powered by AFI
In World War II Poland, the elaborately egotistical theatrical couple Joseph and Maria Tura (Jack Benny and Carole Lombard) head a company that is forced by their occupiers to switch from anti-Nazi propaganda to Shakespeare, allowing Maria to dally backstage with the young pilot Sobinski (Robert Stack) while Joseph hams it up as Hamlet (hence the title). The Turas and their company, using their theatrical skills to create a series of impersonations including Hitler himself, work with Sobinski to foil the traitorous Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges) in his plan to destroy the Warsaw resistance.
Producer/Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Screenplay: Edwin Justus Mayer from original story by Ernst Lubitsch
(uncredited) and Melchior Lengyel
Cinematography: Rudolph Mat
Editing: Dorothy Spencer
Production Design: Vincent Korda
Music Composer: Werner R. Heymann
Costume Design: Irene
Cast: Carole Lombard (Maria Tura), Jack Benny (Joseph Tura), Robert Stack (Lt. Stanislav Sobinski), Felix Bressart (Greenberg), Lionel Atwill (Rawitch), Stanley Ridges (Professor Siletsky), Sig Ruman (Col. Ehrhardt), Tom Dugan (Bronski), Charles Halton (Producer Dobosh), George Lynn (Actor-Adjutant), Henry Victor (Capt. Schultz)
Why TO BE OR NOT TO BE Is Essential
One could almost say that To Be or Not to Be marked the invention of black comedy in movies; even today it seems pretty shocking that Ernst Lubitsch was bold enough to make a boisterous wartime satire set in occupied Warsaw, with a spirited cast foiling Nazis, cracking jokes about Hitler and concentration camps and careening through harrowing plot complications that include an air raid, a fatal shooting and comic bits with a corpse. It's all served up, of course, with that celebrated "Lubitsch" touch, which employed elegance and wit to create entertainments that were, above all else, exquisitely civilized - even in the grimmest of settings. One of the points this film makes, with the triumph of the theatrical company's illusions, is that art can transcend and transform life.
In his 1987 book Romantic Comedy, film historian James Harvey analyzed why To Be or Not to Be was so powerful and funny (and so alienating to some observers at the time): "The Nazis in this film are like ordinary people. They are also monsters. Evil is clearly named; but it is also brought closer to familiar feelings and situations than people expected it to be in such a film. This, finally, is what gives it its special quality of hilarity - and its force. And its combination of clarity and power makes it almost the peak of Lubitsch's work - attaining just that adversary force that had eluded him in the comedies of the late thirties."
Many film historians consider Carole Lombard the brightest and most engaging of all movie comediennes, and some regard To Be or Not to Be as her finest moment. Even Bosley Crowther, one of the movie's toughest critics, acknowledged that its leading lady was "very beautiful and comically adroit." The film also offers, along with Charley's Aunt (1941) and George Washington Slept Here (1942), ample proof that Jack Benny's comic genius transferred very effectively to movies. His success on radio and television, along with his ongoing and merciless ribbing of his own work in the supposed disaster The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945), later obscured the fact that Benny had enjoyed a successful career in film comedy - with To Be or Not to Be a particular highlight. Despite its rocky reception by most critics and some audiences, To Be or Not to Be stands as probably the most impudent and bracing comedy to arise from the WWII period.
By Roger Fristoe
To Be or Not to Be (1942)
Perhaps the boldest and most daring satire of its day, Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be set the stage for such audacious films to follow as Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove (1964), Mel Brooks' The Producers (1967) and Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds (2009). The story of To Be or Not to Be lived on in radio adaptations including one by the Screen Guild Theatre broadcast on January 18, 1943, starring William Powell and Diana Lewis; a German stage adaptation by Juergen Hoffmann produced in 1988; a Bollywood film version, Maan Gaye Mughal-e-Azam, released in 2008; a poorly received Broadway production staged in 2008; and yet another stage adaptation in Budapest, Hungary, in 2011. The most noted of its reincarnations, however, was a 1983 film remake under the same title with Mel Brooks substituting his own brand of zany humor and casting himself and wife Anne Bancroft in the Benny/Lombard roles under the direction of Alan Johnson. It's another sprightly, fun film, with Bancroft in particular giving a scintillating performance - but still not quite in the same class as the Lubitsch version. Television screenings and DVD releases (including a Criterion Collection version released in August 2013) have allowed contemporary audiences to appreciate the original film without the figurative cries of "Too soon!" unleashed by audiences and critics of its day.
