standing and applauding! They may have applauded for many reasons, but here are certainly some of them...
The very complicated narrative is presented virtually flawlessly and the comedy is never allowed to hold up the narrative. The principle actors - Carole Lombard (breathtakingly beautiful) and Jack Benny in particular, but many of the supporting cast as well - throw themselves into the affair with a gusto that is completely infectious. Apart from the satirical aspect of the story and the way in which Hitler and the Nazis are mercilessly ridiculed for their authoritarianism and the fear which is their only motivator, the film pokes gentle fun at the vanity of actors in a warm and happy manner. Finally, and most important, is the notion of farce. Farce rarely works in the cinema, but here it does, and in the grand manner - just look at how many times the situation regarding Professor Siletsky changes profoundly during the film - it is dizzying - yet the characters manage to come up with (often self-defeating or inappropriate) schemes on every occasion.
This is a wonderful work that, I have no hesitation in saying, is absolutely vital for anyone who wants to really understand the glory of the cinema. But to answer Dilys Powell's question... yes, the joke is deliriously funny.
This movie was made before while the US was still playin' both ends against
the middle. Makin' huge profits while staying "neutral" The film was not
allowed to be released until after, the US entered the war.
Easily the best of the screen versions. The cast is tight and the timing is impeccable. You can really tell that the cast believed in the film. Since America had not taken a formal stance at the time this went into production the producers, cast, and crew were really making something revolutionary and controversial. So much so that the making of this movie was not even mentioned on the Jack Benny radio program. Which is a major deal for those familiar with Old Time Radio, Jack's film career provided excellent material for comedy writers on the radio show, but also the radio show was an excellent opportunity to promote a movie. It is doubtful that this was a missed opportunity, what is more likely is that his sponsor or perhaps the network did not want to advocate a position.
This movie is wonderful for so many reasons. Not only is it hilarious, there is suspense, intrigue, and history. Another poster, mentions the Nazi's jumping out of the plane at the order of a radio transmission by Hitler. The thing to remember here is that the Nazi army was seen as an unstoppable war machine, so efficient, that soldiers would commit suicide if asked. This was less humor than it was to evoke fear of fascism.
Everyone remembers Bob Hope and his travels during WWII, well Jack Benny and Carole Lombard were no slouches either. After all they made this movie. Carole died in a plane crash along with her mother and twenty others returning from a war bond rally before the film was released. Jack went where few if any cameras or radio transmitters could reach. He could be found in the most remote parts of the world entertaining the troops. Not to take anything from Bob, he went there as well, he just had more photo ops.
Bottom line watch this movie--twice, maybe more, the dialogue is so quick and witty there is a good chance you might miss it the first time, them again it is worth at least to looks.
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.
I watched this film recently and thought id leave a brief comment,i found this original version better than the remake although the one with Mel Brooks is good as well.What i like about this Jack Benny version is that the humour is never forced,you can see the sincerity in the actors as although they are playing for laughs they are also saddened by the dark humour in their scripts,this film was probably Ernst Lubritsch's way of drawing the publics attention to what was really going on during that period in Warsaw,Chaplin did the same thing when he made the Great Dictator.Sometimes the best way to get your point across to people is through comedy as the horrors that were really going on during this time were being very played down by the press and the government and yet the public had to be made aware in some way.I found this a very intelligent comedy,in that its funny when it wants to be and yet makes sure you see its serious nature.And on the other hand making fun of your enemy is a great way of getting back at them.Great film a real pity that it was Carole Lombards last.
Interestingly, when the serious and tragic theme of the Second World
War used as the basis for a great comedy. From this point of view it is
difficult to separate the horrors in people's lives and the way that
fashioned this comedy. Comedy based on the tragedy is not entirely
correct thesis. TO BE OR NOT TO BE is extremely brave, required and
great project. The title is not a parody phrase from Shakespeare's
works, but alluding to the existence and struggle for survival.
Frivolous and inappropriate descriptions are that only correspond to the characteristics of the genre. Hilarious fun theater company in Warsaw trying to outwit the Nazis during the war. This is enough to man peed with laughter. Not pertinent, but it is necessary.
