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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.
This cinematic satire, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, contains some
excellent acting--especially by its leads, Jack Benny and Carole
Lombard. Its story is clever and funny. Lubitsch certainly earns,
again, our respect for his directorial skills.
But regardless of the talents on display in "To Be or Not To Be", this is a film that should be seen for its place in history.
Just two years before its release, Chaplin gave the world the wonderful film "The Great Dictator", a tour de force spoof of Hitler. And it was very successful. It found an appreciative audience in the early days of the world conflict.
"To Be or Not To Be" did not receive the same warm welcome, mostly due its place in the chronology of its time:
First: The film is shot
Then: Pearl Harbor is attacked, bringing the United States into the war.
Then: Carole Lombard dies in a plane crash while supporting the American war effort.
Then: The film, edited and completed, is released.
Obviously the pall of Carole Lombard's death hung over the film. How difficult would it be to laugh at a film under those circumstances? Then consider the tremendous stresses of a country just entering a global conflict on multiple fronts--relatives going off to war, families trying to find a new balance, the challenges of a nationwide effort to reindustrialize, the profound shift in economics on a national scale, the fear of military enemies whose motives and methods seemed somewhat unfathomable.
Looking back now, it is easier to enjoy this film, even though we have a much greater understanding of the horrible realities of Hitler's plans. Though our viewpoint is clouded with wistfulness, this film deserves to be celebrated, especially for the performances of Benny and Lombard, which are seminal in the careers of both artists.
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.
During and just before WWII, there were a lot of propaganda films
created by Hollywood to drum up morale in our fight against Fascism.
Nearly all of them were deadly serious war films. And, while many of
them were great, after a while they all tended to blend together.
Because of this, TO BE OR NOT TO BE is a real standout picture. The
movie is a comedy and yet is every bit as effective in inspiring the
war effort. Now it's not surprising that the film is so well-made as
its director is Ernst Lubitsch and he is ably supported by lots of
wonderful character actors such as Felix Bressart and Sig Rumand (among
others). However, the nice surprise about the movie was the acting of
Jack Benny in the starring role (along with the wonderful Carole
Lombard). For years, Benny made fun of his acting and the movies he
made, but he was great and the film was great. Aside from the rather
dopey HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT, in fact, I really like the few films he
All-in-all, a fine and fun film--chock full of quality.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Ernst Lubitch's "To Be Or Not To Be"(1943) has to be the most genuinely
bizarre political satire to emerge from Hollywood's golden age. It
stars Jack Benny and Carol Lombard as Joseph and Maria Tura - a married
couple and stage performers living in occupied Poland during WWII.
Determined to alter the course of the war, the two helm a troupe of ham
actors in a dead pan comic assault on the Nazis When a spy emerges who
has damaging information to the Polish resistance, Joseph and Maria
decide to prevent the information from being delivered to the Reich.
Benny's brilliant lampoon of Hamlet's soliloquy "to be or not to be" is
at the crux of a disastrous rendezvous between Maria and Lt. Stanislav
Sobinski (Robert Stack).
Stan gets the hots for Maria - a passion not reciprocated. Hence, when Stan is dispatched for war, he cruelly implicates Maria with Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges), the real spy who has a secret plan to destroy the Warsaw resistance. The theater troupe is then forced to use their thespian skills to ensure their own survival; impersonating Nazi officers and even Hitler in order to outwit the enemy. Controversial to say the very least, "To Be Or Not to Be" opened to modest acclaim and was later remade, to limited effect, as a 1983 farce starring Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft.
Warner's DVD treatment is middle of the road. The black and white image has been mastered from reasonably clean film elements. Contrast levels are adequate, though at times weak. There's a hint of edge enhancement and some fine detail shimmering, but nothing that will distract. Fine details are sometimes nicely realized but darker scenes suffer from inconsistent quality. Film grain is moderate. Age related artifacts are present throughout. An archival news reel and short subject are the only extras included.
