To Be or Not To Be (1942)

<strong class="MovieTitle">To Be or Not To Be</strong> (1942)

(Youtube Streaming, November 2018) The famed “Lubitsch touch” referred to director Ernst Lubitsch’s ability to … well, no one can quite agree about the exact definition of the Lubitsch touch, but there is something in his movies that separate them from other films of the period. So it is that To Be or Not To Be remains striking even today for the sheer number of spinning plates that Lubitsch is able to keep in the air without having them all crash to the ground. Consider that it’s a comedy set during the earliest days of the Nazi occupation of Warsaw. Consider that it mixes anti-Nazi critique with a portrayal of egomaniac theatrical actors dealing with mortal suspense and perceptions of infidelity. It’s a wonder that the film hold together at all, let alone that it manages to be hilarious and thrilling at once. Jack Benny is excellent as an actor whose ego nearly derails resistance plans, while Carole Lombard is the other half of the couple at the centre of the story. The treatment of Nazis really isn’t sympathetic, and there’s a vertiginous quality to the film when you consider that it was shot and released in the middle of World War II, as these things were still very much going on and liberation was just a distant goal. The opening sequence is terrific, which leads to a rather less interesting first act in which the pieces of the plot are slowly put together. The dialogue is slyly funny (it may take you a while to catch a joke given the dry delivery) and occasionally mordant: I almost gasped at “What he did to Shakespeare we are doing now to Poland.”—the film gets away with a lot considering that it’s a post-Code production. To Be or Not To Be does get its rhythm back in the second half as complications pile on, the danger becomes more immediate and we see the characters thinking fast on their feet in order to get out of ever-more complex situations, sometimes caused by their own doings. There’s a very appropriate Mel Brooksian quality to Jack Benny considering that Brooks would take over the role in the 1983 remake. Audacious even today, To Be or Not To Be has survived exceptionally well and remains just as funny as it ever was.

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