While extremely clever, To Be or Not to Be doesn’t stand as a necessarily laugh-out-loud jokefest. As pointed out during the immensely illuminating audio commentary by film historian David Kalat, moviegoers in ’42 were constantly second-guessing what they were actually supposed to be laughing at. Of course, the full horrors instigated by the Nazis were not yet known to the general public when the film was released. Still, there was understandable opposition by some to a film that milked the “Heil Hitler” mantra for laughs.
Today’s audiences are likely to identify the film as a precursor to (and influence on) Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, something Kalat discusses during his commentary. Long before Tarantino’s revisionist epic, Lubitsch (along with screenwriters Melchior Lengyel and Edwin Justus Mayer) concocted a revenge fantasy concerning a Polish theatre troupe’s rebellion against the Nazis. Jack Benny and Carole Lombard (in her final film role) play husband-and-wife acting duo Joseph and Maria Tura. The year is 1939 and their company is prepping a Nazi satire called Gestapo. Fearing the play might offend Hitler, the Polish government shuts it down. Hamlet is staged as a substitute, at least until Hitler’s invasion of Poland.
Much has been made of To Be or Not to Be’s rather drastic tonal shifts. The opening play-within-a-movie gives way to some hamming by Joseph and the appearance of a young Robert Stack as bomber pilot Sobinski (who begins an affair with Maria). Anyone accustomed solely to Stack’s performance style in Airplane! and beyond might be shocked by his boyishness here. Once the invasion takes place, the actors side with the underground Polish resistance. It’s Sobinski who discovers that Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges) is, in fact, a Nazi spy who has infiltrated the Polish resistance. The final act shifts into farcical comedy as the actors pose as Nazis after devising a plot to kill Siletsky.
I don’t think it’s a slight against the movie to say that modern audiences might wind up laughing very little given the particular style employed by Lubitsch and the cast. The approach to comedy has changed over the years (in terms of both writing and acting) but that doesn’t cancel out the inventive storytelling on display here. For anyone who watches and wonders what all the fuss is about, I can’t recommend listening to Kalat’s commentary enough. Every aspect is covered and Kalat keeps the tone light without sacrificing anything in terms of information.
The Criterion Collection has done a remarkable job with the visual restoration of To Be or Not to Be. Framed at 1.37:1, the transfer retains a nice layer of natural grain. There are a few very minor instances of print and/or negative damage that apparently couldn’t be completely removed, but given the film’s age there is nothing to complain about. The LPCM 1.0 mono soundtrack is pristine, free of hiss or any other form of distortion.
Other supplements include a nearly hour-long 2010 documentary about Ernst Lubitsch, Lubitsch le patron. A 1916 short film directed by Lubitsch, Schuhpalast Pinkus is included as well for anyone interested in the director’s early work. Lastly, there are two audio-only radio broadcasts, one only tangentially related to the film, Variety (with appearances by Jack Benny and Lubitsch), and the other a highly truncated adaptation of To Be or Not to Be from 1943 (with a different cast providing voices).
As is the norm for The Criterion Collection, further context and analysis of To Be or Not to Be is offered in Geoffrey O’Brien’s featured essay in the booklet. A 1942 New York Times op-ed piece by Lubitsch himself is included too, in which the filmmaker directly addresses his critics who claimed he was irresponsibly making light of Nazism. Definitely essential reading and another great component of this release.