The film can be seen as shocking joke, making fun of the Nazi approach and spectacle, but certainly not anti - Polish propaganda. The characters in the film do not cease to be what they are. They are actors. With good acting, improvisation, ingenuity and courage, winning terrible enemy.
Carole Lombard as Maria Tura, an actress in Nazi-occupied Poland was a brave woman, an actress whom everyone admired, and we all know that the charm of a woman can be a powerful tool. The funny thing is in the film, no one can "break" other than her husband. Although, it is in this case quite helpless. Jack Benny as Joseph Tura, an actor and Maria's husband. He is "the first line" of ridicule. Uncertain is in itself and turns a fool several times. But in the end he shows to us his "great acting". Robert Stack as Lt. Stanislav Sobinski, a Polish airman in love with Maria is a handsome soldier and lover required in the script. Felix Bressart as Greenberg and Sig Ruman Col. Ehrhardt are hilarious. One wants a role because it is only created for her and the other for their mistakes "that can not be counted" always blame his servant.
To be or not to be is fun movie. It has a hilarious story, great dialogue, acting and good scenery. I am aware of the other side, which may have the opposite impression. I think the aesthetic and spiritual this movie does not offend anyone who passed all the horrors of the Second World War.
It is surprising how funny To Be or Not to Be actually is. It does not
make a mockery of ALL Nazis seeing that the main villain is smart and
cunning, but it does make buffoons out of the high command or enlisted
Germans who follow orders blindly without questioning the logic behind
the orders. The Germans who are fooled are fooled by nothing other than
an acting troupe with Jack Benny at the helm, showing the Germans as
buffoons who take in information at face value.
As the movie begins, the audience laughs at the ridiculousness of the acting troupe performing as the high command under Hitler's third Reich. This comedy is interrupted by a soldier becoming infatuated with Tura's (Jack Benny) wife to the point where he thinks they will have a future together. This relationship finishes setting up the first act, and the audience regains the gift of comic relief when it is the acting troupe who must save Tura's wife and bring down Hitler's high command as their identity is nearly compromised.
The humor in the film has a wide range. At times it consists of Jack Benny complaining, but mostly the humor deals with the dramatic irony that the German command is unaware of the acting troupe's true identity. The troupe moves along with its plans with great ease as most Germans take them as fellow Germans and do not see past the costumes. Making the Germans puzzled is almost as wacky as watching a Marx Brothers movie, but it is not exactly the same type of humor since the Marx Brothers deal with rapid-fire jokes and physical comedy such as matching action to make characters believe they are looking into a mirror. In the case of To Be or Not to Be, the actors lead the Germans to believe they are dealing with officials, creating a similar illusion to the "mirror" antics of the Marx Brothers.
An interesting notion of this film is that it was made at the time of the war, but does not induce fear of the enemy (Nazis) at any time during the film. Showing that the enemy can be imitated, and that, in fact, Hitler is "just a man with a little moustache," it illustrates how little people had to worry about the enemy at that point in time by portraying the enemy as buffoons, not unlike Chaplin's The Great Dictator.
To Be or Not to Be is a great, overlooked World War II comedy, and while it may not be up to part with The Great Dictator, it deserves more attention.
Is difficult to imagine is that comedy so at ease, without the exaggerated facial expressions and movements jokingly, completely just script operation, distinctive characters show and the storyline of the conflicting collision out a very exciting laugh, or a fine sense of humor and amusing humor. Let me think later "La Grande Vadrouille" in the group play interspersed and coincidence echoes. As amazing actor, hapless Colonel, loyal soldiers, war machine heartbeat.Revisit the classic comedy, from beginning to end immersed in the plot to create out of the atmosphere of joy, the director of the comedy elements with effortless, structure, lines, performing, narrative and music and drama are called perfect, textbook style comedy film.
With topical movies, timing can be everything.
With "To Be Or Not To Be," there was good news and bad news. The good news was that it was written and produced in 1941, before America entered the war following the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7 (but after the Sept. 1, 1939 invasion of Poland -- which, unlike some European countries, put up a brave fight). The bad news was it was released shortly after, in early 1942, when Americans, now facing the barrel of German weapons, did not find the Nazi menace so amusing.