By Roger Fristoe
To Be or Not to Be (1942)
Screenwriter Samson Raphaelson, Lubitsch's collaborator on such screenplays as The Merry Widow (1934) and The Shop Around the Corner (1940), declined to write for this project. He later explained that "I didn't have it in me to make gags about the Nazis in 1941."
In a scene where Polish gravestones are destroyed by German bombing, one of the stones bears the name of "Benjamin Kubelsky," which was Jack Benny's birth name.
When Benny's father went to see the film, he was outraged to see his son in a Nazi uniform and stormed out of the theater. When Benny explained that it was satire and coaxed him back in to see the rest of the film, he loved it and ended up seeing it 46 times!
Benny agreed to let Carole Lombard have top billing after she pointed out to him that, after all, "You already have all the lines."
Lombard was delighted to be working with handsome young leading man Robert Stack, who had been a friend from the time he was an awkward adolescent.
Sig Ruman - who plays Ehrhardt and is constantly calling for his adjutant, Sergeant Schultz - plays a character called Sgt. Schultz in Billy Wilder's Stalag 17 (1953).
Benny later said that in his entire film career he had liked only three of his movies - and had "loved" only one: To Be or Not to Be.
Quotes from To Be or Not to Be:
Bronski (playing Hitler): "Heil myself!"
Col. Ehrhardt: "I saw him on the stage when I was in Warsaw once before the war... What he did to Shakespeare we are doing now to Poland."
Maria: "Think of me being flogged in the darkness, screaming; suddenly the lights go on and the audience discovers me on the floor in this gorgeous dress!"
Siletsky: "It's nothing alarming. It's only Shakespeare!"
Maria: "Lieutenant, this is the first time I've ever met a man who could drop three tons of dynamite in two minutes."
Siletsky: "They call you Concentration Camp Ehrhardt."
Joseph (disguised as Col. Ehrhardt): " Ha ha. Yes, yes...we do the concentrating and the Poles do the camping."
Maria: "It's becoming ridiculous the way you grab attention. Whenever I start to tell a story, you finish it. If I go on a diet, you lose the weight. If I have a cold, you cough. And if we should ever have a baby, I'm not so sure I'd be the mother."
Joseph: "Wait a minute. I'll decide with whom my wife is going to have dinner and whom she's going to kill."
Siletsky: "Shall we drink to a blitzkrieg?"
Maria: "I prefer a slow encirclement."
Col. Ehrhardt: "They named a brandy after Napoleon, they made a herring out of Bismarck, and the Fuhrer is going to end up as a piece of cheese!"
Joseph: "Well, Colonel, all I can say is... you can't have your cake and shoot it, too."
Maria: "You're the greatest actor in the world. Everybody knows that, including you."
Compiled by Roger Fristoe
To Be or Not to Be (1942)
Writing in The New York Times of March 29, 1942, writer-producer-director Ernst Lubitsch declared that he "was tired of the two established, recognized recipes: drama with comedy relief and comedy with dramatic relief. I had made up my mind to make a picture with no attempt to relieve anybody of anything at any time." The resulting film was To Be or Not to Be (1942), an ahead-of-its-time black comedy that shocked critics and audiences by satirizing Hitler and his occupation of Poland while the world was in the grip of a brutal and horrifying world war.
Lubitsch, who had arrived in Hollywood in 1922 after making a name for himself in his native Germany, was celebrated for the "Lubitsch touch" he brought to such elegant and sophisticated musicals and comedies as The Love Parade (1929), The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), Design for Living (1933), Ninotchka (1939) and The Shop Around the Corner (1940). After contracts at Warner Bros., MGM and Paramount, Lubitsch created Ernest Lubitsch Productions to produce his comedy That Uncertain Feeling (1941). To Be or Not to Be, an anti-Nazi comedy for which Lubitsch had the (very) original story idea, was to be his next independent project, but the poor box office of That Uncertain Feeling led to the company being dissolved. So the financing of To Be or Not to Be was taken up by British film executive Alexander Korda, a co-owner of United Artists.
On August 5, 1941, Lubitsch signed a contract with UA that stipulated that he would "not be subject to the supervision or control of any office or employee of any producer except Alexander Korda or any Executive Producer who may succeed Alexander Korda." Lubitsch agreed to work for $60,000, less than his usual salary, with another $50,000 payable out of net profits, and 25 percent of any net after $130,000. He had approval of writers, cast and final cut of the film.
