“To be or not to be” – the movie
January 5, 2013
Turner Classics the other night broadcast a fascinating relic of World War II, a dark comedy entitled To Be or Not to Be, starring Carole Lombard and Jack Benny. This 1942 film, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, is set in Warsaw during the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany. The plot concerns a troupe of Polish actors who use the tools of their art to upend a plan by the Nazis to identify and track down families of Polish airmen fighting against the Third Reich.
Benny and Lombard play a married couple, Josef and Maria Tura, who are popular Shakespearean actors in the city. A young Polish airman, Stanislav Sobinski, played by 23-year-old Robert Stack, has become enamored of Maria and she, appreciating the attention, begins a clandestine romance with him. Josef deduces that the two are having an affair after Sobinski repeatedly leaves the theater to meet Maria just as Josef is beginning to recite the “to be or not to be” speech in Hamlet.
Sobinski, however, is sent off to England where he meets Alexander Siletsky, a Nazi spy who pretends to be a member of the Polish resistance in order to gather information about anti-German activists. In a conversation with Siletsky, Sobinski mentions Maria Tura and is suspicious when the supposed denizen of Warsaw doesn’t recognize her name.
Based on Sobinski’s description of Maria, Siletsky, who travels to Poland to deliver to the Nazis a list of the families of Polish airmen, determines to enlist the actress as an informant. When he meets her, he also takes a more personal interest in her. But Sobinski has informed his superiors of his suspicions about Siletsky and is sent back to Warsaw to warn the resistance. When the acting company learns of this, they determine that the only solution is to murder Siletsky before he can turn over the names.
The plot proceeds as a classic farce in which one of the actors poses as Adolf Hitler in order to hoodwink the German authorities.
This film (which Mel Brooks remade in 1983) is regarded as a comedy classic, but it was controversial in its time. Some folks were uncomfortable with the humorous approach to the situation in Europe, which was anything but funny. Lubitsch began this project with Jack Benny in mind for the lead. Benny, whose birth name was Benjamin Kubelsky, met some resistance first-hand when his father, Meyer, walked out of the theater, scandalized by the sight of his son in Nazi uniform. Meyer reputedly changed his mind under Benny’s influence and eventually saw the movie more than forty times. Despite its humor, the film is very dark, though, and emphasizes the level of destruction the Germans rained on Warsaw.
To Be or Not to Be was the last film for Carole Lombard, who was the highest-paid Hollywood star at the time. Before this movie was released, she was killed in a plane crash while returning from a U.S. Bond tour.
The first American film to attack Hitler and Nazism through ridicule was You Natzy Spy! a short subject by The Three Stooges. That was followed a few months later by Charles Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, Chaplin’s first true sound film and his first commercial success. In that movie, which appeared in 1940, before the United States and Germany were at war, Chaplin mercilessly pillories Hitler, fascism, anti-Semitism, and Benito Mussolini.
Walt Disney got into the act on January 1, 1943, by releasing In Der Fuhrer’s Face, a propaganda cartoon in which Donald Duck has a nightmare in which he is forced to work on the assembly line of a munitions factory in “Nutziland.” This film included some broad German, Japanese, and Italian caricatures, including send-ups of Hitler and Mussolini. The cartoon featured a song that had been recorded and already released by Spike Jones: “When the Fuhrer says, ‘We are the master race,’ we heil, we hiel, right in der Fuhrer’s face”
You can watch a high-quality video of this cartoon at THIS LINK.