The Nazis conquered Poland with frightening speed. But they prove no match for Carol Lombard and Jack Benny in Ernst Lubitsch’s World War II comic masterpiece, available on Blu-ray August 27 from Criterion.
Lombard and Benny play a married pair of egotistical stars of the Warsaw stage, heading a theatrical troupe of slightly lesser egos. Their careers are put on hold when the Nazis attack, but they soon find more challenging and important roles to play when vital information must be kept out of Gestapo hands.
If the title and plot sound familiar, but the cast doesn’t, that’s because Mel Brooks remade the film in 1983. But both the Criterion release and this review will stick to the 1942 original.
Lombard and Benny both give the performances of their careers here. Lombard (who would die in a plane crash before the movie opened), plays an actress whose love for her husband is tempered by her love for much better-looking men (particularly a very young Robert Stack). She can turn on subtle seduction like a faucet, and make anything sound like innuendo. And yet in the course of the story, she’s also frightened, courageous, and scheming in ways that she never had to scheme before.
Lombard was the great comic actress of her generation, but as her cuckolded husband, Jack Benny matches her performance. Unlike Lombard, Benny never had much of a career in movies. He was a huge success in vaudeville, radio, and eventually television, but only Lubitsch found the right leading role for him on the big screen. Both extremely vain and astonishingly insecure, his character trolls for compliments everywhere. When disguised as an important Nazi, talking to a Gestapo colonel, he will say with forced casualness, "By the way, have you ever heard of the great Polish actor, Joseph Tura?" The answer always disappoints him, but never disappoints the audience.
For such a funny film, To Be or Not to Be can be astonishingly serious when called for. Early on, a full half hour (nearly a third of the running time) goes by as a straight espionage thriller, without a single gag. And no, that is not a flaw. Lubitsch and screenwriter Edwin Justus Mayer had already introduced the comic lead characters, and it was now time to set up the essentially serious plot that would soon be comically resolved.
The serious interlude ends when Benny comes home to find his wife gone and Stack asleep in his bed. That’s when you know that you’ve returned to Lubitsch’s beloved world of bedroom farce.
If you love to laugh and hate Nazis, you’ll enjoy To Be or Not to Be.
In addition to the disc, the box contains a 23-page booklet dominated by two essays. The first, by Geoffrey O’Brien, discusses the film’s history and merit. The second is Lubitsch’s 1942 defense of the film, which was heavily panned by offended critics in its initial release.
The disc behaves like all Criterion Blu-rays. Inserting it for the first time takes you directly to the opening menu. After that, you’ll get an option to restart where you left off.
How does it look?
For the most part, it looks fantastic–crisp and detailed black-and-white, showing off both the glamour of Lombard’s wardrobe and the privations of an occupied city in wartime (or at least as much of those privations that were allowed on a Hollywood soundstage in 1941). The image is pillarboxed to the correct 1.37×1 aspect ratio.
Criterion got every piece of detail out of this movie that they could with sacrificing the film look. When Benny stands on stage and starts Shakespeare’s famous soliloquy (coming up, of course, to a great sight gag), you can see every person in the onscreen audience.
One scene and a few shots looked washed out. I don’t know why.
How does it sound?
The original mono optical soundtrack is faithfully reproduced in uncompressed, 24-bit PCM. If you’re not looking for a way to show off your surround sound system, you’ll have nothing to complain about.
And the Extras?
Commentary by David Kalat: Definitely worth listening to. Kalat covers everything from offended critics, other anti-Nazi comedies of the era, the remake, the film’s production and history, and the filmmakers’ careers, The slow moments are few.
Lubitsch Patron: 53 minutes. I found this French TV doc about Lubitsch mildly Interesting, but not exceptional.
Pinkus’s Shoe Palace: 45 minutes. Lubitsch stared and directed this 1916 comedy, which I found pretty unwatchable. I gave up after 13 minutes. Accompanied by Donald Sosin on piano.
The Screen Guild Theater: Two episodes of a popular radio anthology program, originally broadcast live. The first episode, "Variety," was broadcast a couple of years before To Be or Not to Be. It has Benny trying to convince Lubitsch to cast him in a movie. The other is an extremely condensed radio adaptation of To Be or Not to Be. As I write this, I haven’t yet listened to them.