The inspiration for the movie came from both Lubitsch's hatred of Nazis and his memories of being a young actor in Max Reinhardt's theater company in Berlin. Among Lubitsch's major works, this was the only "original" from its beginning, not developed from another source. Working with him in development of the story was Hungarian dramatist/screenwriter Melchior Lengyel, who had been Oscar®-nominated for his original story for Ninotchka. Later, Lengyel would modestly claim that "Writing for Lubitsch is just kibitzing." The screenwriter, Edwin Justus Mayer, was the author of plays with overtones of black comedy and had previously collaborated with Lubitsch on the Marlene Dietrich vehicle Desire (1936).
Early on, Lubitsch had considered using his new film to provide Maurice Chevalier with a film comeback. A friend of Chevalier's, French-American director Robert Florey, recalled that Chevalier, who had returned to Paris after enjoying success in Hollywood films directed by Lubitsch, hoped to work with the filmmaker again and waited hopefully for a call that never came. Instead, Lubitsch turned to Jack Benny, who had told him even before the script was written that he'd love to be in the film. "It was always impossible for comedians like me or Bob Hope to get a good director for a movie," Benny recalled in 1973. "That's why we made lousy movies - and here was Ernst Lubitsch for God's sake... Who cares what the script is?" Benny considered Lubitsch to be "the greatest comedy director that ever lived."
Before Benny signed his contract, a somewhat embarrassed Lubitsch asked the comedian - already a comedy superstar in vaudeville and radio, with several films to his credit including a successful turn in Charley's Aunt (1941) - to make a screen test. Benny agreed and filmed a scene where Tura goes undercover dressed in Nazi regalia. The test was a great success and the comic was hired. Once he had his star, Lubitsch and his co-writers began to tailor the script to Benny's legendary deadpan style.
For the female lead Lubitsch initially cast Miriam Hopkins, but from all accounts she and Benny did not get along, and she felt that he had all the funny bits while her character served as "straight man." When Hopkins left the production, Benny campaigned for his friend Carole Lombard, going so far as to get Alexander Korda drunk one night in New York and cajoling him into agreeing to her casting. Meanwhile Lombard, who loved the script and saw the potential in the female lead despite the dominance of the Benny character, used her considerable wiles on Lubitsch. She promised him that, if he cast her and the film "turns out to be a stinker, you can have your way with me." Then, snatching the director's cigar from his mouth, she promised that if the movie were a hit she would do something obscene to him with "this black thing."
Despite a lack of enthusiasm for the script by her husband, Clark Gable, Lombard signed on. Her only request was that, if the costume designer Irene was "reasonably available," she would handle Lombard's wardrobe, which she did. Lombard was further pleased that the movie would be shot at the United Artists studio because that would mean that now she would have worked at every major studio in Hollywood.
By Roger Fristoe
To Be or Not to Be (1942)
Production on To Be or Not to Be began on November 6, 1941, and would be completed in 42 days. (Carole Lombard would return for some additional work on New Year's Eve, posing for stills shot by Robert Coburn.) The biggest problem early in the shoot was Jack Benny's insecurity about acting the central role in such an important production by a major filmmaker. He seemed dumbfounded that Lubitsch had not only cast him but was building the film around him. Finally Lubitsch set him straight: "You think you are a comedian. You are not even a clown. You are fooling the public for 30 years. You are fooling even yourself. A clown - he is a performer what is doing funny things. A comedian - he is a performer what is saying funny things. But you, Jack, you are an actor, you are an actor playing the part of a comedian and this you are doing very well. But do not worry, I keep your secret to myself."
According to Benny's daughter, Joan, he loved his director and "would have done anything for Lubitsch." But even after the encouraging words, he remained nervous about his role. In the words of supporting player Robert Stack, "Jack was an innocent. He'd never done a movie that worked. He'd always ask me, 'Is this funny?' and I'd say, 'Jesus, don't ask me.' 'But you're an actor,' he'd say. Basically he was scared to death." Benny seemed to appreciate having Lubitsch act out his scenes for him, saying later that he was "about the only director who ever really directed me... The trouble was that I knew lots about radio comedy, a little about stage comedy and nothing about movies."
One of Lubitsch's techniques to protect his star was having Benny do multiple takes of many of his crucial scenes. Stack recalled that "Specifically, the scene where Jack comes home and finds me in his bed asleep and does a series of double takes, he made Jack do at least 30 takes." Still, Lubitsch respected Benny's opinion and would redo a scene if Benny himself, after looking at the rushes, thought it could be better.
In addition to its worried star, the film had other difficulties relating to the subject matter itself. Miklos Rozsa, Korda's musical director, refused to score the film because he disapproved of the film's satirical treatment of the Nazi threat. (Werner Heymann took over to create the musical score.) During the shooting of a scene where storm troopers marched in the street, a female visitor to the set, who had just come from Poland and had endured such scenes for real, fell into a faint.
