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In 1939 in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, a theatrical troupe led by the egocentric actor Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) are in the midst of rehearsing their new satiric play, Gestapo, when the authorities cancel it. Instead, they perform their old standby, Hamlet, with Tura in the title role. During his famous soliloquy, Tura's confidence is undermined when an audience member gets up and leaves during his reading of the "To be or not to be" line. It's a pattern that will be repeated, for the audience member is Polish pilot, Lt. Sobinski (Robert Stack), who is enjoying an innocent flirtation with Tura's wife and leading lady, Maria (Carole Lombard). And the "To be or not to be" line is the signal for their backstage rendezvous. But the secret meetings between Sobinski and Maria are really just a prelude to the troupe's involvement in a plot to foil a traitor providing information to the Germans that could destroy the Polish resistance movement. Eventually, Tura is persuaded to disguise himself first as the Polish traitor, then as Gestapo officer Col. Ehrhardt in order to keep the two from meeting and exchanging the names of underground fighters. When the plot is discovered, the troupe has to resort to having one of its actors pose as Hitler himself and Tura to engage in some quick verbal and visual sleight of hand to pull off the subterfuge.
In the weeks following the 2001 terrorist attack on the U.S., there was much consternation and discussion in the entertainment industry about how comedy programs should address the issue. Was there any room for humor in dealing with the events and the subsequent war in Afghanistan? It was a debate issue director Ernst Lubitsch would have had strong opinions about since he encountered a similar situation during the early forties in Hollywood. When To Be or Not to Be was released in March 1942, America and much of the world were plunged into a brutal world war, and many people did not take kindly to a satirical treatment of the German occupation of Poland that depicted Nazis as comical characters. One of Hollywood's most respected and popular producer-directors for nearly 20 years, Lubitsch never quite got over the critical and commercial disappointment of what has since come to be regarded as one of his best films, and surely one of his most personal.
In the words of Lubitsch: "What I have satirized in this picture are the Nazis and their ridiculous ideology. I have also satirized the attitude of actors who always remain actors regardless how dangerous the situation might be, which I believe is a true observation. It can be argued if the tragedy of Poland realistically portrayed as in To Be or Not to Be can be merged with satire. I believe it can be and so do the audience which I observed during a screening of To Be or Not to Be; but this is a matter of debate and everyone is entitled to his point of view, but it is certainly a far cry from the Berlin-born director who finds fun in the bombing of Warsaw.'" Ernst Lubitsch in a letter to Philadelphia Enquirer reviewer Mildred Martin, August 25, 1943. In a negative review of Lubitsch's film Heaven Can Wait (1943), Martin chose to refer to his German birth and remind readers of his comedy about the Nazis in Poland.
By all accounts, Lubitsch never considered anyone but Jack Benny for the role of Joseph Tura in To Be or Not to Be. A popular vaudeville performer and later a famous radio personality, Benny had made several films in the 1930s before scoring big with Charley's Aunt (1941). But even though that picture was a hit, Benny found very few parts coming his way, so he was delighted and flattered when a director of Lubitsch's stature not only tapped him for a leading role but created the film with him in mind.
Benny's co-star was to have been Miriam Hopkins in what was supposed to be a comeback role for her. But she and Benny did not get on well, and she backed out because her part was smaller and didn't have what she considered the proper share of funny lines. Lubitsch found himself without a leading lady until Carole Lombard, one of the top comic actresses of the 1930s, heard of his predicament and asked to be considered. Lombard realized her part was secondary to Benny's, but she thought the quality of the picture was more important, and besides, she had never made a film with the much-admired Lubitsch. The director and actress got along famously (so much so that Lombard's husband, the often-jealous Clark Gable, suspected them of having an affair). Lombard loved making the picture. For one thing, most of To Be or Not to Be was shot at the old United Artists studio, enabling her to boast that she had worked at every major studio during her time in Hollywood. She told many people that this was the happiest experience of her career from start to finish.
To Be or Not to Be began filming in October 1941 on a very tight schedule; principal photography was slated for completion by Thanksgiving. By the time the picture wrapped on December 23, the U.S. had entered the war, making a comedy about the Nazi occupation of Poland a lot riskier in terms of attracting an audience. In mid-January, Lombard flew to Indiana, her home state, on the last leg of a war-bond sales tour of the Midwest. After selling close to $2 million in war bonds in Indianapolis on Jan. 15, she was eager to return to Hollywood for the first preview of To Be or Not to Be, scheduled for January 21, and for her first wardrobe fittings for a new film, He Kissed the Bride. Lombard's mother, who was traveling with her, wanted to take the train, but at Carole's insistence they flipped a coin and decided to fly. On the way back the plane crashed into a mountain near Las Vegas and everyone on board was killed. Lombard was mourned nationally and hailed as a hero who died in the service of her country. In June 1942, Irene Dunne christened the liberty ship Carole Lombard, which served in the Pacific during World War II.
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Producers: Alexander Korda, Ernst Lubitsch
Screenplay: Edwin Justus Mayer, Melchior Lengyel, Ernst Lubitsch
Cinematography: Rudolph Mate
Editing: Dorothy Spencer
Production Design: Vincent Korda
Music: Werner R. Heymann
Cast: Jack Benny (Joseph Tura), Carole Lombard (Maria Tura), Robert Stack (Lieut. Stanislav Sobinski), Felix Bressart (Greenberg), Lionel Atwill (Rawitch), Sig Ruman (Col. Ehrhardt), Stanley Ridges (Professor Siletsky), Tom Dugan (Bronski).
By Rob Nixon