To Be or Not To Be (1942)
As World War II raged on Ernst Lubitsch made a film that still leaves people scratching their heads, balancing so nicely between comedy, drama, and thriller.
Two stages icons, husband and wife are in the peak of their careers in Warsaw, Poland. They are making a play about Hitler which they all agree gently pokes fun at the dictator. At night, the duo goes to another theater and they reenact Shakespeare for the delight of their audience. Maria and Joseph Tura (Carole Lombard and Jack Benny) don't always see eye to eye. They have a barbed dialogue, filled with double meanings and back-handed compliments.
For the third night in a row, Maria has gotten flowers from an anonymous source. She suspects it's a good-looking lieutenant who sits near the front. Receiving a letter from her mystery admirer, she invites him to come backstage a visit her during Hamlet's infamous soliloquy. When the man arrives Maria finds that her assumptions were correct, it was the charming young man.
They start a relationship, though not really an affair. She'll visit him and he'll talk to her; but he thinks there's more to it. He wants her to leave Joseph and come to him...be a good housewife and give up acting. He may be deluding himself.
But right before the relational drama could infect the picture, war breaks out on Poland as the Germans walk in.
The young lieutenant gets whisked away to fight for Poland and the Turas stay behind to try to eke out a living while not getting killed by the local police force.
First of all, it's a misnomer to call "To Be or Not To Be" a comedy. In present day movies, it most resembles "Argo", though it is a much superior film for its ease and charming direction.
There is a point to the film, one that cannot be separated from the story the movie is telling.
Clearly and almost condescendingly anti-Nazi, "To Be or Not To Be" has genuinely funny moments sandwiched in between moments of true peril and worry.
One character repeats Shakespeare several times, asking the Germans to look at Polish people as their equals and not lesser-thans. It's very reminiscent to a scene from "The Pianist" where a character quotes the same passage, asking the same moral questions.
This brings up a good point, I find a lot of filmmaker's inspirations lie in this film. Tarantino no doubt saw this before he made "Inglourious Basterds" and Hitchcock may have seen the film as well.
Jack Benny does a really good job as the lead male...we see him as several different characters, each one blends into the next. The make-up makes Benny look like every person the script demands him to be.
This isn't a Peter Sellers performance, but it is close. Kubrick also, probably took some cues from this film.
The movie has a very dark undertone, one that reminds us constantly of what year it was made. It feels like an intimate picture, one crafted out of heartache a pain, still finding time for a few laughs. "To Be or Not To Be" is very sorrowful and full of emotion. Yet, beyond all that, it is funny.
It has a zany quality that rings true of Mel Brooks.
The film looks great, the years have been kind and it might not end the way you think it would.
It's a movie about courage, casual bedfellows, and the indecency of mankind.
"To Be or Not To Be" is a very fine movie.
Score: 3 and a half stars out of 4
Posted by Micah Jones