Despite the problems, however, the atmosphere on the set was light and congenial. Candid photographs shot during breaks in filming invariably show everyone in the cast and crew laughing hilariously. Lombard, who told friends that this was the happiest experience of her career, would drive to the set from her ranch in the San Fernando Valley even on her off days, just to watch Lubitsch work with the other actors. Although Lubitsch treated his script with total respect, he often found moments of inspiration on the spot. One example: In the scene at the end where the Nazi Col. Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman) goes behind a closed door to commit suicide, the script indicates only that a shot rings out. But Lubitsch added a topper where Ehrhardt - who has established a habit of screaming out for his assistant's help at every turn - is then heard once again yelling for "Schultz"!
In early January 1942, as Lubitsch was editing the film, United Artists informed him that To Be or Not to Be, with its Shakespearean reference, seemed "too highbrow" a title and that thought should be given to changing it. Impishly, because he had anticipated censorship problems with the script, Lubitsch suggested The Censor Forbids as an alternate title. Suspiciously, both Lombard and Benny fired off almost identical cables describing the new title as "suggestive" and allowing that, as participants and investors in the film, they objected strongly to the change. Benny even said he would refuse to promote the movie on his radio show if such a title were used. Lubitsch then informed UA that, in view of these objections, he had no choice but to withdraw the alternate title. UA, clearly overmatched, said no more about it.
On January 16, the world was shocked to hear that Carole Lombard had been killed in an airplane crash. She had been in her home state of Indiana for a war bond tour and had raised more than $2 million in defense bonds. Lombard was due for an appearance on Jack Benny's radio program in Los Angeles, and she and her mother boarded a Transcontinental and Western Air Douglas aircraft that crashed into a peak of Potosi Mountain near Las Vegas. Everyone aboard was killed instantly. Lombard was mourned internationally and hailed in the U.S. as a heroine who died serving her country. Gable was devastated by her death and, according to some, never fully recovered from it. The tragedy prompted some slight re-editing of To Be or Not to Be, including the deletion of Lombard's line, "What can happen in a plane?" The reworking required additions to the budget, which finally came to $1,022,000.
The movie opened on March 6, 1942; by this time, of course, World War II was in full swing and its outcome not at all certain. The tragedy of the star's death, along with the film's subject matter, put a damper on the public's desire to see To Be or Not to Be. Negative reviews from critics offended by its satirical treatment of Nazis also hurt the movie, and box office receipts were poor. Robert Stack considered the entire situation to be "tragic... The press just did a terrible number on Lubitsch, and the arrogance he supposedly had in making fun of the Polish situation. But he was a Jew from the Old Country himself! It was the best satire and put-down of Nazism that's ever been done, but they weren't hip enough to pick up on what he was doing."
Audience members who were "hip enough" loved the film, and Lubitsch himself always held it in high regard as one of his best pieces of work. In a letter to a reviewer for the Philadelphia Enquirer who had panned the movie, he wrote, "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 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..."
By Roger Fristoe
To Be or Not to Be (1942)
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
To Be or Not to Be (1942)
"In years to come, the fact that Hollywood could convert part of a world crisis into such a cops and robbers charade will certainly be regarded as a remarkable phenomenon." - Life magazine
"Hamlet's most famous soliloquy was a positive declaration when compared to the jangled moods and baffling humors of Ernst Lubitsch's new film... To say it is callous and macabre is understating the case." -- Bosley Crowther, The New York Times
"Typically Lubitsch...one of his best productions in a number of years." -- Variety
"A weird mixture of melodrama, anti-Nazi propaganda and low comedy. Mr. Lubitsch lays on his effects with a heavy hand, permitting his actors to indulge in the broadest of burlesques." - New York Sun
"An incongruous mixture...which many people will protest against... There's no escaping what, to use the gentlest terms for it, must be called a lapse of taste in the picture. There have been, and will be, harsher words for it." - The National Board of Review Magazine
"Time has been kind to this magnificent film... Looking back, we can fully appreciate how daring it was for Lubitsch to tackle this material when he did... The film isn't so much about Nazi overtaking Poland as a troupe of Polish actors invading the world of Nazidom; therein lies its brilliance as a topical satire. The cast couldn't be better, from its incomparable lineup of character actors to its leading man, Jack Benny, in his finest screen performance as 'that great, great actor, Joseph Tura.' He and Lombard (never more beautiful) work together splendidly." - Leonard Maltin, 2013
Awards and Honors - TO BE OR NOT TO BE
Nominated for an Academy Award for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture. Named to the National Film Registry of the National Film Preservation Board, 1996.
Compiled by Roger Fristoe