Comedian Jack Benny got a lot of mileage (and a lot of laughs) making fun of his movie career, especially THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT . While that film isn’t half as bad as Jack claimed it was, even better was Ernst Lubitsch’s TO BE OR NOT TO BE, a topical (at the time) tale of a band of Polish actors taking on the invading Nazis during WWII. Jack’s got his best film foil here, the marvelous Carole Lombard, and the movie’s got that wonderful “Lubitsch Touch”, a blend of sophistication and sparkling wit evidenced in classic films ranging from THE MERRY WIDOW and DESIGN FOR LIVING to NINOTCHKA and HEAVEN CAN WAIT.
Benny plays Joseph Tura, the self-proclaimed “greatest actor in the world”, and Lombard is his bantering wife Maria. Together, they lead a troupe of actors in Warsaw in a production of “Hamlet”, but every time Tura begins his “To be, or not to be…” soliloquy, an audience member walks out – unbeknownst to the vain Tura, the line’s a code for Maria’s young lover Lt. Sobinski (Robert Stack) to meet her in the dressing room! Germany invades Poland, and Sobinski’s off to join the RAF, but the acting troupe is forced to disban.
When the eminent Professor Siletsky is discovered to be a secret Nazi agent, the British send Sobinski back to Warsaw before the traitor can reveal the names of the Polish underground to the Gestapo. He reunites with Maria, now working for the underground herself, and Tura catches the young lieutenant sleeping in his bed! Maria returns, and an elaborate plan involving the acting troupe evolves with Tura impersonating Siletsky in order to retrieve that list of names. Gestapo head Col. Ehrardt is initially fooled by Tura, but then the dead body of the real Siletsky is found, just as Der Führer himself is about to pay a visit to Warsaw….
Benny’s vain, egotistical ham actor Joseph Tura is the perfect fit for his comic persona, developed through years of vaudeville and honed to a tee on his popular radio show. His trademark physical mannerisms and facial expressions are priceless, and Lubitsch brings out the best in him. He’s matched by screwball queen Carole Lombard, who shines in every scene she appears in as Tura’s not-so faithful wife. Sadly, this was the 33-year-old star’s last picture; on January 16, 1942, Lombard and 21 others (including her mother) were killed in a plane crash returning from a War Bond rally in her home state of Indiana. She was married to Clark Gable at the time. Among her many films, my favorites are TWENTIETH CENTURY, MY MAN GODFREY, NOTHING SACRED, and this one, released posthumously, and a fine capping to a brilliant career.
The supporting cast is equally brilliant, with young up-and-comer Robert Stack a fine lovestruck Sobinski. Sig Ruman , the Marx Brothers’ nemesis in A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, gives another great comic characterization as the pompous Col. Ehrhardt (“So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt, eh?”). Henry Victor is Ehrhardt’s top aide (and convenient scapegoat) Captain Schultz. Felix Bressart as Greenberg, one of the Polish actors, gets a chance to truly shine when he gives Shylock’s speech from “The Merchant of Venice (“If you prick us, do we not bleed…”). Old friend Lionel Atwill is on board as an actor who’s even hammier than Tura! Among the rest of the cast, you’ll find Familiar Faces like Helmut Dantine, Tom Dugan, Maude Eburne, James Finlayson , Charles Halton, Miles Mander, Frank Reicher , and Stanley Ridges in roles large and small.
TO BE OR NOT TO BE is one of the few films where the remake (1983) is just as good. That’s probably because of producer/star Mel Brooks , a huge Jack Benny fan, who even pays tribute to the great comedian in the film (be on the lookout for the street sign Kubelsky Street, Benny’s given name). But if I had to pick one over the other to watch on a rainy night, it would definitely be Lubitsch’s 1942 classic, mainly because, like Brooks, I’m a huge Jack Benny fan myself! I’m pretty sure Mel would make the same choice.