The Set of 400: #142 – My Favorite Warsaw Shakespeare

Today! Because I’ll decide with whom my wife is going to have dinner and whom she’s going to kill –

To Be or Not to Be (1942)

Directed by Ernst Lubitsch

Starring Jack Benny, Carole Lombard (x4), Robert Stack (x2), Lionel Atwill (x2), Sig Ruman (x4), Felix Bressart, Stanley Ridges, Tom Dugan, Halliwell Hobbes (x2), Miles Mander (x2), Charles Halton

Filmed just prior to America’s entry into WWII, To Be or Not to Be stands as one of the rare comedies of the era tackling the Nazi menace. Once the war began, the whole filmic enterprise took on a justifiably somber tone in regards to the conflict, and so comedies are few and far between. Chaplin’s The Great Dictator had been met with some audience hostility in 1940, so uncomfortable did German aggression make viewers, and so To Be or Not to Be was far from an easy sell when conceived, despite the tremendous script and no less a filmmaker than Ernst Lubitsch at the helm.

By the time the movie would premiere in March of ’42, America was squarely in the war and the film’s star Carole Lombard was dead – a January plane crash after a domestic trip selling war bonds killing her, her mother, and 15 U.S. soldiers. Indeed, Lombard is often referred to as the first female casualty of the war, given the reasons for her travels at the time. So this, coupled with the film’s obvious brilliance, changed the attitude of audiences to one more receptive and supportive of aggressively anti-Nazi pictures. 

And so, looked at through this lens of history, it is a sort of melancholy movie – being Lombard’s final released at the start of the worst manned conflict in human history. But the film manages to navigate the utter darkness of the Nazi regime and bombings and occupations by exploiting the rich comic possibilities in the group of Polish actors deceiving the Germans and thwarting resistance busters. Jack Benny’s hammy company star Josef Tura is only a slight variation on the famously egotistical persona he’d perfected on the radio, and indeed he makes the entire film work through his masterful performance. Lombard makes the most of her somewhat limited role as Tura’s actress wife Maria (the nominal lead, she’d stepped into the role more as a favor to Lubitsch than anything), and terrific character actor Sig Ruman nearly steals the film as the inept Colonel Ehrhardt of the Gestapo.

As this list progresses, yet another favorite sub-genre of mine will begin to emerge – the war satire. I don’t believe we’ve got a lot of films up to this point that fit, but a bunch are on the way, including a handful right near the top of this heady enterprise. Place your bets, folks!

To Be or Not to Be only snagged a Best Score nomination from the Academy in its day, but it would ultimately be regarded as one of Lubitsch’s best, named the 49th Best Comedy ever made by the AFI in 2000, and was remade with Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft in 1983 which, I’ll admit, I’ve never seen. Is that the To Be or Not to Be people know? No, right? Can’t be.

I haven’t been walking through the Two-Timers a lot lately, but I wanted to recognize some of the great character actors making a second appearance today – #176 The Scarlet Claw’s Miles Mander, #298 A Christmas Carol (1938)‘s Halliwell Hobbes, and #333 The Hound of the Baskervilles’ Lionel Atwill! Rathbone/Bruce Holmes/Watson film veterans, all!

The furthest advancements are from #190 Nothing Sacred co-stars Lombard (also #382 True Confession, #211 My Man Godfrey) and Ruman (#345 White Christmas, #173 Day at the Races), both joining the Fours!

Coming tomorrow! Odd’s bodkins! Gad zooks! Look at that ol’ spook of spooks!

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