Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not to Be, starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard, is a top-notch World War 2 satire taking place during the Holocaust.
The film starts out in prior to the 1939 Nazi Invasion of Warsaw, Poland. We meet a play of theatrical actors led by husband and wife, Josef Tura (Jack Benny) and Maria Tura (Carole Lombard). They’re leading the rehearsals for a satirical play, Gestapo. Bronski (Tom Dugan) passes for Hitler with flying colors. This will prove to be a benefit later on. For the time being, they’re performing Hamlet with Josef Tura in the title role. During the key speech, Lt. Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack) leaves the theater. Unbeknownst to the actor, the pilot is having an affair with his wife. The same thing happens the following night.
Meanwhile, Gestapo gets canceled due to increasing tensions with Germany and the invasion begins shortly thereafter. While fighing, Sobinski starts to get suspicious of Polish resistance leader Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges). Could he possibly be a spy? Maybe. Hysterics only ensue as Sobinskin flies back to warn Maria. This in turn gets the theater company in the act with Josef Tura pretending to be Col. Ehrhardt. There’s a lot of laughs here. The charade only continues later on when they learn that Hitler himself is set to be honored at the theater.
When this film first came out in 1942, it was not received all that well. In fact, people were highly critical of the film. Jack Benny’s own father included. However, time has proved to be kinder to the film’s legacy. One could certainly understand why this film missed the mark upon its theatrical release. The United States of America was a few months into World War 2 upon the February 1942 release. Not many studios were willing to take on the risk of releasing this kind of satire. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator would precede the film by two years. While it may be true that many Hollywood studios were run by Jewish moguls at the times, there weren’t many willing to take the fight to the big screen in a narrative feature.
The film would provide legendary comedian Jack Benny with one of his greatest roles. Sadly, it would also be Carole Lombard’s final film. Ernst Lubitsch, a German-born director, could not have made a finer film.
Documentaries such as The Last Laugh asks us what’s so funny about the Holocaust. It’s a taboo subject and the humor is certainly a tricky situation. To Be Or Not To Be passes the test although it wasn’t easy at first. I stress this because Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, starting its platform release this weekend, had a rough start in Toronto with the critics.
DIRECTOR: Ernst Lubitsch
SCREENWRITERS: Edwin Justus Mayer, Ernst Lubitsch (uncredited)
CAST: Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack, Felix Bressart, Lionel Atwill, Stanley Ridges, Sig Ruman