A vain actor of the theater has a lot going against him at the moment. Part of that is that his glamorous actress wife is having an affair, but what seems to bother him most is that the Air Force pilot who is dropping “three tons of dynamite in two minutes” on her is getting up in the middle of the actor’s “To be or not to be” speech from Hamlet. Like I said, the guy is vain. But everyone is going to have a lot more to worry about than shunted pride and infidelities. This theater is in Poland, and it is only a matter of time before Nazi Germany invades. Hitler, once the muse of mockery and fun, is going to make things rather hellish for our trio and their cohorts, but never fear. This is, after all, an Ernst Lubitsch film.
And that last bit makes all the difference. Lubitsch had a way of pulling things off in Hollywood, during the Hays Code era of decency in film, that only a couple other really big star names were allowed…The Marx Brothers, Alfred Hitchcock. These people could use sexual innuendo and the specter of murder most foul in a liberal sense that confounded others. Famously, the censors were up in arms when it came to the film Casablanca because of the inference that married Ilsa was rekindling a sexual relationship with the roguish Rick. If Warner Bros. and Humphrey Bogart couldn’t go there, how could Lubitsch?
The key to that, and the entirety of the film To Be Or Not To Be, is that it embraces the obvious rather than running away from it. Here are some of what I mean: Jack Benny, being one of the most famous comedians of the day on radio, was not really an actor. He played this character of the cheapskate whose vanity often caught him up, and over the years reports claimed that there was a lot of truth to that characterization, for comedic purposes or otherwise. Because of this intimate association with this type, Benny struggled in films. He couldn’t be believed and he couldn’t get past being Jack Benny. So Lubitsch didn’t try to — instead he fashioned resourceful but self-centered actor Joseph on that type as well. If you have one of the world’s most popular celebrities in your film, do you go with his strengths or do you render him unrecognizable, with his assets obscured?
Add in the glamorous Carole Lombard in her last film role as the philandering wife Maria. Sure, she’s an actress, but it’s doubtful that any actress in the Polish theater was as sexed up and gorgeous as she, but when you have Carole Lombard in your movie, go with it. Rounding out this classic screwball trio is Robert Stack as the Polish Air Force pilot who’s putting it to Maria whenever he hears Joseph utter “to be or not to be” from the stage, but there are plenty of other standout performances in To Be Or Not To Be the film.
In its day, the movie was scandalous for more than just the implications of sexual dalliances. This is, after all, a comedy about an invasion, about Poland falling under the heel of fascist jackboots. There’s death here. In a now-classic but then critically derided line, a Nazi administrator speaks to Joseph (in disguise and unbeknownst to said administrator) of a performance he saw of Joseph performing Hamlet. His critique: “What he did to Shakespeare, we’re now doing to Poland!” How could it ever be funny? That is the trick that gets played perfectly by all involved. Yes, it’s a comedy and Hitler’s ranks get their comeuppances, but they’re never portrayed as not being a threat, as not being formidable.
The Blu-ray is not in black & white so much as it is in the black & white of your dreams, with a 2K transfer so crisp and clean it is almost like charcoal renderings with every tone, from silver to soot black, represented. I know it is a hoary old fall-back for companies to now say that these presentations are better than even when they were first run in the movie houses. Guess what? I can guarantee you that your grandparents (great grandparents?) never saw this movie in better shape than it is on Criterion Collection’s disc. There are a few extras, including a quite old silent film from Lubitsch, and a well-prepared audio commentary from film historian David Kalat (who previously discussed Criterion’s Godzilla and Things To Come releases) but the real reason to have this movie as your own is because it is thoroughly adult. I don’t mean that as a signifier of the sexual content that runs as the movie’s undercurrent, but the fact that this undercurrent is handled in such an elegant and knowing way, you don’t need to see the acts. You’re smart enough, and I suppose old enough, to know what they’re talking about.
And it is funny. Don’t forget that this is first and foremost a comedy, and the one that Benny himself took great pride in, which is something he could not say about the majority of his other movie work. The great Ernst Lubitch was going after the folks who “got it” and had little interest in talking down to get everyone on board. If you were mature enough to catch the collective drift, you got it alright…like three tons of dynamite in two minutes.