Amid all the (quite justified) hoopla over the 75th anniversary of the release of Casablanca—propelled by Noah Isenberg’s marvelous appreciation We’ll Always Have Casablanca and the distinctly unmarvelous relevance of its beset-refugee theme—another septuagenarian classic from 1942 is in danger of being drowned out by the rousing choruses of “La Marseillaise” ringing out from Rick’s Café Américain. Like Casablanca, the film features an ensemble of indelible character actors, a phalanx of arrogant Nazis with no sense of humor, and a romantic triangle whose lovers realize that the problems of three little people in this crazy world must be sacrificed in service to a greater cause. And though more brightly lit and broadly played, To Be or Not to Be—Ernst Lubitsch’s racy, risky black comedy of manners—is every bit the expression of wartime values and classical Hollywood style as its more famous birth cousin. Skeptics can decide for themselves when To Be or Not To Be is screened as part of a two-week repertory festival commemorating the 125th anniversary of Lubitsch’s birth, beginning tonight at New York’s Film Forum.
Set in Nazi-occupied Poland—not the obvious locale for a laugh-riot night out at the movies in wartime America—To Be or Not to Be opens with a bracing sight gag: Adolf Hitler, alone, is walking the streets of Warsaw in August 1939—or rather his dead ringer is, the actor Bronski (Tom Dugan) who impersonates der Führer in an anti-Nazi play being mounted by a plucky Polish theatrical troupe. “Heil myself,” he ad-libs, a bit player stealing the spotlight from the egomaniacal star. That would be the “great, great Polish actor Josef Tura” (as Josef Tura puts it), an insecure grade-A ham played by radio superstar Jack Benny, who jumped at the chance to work with Lubitsch. Tura’s wife and co-star Maria (Carole Lombard) gets second billing but is first in the hearts of her countrymen, especially the heart of a dashing young flyer, Lt. Sobinski (Robert Stack), who sighs over her from the second row. Since an actress has a duty to her adoring public, or at least its really handsome representatives, Maria agrees to meet the lieutenant in her dressing room when her husband is soliloquizing on stage. The signal for the assignation is the line “to be or not to be”—Tura is playing the Prince of Denmark. When Tura asks the question, the flyer leaves his seat to get cozy with Maria backstage. Lubitsch being Lubitsch, what transpires between the pair is left to the imagination: harmless flirtation or sexual tryst?
The Nazi invasion of Poland interrupts the backstage shenanigans. As the curtain of history slams down, the mood shifts from effervescent to somber. In the winter of its discontent, snow-smothered, war-ravaged Poland suffers under the jackboot of Nazi oppression. “And there was no censor to stop them,” mutters Greenberg (Felix Bressart), another bit player from the troupe, his line a self-reflexive comment on how the morality enforced on the American screen is not operative in the European theater.
In London, meanwhile, Lt. Sobinski, now a flyer for the Royal Air Force, discovers that a seeming Polish patriot is actually a Nazi double agent; the traitor must be stopped before he exposes the entire Polish underground. Parachuting into Warsaw, he is sheltered by Maria and suspected by Josef, but the possibly cuckolded actor forgoes husbandly revenge when he learns about the threat to the Polish resistance. The film is dead serious about the instinctive patriotism of the Poles and the casual brutality of the Germans.
Marie toys with her Nazi admirers, Josef impersonates a Nazi commandant (“So, they call me ‘Concentration Camp’ Ehrhardt?”), and the entire troupe mounts an elaborate charade to foil the Nazis. Mission accomplished, the actors escape by plane to Great Britain. Once safely in the air, the Hitler impersonator dispatches the real Nazis by ordering them out the side door of the fuselage. “Jump!” he barks. “Heil Hitler!” they salute, before obediently leaping to their deaths.
Title notwithstanding, the best-remembered soliloquy in the film is not from Hamlet but The Merchant of Venice. In a plot machination too convoluted to recap, the perennially second-billed Felix Bressart, a Jewish character actor and Lubitsch stock-company regular, is given his moment in the spotlight, reciting the anguished monologue from the role he was born to play, Shylock. “Have we not eyes? Have we not hands, organs, senses, dimensions, attachments, passions?” he asks the Nazis, who are mesmerized despite themselves. (The post-Holocaust spectator will be especially spooked by the accusation: “If you poison us, do we not die?”) Spoken against a backdrop of Nazi uniforms, helmets, and swastikas, Bressert’s performance is transfixing. He seems to know already that wartime Hollywood cinema will never produce a more eloquent plea for religious tolerance than the one written in the 1590s.
