Released two months after actress Carole Lombard was tragically killed in an airplane crash selling war bonds, To Be or Not To Be was initially not well received by the public or critics, many of whom just couldn’t understand the reasoning behind making fun out of such a real threat as the Nazis. Today, the film is regarded as one of the best films of director Ernst Lubitsch’s career, and has become a comedy classic.
Filmed in 1941, To Be or Not to Be takes place just two years earlier in Warsaw, when Germany invaded Poland. Joseph Tura (Jack Benny), a vain Polish actor, and his wife, Maria (Carole Lombard) are a national institution in Warsaw. Joseph is so conceited; he clearly loves himself more than his wife. His lack of attention causes her to flirt with, and eventually date a Polish Air Force pilot named Stanislov (Robert Stack). He visits her backstage whenever Joseph starts reciting Hamlet’s soliloquy. This upsets Joseph, not because another man is visiting his wife, but because someone is walking out on his performance.
During a production of Hamlet, Germany attacks. Stanislov goes to England to fly with the Royal Air Force while Maria and Joseph join the Polish underground. Stanislov quickly parachutes back into Poland after discovering a professor, Siletsky (Stanley Ridges), is a spy. He told Stanislov he lived in Warsaw, but he never heard of Maria. Stanislov has to stop Siletsky before he reveals too much information.
In Warsaw, Stanislov stays with Maria, where Joseph finds him sleeping in his bed. “How did you get here?” “I jumped from a plane.” Siletsky has Maria brought in for questioning. He propositions her to spy for Germany as well as to have an affair. Maria, Stanislov and Joseph devise a plan to kill Siletsky. The plan has Maria going to dinner with Siletsky and Joseph impersonating a Nazi officer. As one would expect, Joseph is sure he can pull it off, “I am going to do the impossible, I am going to surpass myself.”
Written by Melchior Lengyel and Edwin Justus Mayer the script gives Carole Lombard most of the early laughs, before Jack Benny begins to take over as the story progresses. Lubitsch clearly understood that he was working with two funny individuals and made pretty solid use of their talents. Lombard throws out suggestive double entendres, while Benny’s humor most often comes from his incredible vanity. This is all the more funny, because few would say that Jack Benny is traditionally handsome.
To Be or Not to Be is a comedy first and foremost, though it works very well as a drama. Someone gets shot and killed. In the film’s most tense scene, the Nazi’s discover Joseph is a fake. The acting is strong throughout the cast. Known for her comedic timing, Lombard was also a very beautiful woman and that comes through here. My familiarity with Jack Benny comes from his television work—he was forever 39—but he is genuinely hilarious here. Robert Stack does a commendable job as the love struck pilot. He would later find television fame when he starred in the 1959–63 television series The Untouchables.
To Be or Not to Be is a funny movie with some serious moments, and comes highly recommended.
Presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1, Criterion’s 1080p presentation is sharp with a film-like appearance. The only exception is as few shots that appear to have been taken from a different source. The grayscale is consistent, as is the contrast, which offers solid black levels and controlled whites.
The English LPCM 1.0. track is wonderful, offering a distortion free experience. Dialogue is easily discernible throughout and never overwhelmed by the Oscar nominated score from Werner Heymann or the sound effects.
English SDH subtitles are available.
The following special features are included:
- Audio Commentary with Film Historian David Kalat: Recorded exclusively for Criterion in 2013, Kalat discusses the production, important events from the lives of the principal actors (with particular emphasis on Carole Lombard), the socio-economic conditions in Europe at the time, and more.
- Lubitsch le patron (HD, 53:10) This 2010 documentary, written by film scholar N.T. Binh and directed by Jean-Jacques Bernard, focuses on the life, work, and legacy of director Ernst Lubitsch. Included are interviews with film historian Jean-Loup Bourget, film historian Marc Cerisuelo, lecturer in film studies Jacqueline Nacache, director Nicolas Saada (Espion(s)), lecturer in film studies Katalyn Por, director Emmanuel Carrere (La Moustache), and director Benoit Jacquot (Farewell, My Queen, Adolphe), and others. Presented in French with English subtitles.
- Pinkus’s Shoe Palace (HD, 44:58) An early film directed by Lubitsch in 1916. It tracks a young Jewish boy who can’t seem to avoid trouble. With German intertitles and optional English subtitles.
- Screen Guild Theater: Two radio broadcasts. Variety (29:31) from 1940 features Jack Benny, Claudette Colbert, and Ernst Lubitsch. To Be or Not to Be (25:41) from 1943 features William Powell, his wife Diana Lewis, and Sig Ruman from the film.
- Booklet: A 25-page illustrated booklet featuring an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien.