Friday, August 5, 2022

Heil, Myself! Ernst Lubitsch’s “To Be or Not to Be”

Old-school comedian Jack Benny playing Hamlet? That seems about as unlikely as a Polish theatre troupe, circa 1939, successfully impersonating Hitler and his goons to fool the Gestapo. But both of these things happen in a remarkable (and remarkably serious) comedy that emerged from Hollywood in 1942, while war raged in Europe.

 Benny, mostly known for the radio (and eventually TV) show that spoofed his tightwad image, wears tights for real as he stars as the hammiest of ham actors. His biggest concerns, as actor Joseph Tura, seem to be the adoration of his fans and the possibly roving eye of his beautiful wife, played by Carole Lombard in her final role. (Alas, Lombard died ina a plane crash at age 33, shortly before the film opened, while returning from a war bonds tour.)  But while the company is rehearsing an anti-German drama, Gestapo, the Nazis march into Warsaw and swiftly take over. Suddenly patriotism comes to the fore, and all the members of the company unite to thwart the will of  their new German overlords.

 Theatre troupes make for strange bedfellows, but in this crisis everyone pitches in wholeheartedly. The glamorous Maria Tura (Lombard) strategically cozies up to a turncoat, insinuating she’d be glad to spy for the Nazis as a way of allying herself with the winning team. The obviously Jewish spear carrier who longs to play Shylock gets his chance at a critical juncture to recite his big speech and be a key diversion—and a hero. The Polish flyboy (Robert Stack) who yearns to take Maria away from her husband uses his aviation connections to save everyone’s neck. And Jack Benny’s Joseph Tura dives into a trunkful of fake mustaches and beards to impersonate prominent Nazi leaders, befuddling the pompous Sig Ruman, who hilariously plays the local Gestapo commandant .

 It's all uproariously funny, except that the movie never forgets what the stakes are for these people, who are human beings first, actors second. With death and destruction all around them, they balance on a knife-edge between triumph and disaster. Call it the comedy of desperation. The Berlin-born Lubitsch may have been known for the worldly elegance of so many of his films (like Trouble in Paradise), but he remained at heart an immigrant, the son of a Jewish tailor who had moved to Germany from the outskirts of the Russian Empire.  In other words, Lubitsch was not entirely at home in a world where borders kept changing and tribal identities were key.  Commentators have pointed out that the one character in the film who is by no means ever comic is the Polish-born scholar with a prominent academic post in Britain but a secret commitment to the Third Reich.

 As the plot continues to thicken, it’s pretty much impossible to follow the ins and outs of a story in which the good guys impersonate the bad. My advice: just relax and enjoy the chaos, knowing that, thankfully, it will come out all right in the end.  The title phrase, To Be or Not to Be, is of course from Hamlet’s great soliloquy, but it takes on several alternative meanings in the course of the film, even signaling an upcoming assignation. There’s no question that funnyman Mel Brooks enjoyed the joke (as he did the phrase, “Heil, myself!” which later shows up in Brooks’ The Producers). In 1983, four decades after the original, Brooks shot his own version, with wife Anne Bancroft as the glamorous Maria, Charles Durning assuming a highly-ersatz German accent as the commandant, and himself chewing the scenery in the Jack Benny part. 




No comments:

Post a Comment