One of the very few people who would think to remake an Ernst Lubitsch
picture would be Mel Brooks who satirized just about every genre there
was in Hollywood. But I doubt that Jack Benny, Carole Lombard and
Robert Stack would have lent themselves to the slapstick type film that
Brooks turned To Be Or Not To Be into and Mel's version is very funny.
When the film opens the biggest problem that Jack Benny has on his mind is who's this secret admirer who keeps sending flowers to his wife Carole Lombard every night while they're on stage. Although it's helped his Hamlet performance, the angst Benny is feeling about Lombard being faithful, pretty soon Benny, Lombard, Polish airman Robert Stack and the whole touring company that Benny heads are all caught up in the Nazi German invasion of Poland which inaugurates World War II.
Stack joins the Polish squadron of the RAF and there's a nice little Polish colony as with other occupied nations during World War II. One of them is Stanley Ridges who does propaganda broadcasts for the BBC. And he gets to be good pals with the airmen. But after he leaves for Germany on a 'secret' mission it's discovered in reality he's a German agent and is going back to Germany with a list of exiled Poles so that the Nazis could retaliate against families. Stack goes back to Poland after Ridges.
Where he meets up with Lombard and Benny and the rest their troupe and let's just say that their talents as actors are never more needed than in the series of performances they give the occupying Germans.
Whether dealing with marital problems or Nazis breathing down their necks Lombard, Benny, and Stack have no shortage of wits about them. Carole and Jack are old hands at comedy, but Bob Stack showed a nice gift for it as well. Of course Ernst Lubitsch's type of comedy is a great deal more sophisticated than Mel Brooks. He also was making his film at a time when the USA wasn't in the war yet and the outcome for Poland and the rest of the world remained in doubt. Not to mention what was left of a liberal spirit in Germany where Lubitsch was an exile from.
This was Carole Lombard's farewell performance. Completed in 1941 To Be Or Not To Be was released just in time for Pearl Harbor and it certainly beats a lot of hastily made propaganda films that came out to tap into the national anger. It also got the same kind of knocks The Great Dictator did in satirizing the authoritarianism of the Nazis. But both films have stood the test of time. And it's not as preachy as The Great Dictator, but Lubitsch gets his point across. As for Lombard she went on a war bond tour which ended abruptly in a plane crash outside Las Vegas. FDR from the White House proclaimed she was as much a war casualty as any GI at the front and there were few who would disagree.
If your taste runs to an earthier form of comedy Mel Brooks will certainly satisfy you. But for those who value sophistication as embodied in that phrase the Lubitsch touch, this To Be Or Not To Be still pulls in the laughs.
Having seen most of Ernst Lubitsch American films, we had missed this
one because it's not played often these days. "To Be, or not to Be" is
a wonderful satire that only a director like Lubitsch, with his
European background could have pulled. The film is a good comedy that
seems to has kept some of its freshness intact.
The film works because of the great contribution of Jack Benny and Carole Lombard, who sadly, died before the film had its premiere. They play the Turas, a Polish theatrical couple that foresee the Nazi invasion of their country.
In fact, Jack Benny, a man associated as a comedian, first on radio, then on television, was an actor with an uncanny sense of timing. Mr. Benny was a natural for this type of comedy, as he proves in the film. His pairing with Carole Lombard was a stroke of genius. In fact, for being associated to lighter fare, he demonstrates with his take on Joseph Tura, he was an actor of stature.
Carole Lombard is seen as Maria Tura, a grand dame of the Polish theater. Ms. Lombard gave a marvelous performance and her contribution to the success of this film is amazing. Robert Stack is seen as the pilot Sobinski. Other faces in the cast include Felix Bressard, Lionel Atwill, Sig Ruman, George Lynn, and others that are perfect under Ernst Lubitsch guidance.
This is a film to be treasured because of the work of Jack Benny and the impeccable direction of Ernst Lubitsch.
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