Curiously, though, Bressart does not speak the trigger word that in Shakespeare launches the litany of rhetorical questions: “Hath not a Jew eyes?” Still radioactive, the word “Jew” was seldom heard on the Hollywood screen, even in war-minded scenarios where the topic of anti-Semitism was front and center. In The Mortal Storm (1940), for example, the Jewish professor murdered by the Nazis is never named as such—only called a “non-Aryan” with the letter “J” printed on his concentration-camp uniform.
Alas, no paper trail seems to have survived to explain the significant omission from Shylock’s speech. The Production Code overseers, who were often leery of Jewish content, raised no objections. “The studio bosses were always—even at this point—afraid of thrusting Jews into the spotlight,” speculates film historian Lester D. Friedman, author of Hollywood’s Image of the Jew, trying to make sense of the decision. William Paul, professor of film and media studies at Washington University and author of Ernst Lubitsch’s American Comedy, points out that To Be or Not To Be went into production in the wake of the U.S. Senate’s investigation of “Propaganda in Motion Pictures” (Sept. 9-26, 1941). In the highly publicized hearings, a group of Hollywood moguls were hauled before a dais of nativist senators and accused of using anti-Nazi films to sucker Christian America into the European maelstrom. Antony Polansky, professor emeritus of Holocaust studies at Brandeis University, offers a nation-specific explanation. Since many Poles did not consider Polish Jews to be true Poles, the substitution of the pronoun “we” for “Jews” actually expanded the net of inclusion: Greenberg, the Polish Jew, was speaking as a Pole, not a Jew.
Fortunately, elsewhere in To Be or Not to Be the Jewish elements are hardly hidden between the lines. Is Hitler “by any chance interested in Mr. Maslowski’s delicatessen?” teases the narrator in the opening vignette. “That’s impossible—he’s a vegetarian!”
If Casablanca is hailed as the definitive example of the collaborative magic of “the genius of the system,” To Be or Not to Be is imprinted with the genius of one man, the great, great director Ernst Lubitsch. In the days before the auteur theory, Lubitsch was one of a handful of Hollywood directors whose name above the title meant something to average moviegoers. His trademark “Lubitsch touch” promised an effervescent European sophistication laced with risqué banter and sexual sparks—but that never crossed over into the smarmy, that skated right up to the edge of the Production Code without breaking through the ice. Even Joseph Breen, the straight-laced enforcer of the code, gave Lubitsch a longer leash than most Hollywood directors because, like everyone in Hollywood, he knew the man was a genius.
Though a German Jew, Lubitsch was not a refugee from Nazism: He abandoned the Weimar Republic for Hollywood in 1922, lured over by Mary Pickford, who wanted him to direct her as Gretchen in Faust, a concept that fortunately never came to light. Lubitsch thrived in the emergent Hollywood studio system with elegant costume dramas like Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925) and So This Is Paris (1926) before gliding effortlessly into the sound era with The Love Parade (1929) and The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), each starring another European import, Maurice Chevalier. In 1932, when Lubitsch returned to Germany for a visit, he was asked if he ever planned to return to his native land. Already attuned to the bad vibes in the air, he replied, “In California, the sun shines every day.” Not that he forgot his less fortunate brethren as the Nazis consolidated their gangster state. He was a leading voice in the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and a founding member of the European Film Fund, which tithed its members 1 percent of their salaries to support a community of film-minded refugees from Nazism so numerous that Hollywood was dubbed “Berlin on the Pacific.”
By the end of the 1930s, Lubitsch was at the height of his creative powers and box-office popularity. As American entry into WWII loomed, he was coming off two of his most intoxicating concoctions: Ninotchka (1939), in which a straight-laced Soviet commissar (played by Greta Garbo, who famously laughed) is seduced by the champagne and chapeaux of decadent Paris, and The Shop Around the Corner (1940), in which Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan conduct an epistolary love affair while squabbling like cats and dogs face to face. He died too young, at 55, in 1947, his last film, The Lady in Ermine (1948), completed by Otto Preminger. At Lubitsch’s funeral, eulogizing his beloved friend and mentor, the director Billy Wilder explained the sensibility that defined the Lubitsch touch. Lubitsch, Wilder observed, never wanted to follow the bride and bridegroom into the honeymoon suite and spy on their first night together; he wanted to observe the couple at breakfast the next morning.
