DVD Watch: 'To Be or Not to Be'
Lubitsch's 1952 film casts Jack Benny as a Nazi?
By James Renovitch, 10:30AM, Tue. Aug. 27
Two years after he made Greta Garbo a comedic actress in his tome against communism, Ninotchka, Ernst Lubitsch upped the ante by casting Jack Benny in a drama about Nazism. At least that's what the first five minutes of To Be or Not To Be (Criterion, $29.95) would have you believe.
After those five minutes, viewers get one of cinema's great directors firing on all cylinders and challenging conventions of the farce, a genre he helped define.
The film stars Jack Benny and Carole Lombard (in her last screen appearance) as Joseph and Maria Tura, two theatre heavy-hitters in Warsaw. As the city is turned upside-down by the Nazi invasion, the Turas use their acting chops to infiltrate the invading force with comedic results that any fan of Lubitsch would expect this late in his career. Mr. Tura runs around impersonating various inept Nazis (when he's not busy being jealous of his wife's many admirers) as his acting troupe attempts to get themselves out of occupied Warsaw.
Nazism had already been tackled by the Three Stooges and Charlie Chaplin, but there’s never any doubt that those performers were procuring pure satire. Even Ninotchka blends the serious and the comedic – often in a single shot of Garbo's deadpan face. To Be or Not to Be, on the other hand, switches starkly and without warning from broad satire of Hitler to dramatic shots of characters silently sweating it out in bomb shelters.
The movie was released in America only months after the United States had joined World War II and was poorly received and criticized for making the Nazis look like less of a threat than they were. The film's sobering moments of war imagery stood in contrast to Benny's shenanigans and mockery of hilariously overformal Nazis. Lubitsch defended his art in a New York Times editorial (reprinted in the DVD’s booklet), “I was tired of the two established, recognized recipes: drama with comedy relief and comedy with dramatic relief. I had made up my mind to make a picture with no attempt to relieve anybody from anything at any time.” Film historian David Kalat points out in the commentary track that despite the film's historical setting of Nazi invasion, the film empowers the Poles as invaders into the Nazi party.
The extras on the second disc are pretty standard for Criterion's high-standards with a French doc on the director, two radio shows, and one of Lubitsch's early silent films. Individually none of the bonus materials are terribly engaging, but watch them all, and you'll be a Lubitsch expert in just a few short hours.
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