To Be or Not to Be (1942, Ernst Lubitsch)

I guess this movie gets lots of credit for being a Hollywood anti-nazi resistance comedy released soon after U.S. entry into the war. Not a lot of funny Hitler movies going around back then, and reportedly it pissed off some audiences that German-born Lubitsch would try bringing his trademark lightness to such a heavy situation. But if anything, today it suffers from being not enough of a comedy. I couldn’t watch half the scenes without flashing back to The Great Dictator or Inglorious Basterds. Not that it has to go as far as Basterds, letting a couple of Jews machine-gun Hitler at close range as the whole theater explodes, but it came off closer in tone to 49th Parallel than Great Dictator.

One of the things that stood out about Lubitsch’s The Smiling Lieutenant a decade earlier was its pre-censors sexual frankness, and now this one gets away with having Carole Lombard (Twentieth Century star in her final role – she died in a plane crash) cheat on her husband with young bomber flyer Robert Stack (House of Bamboo, Written on the Wind – very early in his career) and get away with it.

Jack Benny (about to ditch the movies for a long TV career) leads an acting troupe along with wife Lombard and also Felix Bressart (Shop Around the Corner), Lionel Atwill (lots of Frankenstein movies) and Tom Dugan (bit player who averaged a movie per month in the 40’s). The play they’ve been rehearsing is censored by the nazis on the eve of its opening, so they go back to performing Hamlet, during which Robert Stack keeps leaving the audience at the start of Benny’s big soliloquy, brushing past everyone in the second row to meet Lombard backstage (why doesn’t he get an aisle seat?). Later at the height of the war, the theater troupe has joined the Polish resistance and Stack is fighting in the UK when a spy (Stanley Ridges of Canyon Passage, heh) with critical information about the resistance makes it into Poland and wants to meet with Lombard to inquire about the “code” he’s been given for her, “to be or not to be”. Stack flies into Poland and fills everyone in, so now the actors have to do their best impressions of nazi officials (Benny: “So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt?”) to get back the secret papers.

The premise got away from me towards the end, when I thought Benny and his gang, having Hitler and a thousand nazis rounded up in a theater, aimed to do some damage. But of course, that’s Basterds talking again – I think they were just trying to get away from occupied Poland by stealing Hitler’s personal plane. Remade in the 80’s with Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft and Christopher Lloyd for some weird reason.

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