To Be or Not to Be

To Be or Not to Be

There are some assumptions that people make in cinema that seem to persist for a surprising amount of time, until someone goes and proves them wrong. Men aren't interested in going to see films that revolve around a female character, superhero movies are niche, and Nazis aren't funny.

That last one is at the heart of To Be or Not to Be, and it's a huge part of the reason why this film was met with significant backlash when it first came out. This is 1942, the United States has just gotten into the war against Germany, and Ernst Lubitsch comes along with the nerve to make a comedy about Nazis? Jack Benny, one of the film's stars who is at his best here, had his own father walk out of the premiere, furious that he would be so insensitive to appear on screen in a Nazi uniform, cracking jokes.

But what audiences fundamentally misunderstood about To Be or Not to Be is that it isn't a film where Nazis are allowed to be funny. It's a movie bold enough to find the ridiculousness in the Nazi bureaucracy, the constant fear of facing the displeasure of the Fuhrer among the utterly mediocre Nazi officers.  

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Carole Lombard and Jack Benny star as the leaders of a ragtag troupe of Polish actors. Both put in what amounts to arguably the best performances of their careers, a fact made all the more poignant with the knowledge that this would be Lombard's final performance before her untimely death in a plane crash in 1942. Lombard is strong, witty, vibrant, brave -- there is little trace of the ditzy blonde stereotype she played so frequently in other films.

Jack Benny walks a tightrope as he portrays an absurdly narcissistic leading man whose ego would likely need to book its own seat on a train, and the fact that he somehow manages to remain sympathetic is a testament to both his comedic ability and inherent likeability.

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Their lives are filled with the petty squabbles and constant jockeying for better roles associated with a life in the theater, until Warsaw is invaded by Nazis and they somehow become embroiled in a rebel plot to stop a spy from revealing the identities of the Polish Resistance. And, as one might expect, wackiness ensues.

To Be or Not to Be is a remarkably well-constructed film. It moves at a brisk pace, the jokes are delivered tightly and economically (there is a war on, you know), and there is virtually no fat on screen, as every moment pays off.

It balances its more light-hearted moments with genuinely high stakes, so while you can see that the actors are gleefully mucking about and enjoying their little bit of improv as they run around Warsaw trying to fool the Nazis, we're also acutely aware as viewers of the very real danger the characters are in.

Yes, this is a movie where people wear fake bears and dress up as Hitler, but it's also a movie where Felix Bressart, himself a Jewish refugee who fled Germany in the early 1930s, gets to save the day with a poignant performance of the "Hath not a Jew" Shylock speech from The Merchant of Venice.

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To Be or Not to Be gives itself permission to silly while at the same time never forgetting the terror and destruction of the Nazi threat, when a lot of other films that addressed WWII while it was going on tended more to straight melodrama. This boldness is a major reason why it remains so clever and genuinely funny to this day.



13th

13th

Ninotchka

Ninotchka