Anticipating Mission: Impossible (and one of Hogan's Heroes' catchphrases) by a quarter-century, Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be allowed Polish heroes a chance to elaborately scam the Nazis, mostly by using the tools of drama: costumes, sets, and most importantly, acting. It's always been a fine line between acting and lying, a point underscored in To Be or Not to Be by one heroic actor lying to another in the form of a potential affair. As scripted by Melchior Lengyel and Edwin Justus Mayer, the film weds backstage farce to daring contemporary political trappings: war comedies are hard enough to pull off when the war is over. Lubitsch "dropped" the bomb of To Be or Not to Be in 1942, following on the heels of Chaplin's The Great Dictator two years earlier.
To Be or Not to Be is also notable for its stars: Jack Benny in one of his handful of starring roles on the big screen, and Carole Lombard in her last film (she died in a plane crash while the film was still in production). Benny and Lombard play Josef and Maria Tura, the stars of Warsaw's premier theater company. Though rehearsing their own Nazi comedy, they're still in the throes of a production of Hamlet, particularly enjoyed by the hammy Josef. But the titular monologue keeps getting interrupted when a young man gets up and exits the auditorium, making Josef as neurotic as his character. The young man is a dashing pilot, Lt. Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack), who has designs on the beautiful Maria and times his backstage visits to Josef's soliloquizing. All of this is gone but not forgotten when Sobinski stumbles upon a Nazi plot that threatens to expose the resistance in Warsaw. The actors go into action to waylay Nazi spy Professor Alexander Siletsky, who further complicates matters by also developing an interest in Maria.
To Be or Not to Be has all the hallmarks of a Lubitsch comedy: a solidly constructed plot, good comic pacing, a light touch, and strong performances from top to bottom. Benny perfectly locates the humor of Josef on a spectrum of egotism, his over-confidence slipsliding up and down with each setback in the plot or his marriage; meanwhile, the lovely Lombard conveys strength and spontaneity in handling men who are all her inferiors. The great Sig Ruman (A Night at the Opera) sets the standard for hapless Nazis as the gullible Gestapo commander Col. Ehrhardt ("Schultz!"). In truth, the ensemble is note-perfect all the way down the line, even commenting on the importance of the lowest men on the theatrical totem pole: the spear carriers. These include the Jewish Greenberg (Felix Bressart), who pines to play Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and thus establishes a motif based on that play's "Rialto speech" ("Hath not a Jew eyes?"). That speech gets a provocatively ironic spin when Siletsky inquires, "Do I look like a monster?...We're just like other people. We love to sing, we love to dance, we admire beautiful women. We're human..."
The film's razor-sharp wit ("What a husband doesn't know won't hurt his wife"), crack performances, and "Lubitsch touch" weren't enough to convince the lion's share of the press and the public that the film was in good taste, but time has burnished the film's reputation. The film also got an ironic boost from its reverent, but lesser, 1983 remake, starring a man who knows his way around Nazi jokes: Mel Brooks.
Criterion brings To Be or Not to Be to domestic Blu-ray in a terrific special edition. Picture quality is excellent, distinguished by its natural filmic look (with healthy grain) and fine contrast. Detail is good for a film of this vintage, and the digital restoration process has cleaned up some of the dirt and scratches one would expect to otherwise see. The linear PCM mono track likewise sounds quite clean, and gives the source material a faithful, maximized presentation, presenting clear dialogue and making the most of the music score (which, admittedly, sounds a touch tinny).
The film comes here with a top-notch scholarly audio commentary by film historian David Kalat. Kalat does a terrific job of telling the story of the film and introducing us to the talent that made it, providing historical context and analyzing the film's text.
Lubitsch's 1916 German silent short "Pinkus’s Shoe Palace" (44:58, HD) comes with a new piano score by Donald Sosin. It's the comical tale of a Jewish boy who keeps getting into jams.
The 2010 French documentary "Lubitsch le patron" covers the director’s career (53:10, HD). Interveiw subjects include film historian Jean-Loup Bourget, film historian Marc Cerisuelo, lecturer in film studies Jacqueline Nacache, director Nicolas Saada, lecturer in film studies Katalyn Por, director Emmanuel Carrere, and director Benoit Jacquo.
We also get two episodes of the radio anthology show The Screen Guild Theater: 1940 episode "Variety" (29:31, HD), starring Jack Benny, Claudette Colbert, and Lubitsch as themselves; and 1942 episode "To Be or Not to Be" (25:41, HD), starring William Powell, Diana Lewis, and Sig Ruman.
Packaged with the disc is a booklet with an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien and Lubitsch's 1942 New York Times op-ed defending his film.
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