The New York Times movie review by Bosley Crowther (who usually was on the mark) found the humor of questionable taste, saying there was too much Jack Benny in the role:
"But it is hard to imagine how any one can take, without batting an eye, a shattering air raid upon Warsaw right after a sequence of farce or the spectacle of Mr. Benny playing a comedy scene with a Gestapo corpse. Mr. Lubitsch had an odd sense of humorand a tangled scriptwhen he made this film."
But without Benny it would have been a different movie, and, frankly, too somber and sad to be bearable, at least today. If it had been released before Pearl Harbor, the reviewer might have found Benny perfect for the role. And if the movie had been released in 1943 or 44, it might have been viewed as a brave defiance of Nazi might, and just the thing to lift spirits and boost morale.
To watch old movies is to be faced by a quandary. Back before television resale rights or DVD revenue, it was make or break based on ticket sales, so an average director's first priority was to contemporary audiences. To appreciate an old film, it helps to understand the times of the contemporary audience, in this case, the outbreak of WWII.
But a great director like Ernst Lubitsch probably was not just thinking about "today" when he made the film; presumably, he was thinking about the audiences of tomorrow, when the war was long over, won or lost. "To Be" is also a message in a bottle to the future.
Here is what director Peter Bogdanovich had to say:
"For Lubitsch, the Nazis' most damning sin was their bad manners, and To Be or Not To Be survives not only as satire but as a glorification of man's indomitable good spirits in the face of disaster survives in a way that many more serious and high‑toned works about the war do not."
(Lubitsch's influence extends far beyond Mel Brooks, according to Bogdanovich's essay, to Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, and essentially all of modern Hollywood. To understand this film is to see why.)
Today, the movie seems to have the right balance of humor and pathos, and to work on many different levels. Today, we can laugh at "Mr. Benny playing a comedy scene with a Gestapo corpse." But it works best if you understand the times, The War. What most people today know about World War II they learned from watching movies. And so they see "To Be" within the memory matrix of other movies.
What you need to do is study the history of World War II, watch some of the fine documentaries, read about it, in books or online. We have all heard about "concentration camps." In 1941 concentration camps like Auschwitz were not yet used to implement the Holocaust, but to punish German political prisoners and for victims of countries invaded by Germany, like Poland. My grandparents were not picked up by French authorities and sent to Auschwitz until 1943. It is sad that some people in Europe are so ignorant of their own history. **
From the Wikipedia article on Auschwitz:
"The inmate population grew quickly, as the camp absorbed Poland's intelligentsia and dissidents, including the Polish underground resistance. By March 1941, 10,900 were imprisoned there, most of them Poles."
If you understand history you will understand the deep sadness hidden by a smile in "To Be."
Footnote: About 25 minutes before the end, the camera shows a list from the appointment book of Col. Ehrhardt. 10:30 reads: Maria Tura. 10:45 reads: Schindler.
- - -
** I wish to extend my sympathy to any student foolish enough to take Dr. Jacques Coulardeau's classes (which I certainly hope are not in history or geography or film) at the Sorbonne, or wherever he actually teaches.
Dr. Coulardeau, in his review, asks a truly bizarre question: Why, if the Allies knew about the concentration camps, didn't they stop the "massacre"? Dr. C.: Maybe it had something to do with the concentration camps being inside Germany and occupied Poland, and Germany wasn't issuing tourist visas to American soldiers.
I would like Dr. Coulardeau to explain why French officials collaborated with the Nazis in sending French citizens, including my family, to their deaths in concentration camps? America didn't start WWII, but it was American troops, not French, that ended the Holocaust.
An acting troupe joins the resistance movement in Nazi-occupied Poland. This is a scathing farce masterfully directed by the incomparable Lubitsch, one of the earliest anti-Nazi films. It's hard to watch this without thinking about Lombard's tragic death soon after filming was completed. She shows for the final time why she was one of the premier comediennes of the silver screen, delivering laughs with her uncanny timing and delivery. Benny has the role of his career as the hammy actor whose love for Lombard is exceeded only by his love for himself. Lubitch not only provides sparkling comedy but also adeptly executes the action scenes.
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