skip navigation
The Big Idea-To Be or Not to Be
Remind Me
To Be or Not to Be,To Be or Not to Be

The Big Idea Behind TO BE OR NOT TO BE

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