Presented by Alexander Korda, produced as well as directed by Lubitsch, and written by Edwin Justus Meyer from and original story by Lubitsch and Melchior Lengyel, To Be or Not To Be went into production on Nov. 6, 1941. By the time the film wrapped on Dec. 24, it confronted a radically different zeitgeist. In the interim between Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7, 1941) and the Doolittle Raid over Tokyo (Apr. 18, 1942) the war news for America was all bad: The Nazis dominated huge swaths of Europe, the Wehrmacht was locked in a death grip with the Soviet Army, and the Japanese controlled much of the Pacific Theater. Hitler and the Nazis—so lately fit subjects for hilarity in The Three Stooges’ You Nazty Spy! (1940) and Charles Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940)—were no longer laughing matters.
Closer to home, another piece of grim news cast a shadow over the film. On Jan. 15, 1942, in Indianapolis, Carole Lombard joined fellow Hoosier Will Hays, president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, for a huge war-bond rally. “Great day today,” Hays telegrammed Clark Gable, whom Lombard had married in 1939. “Carole was perfect.”
Hours later the actress was dead when the plane carrying her back to Hollywood crashed into the mountains 35 miles west of Las Vegas, killing all 22 souls on board, including 15 Army aviators.
Unhinged with grief, Gable rushed to the crash site to help search for her body. “Carole Lombard gave her life in the service of America,” Will Hays declared in a public statement. FDR sent Gable a telegram of condolence. “She gave unselfishly of her time and talent to serve her country in peace and in war. She loved her country.” A stricken Jack Benny withdrew from his broadcast that Sunday night. Summing up the reaction throughout the industry, Variety noted that “no tragedy has struck the theatrical field with such widespread sorrow since the death, also by airplane disaster, of Will Rogers, in August 1935.” Pearl Harbor had claimed 2,400 American lives, and more telegrams from the War Department were being delivered every day, but Lombard was the first casualty of World War II everyone felt they knew.
United Artists announced “a respectful period of time” would be allowed to elapse before the release of Lombard’s last picture. On Feb. 19, 1942, To Be or Not To Be premiered in New York and Los Angeles; on Mar. 6, it went into general release.
Reviews were positive but mindful of the clouds hanging over the comedy. Watching the gorgeous star—lithe, supple, and radiant in a form-fitting gown—it seemed impossible that she was dead. “Individual reaction to the film is tempered, one way or another in all cases, by the fact of Miss Lombard’s death,” wrote William R. Weaver in Motion Picture Herald. He also noted the bigger picture. “Mass audience reaction is subject to variation with the tenor of the day’s war news.” For Polish neighborhoods, Weaver suggested, “it is well to test out specifically the local attitude toward a comedy which utilizes blizted Warsaw as a background for humor.” The reaction of one moviegoer verged on the traumatic. At the film’s premiere in New York, Jack Benny’s father took one look at his son in a Gestapo uniform, became nauseated, and bolted for the lobby.
Contrary to myth, however, To Be or Not To Be was a not a box-office flop. It was the year’s top attraction for United Artists, grossing $1.5 million, though, as with all Lubitsch films, it played better in the big cities than in the hinterlands. To put things in perspective, however, each of the four films starring Abbot and Costello that year outgrossed To Be or Not To Be.
In the years since, due to repertory screenings, the rise of auteurism, frequent television screenings, and ready DVD availability, To Be or Not To Be has gained steadily in stature. As the war and the memory of Lombard’s death receded, audiences were able to experience the dark satire without the queasy dread that filled the air of the first half of 1942. In 1983, it was well-enough-known to be remade by Mel Brooks, whose own directorial hand felt more like a grope than a touch.
“What I have satirized in this picture are the Nazis and their ridiculous ideology,” Lubitsch explained to critics who felt his breezy style and glib quips were in poor taste. The tone and temper of the film “cannot leave any doubt in the spectator’s mind what my point of view and attitude are toward these acts of horror.” To Be or Not To Be may never be as vivid in the cultural memory as Casablanca, its lines as fluently quoted, but its bedrock anti-Nazism and spirit of resistance is just as fierce. It is also a whole lot funnier—and a laugh, as Felix Bressart remarks, speaking for the director, is nothing to sneeze at.
Thomas Doherty last wrote for Tablet magazine about None Shall Escape, Hollywood’s first Holocaust film.
Thomas Doherty, a professor of American Studies at Brandeis University, is the author of Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939 and Little Lindy Is Kidnapped: How the Media Covered the Crime of the Century.