Carole Lombard and Jack Benny (far right) in To Be or Not to Be (Photo: United Artists)

★★★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Ernst Lubitsch
STARS Carole Lombard, Jack Benny

Director Ernst Lubitsch’s wartime effort seemed doomed from the start, when 33-year-old leading lady Carole Lombard was killed in a plane crash two months before the picture’s premiere. On the heels of that tragedy, the controversy surrounding the film’s premise — a comedy about the Nazi occupation of Poland? — softened its appeal at the box office and led to scathing reviews from most critics of the day. Clearly, though, this was a simple matter of a movie being ahead of its time; subsequently given its due, To Be or Not to Be is now regarded as no less than a masterpiece.

Jack Benny and Lombard star as Joseph and Maria Tura, Poland’s most celebrated stage performers and part of an acting troupe that eventually finds itself involved in a complex scheme to stop a Nazi spy (Stanley Ridges) from exposing the members of the Polish underground. Character actor Sig Ruman scores his best role as a bumbling German officer (“So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt!”) whose ineptitude foreshadowed the Nazis on Hogan’s Heroes — in fact, both Ehrhardt and the TV show’s Colonel Klink even call out for their same-named subordinate “Schultz!” whenever something goes wrong. Benny is hysterical as an actor whose vanity knows no bounds, while the final performance delivered by Lombard (whose death left Clark Gable a widower) ably shows her adeptness at both comedy and drama.

Hurtling forward with its dizzying blend of laughs and intrigue, the movie’s blessed with a script that’s jam-packed with memorable quips (some laced with naughty double entendres), with most of the best ones handed over to Benny. Personally, though, I’ve always had a soft spot for Tom Dugan’s ad-lib in a play in which his character portrays Der Fuhrer: “Heil Hitler!” “Heil myself.”

Real-life spouses Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft starred in a 1983 remake; that underrated version is funny (and it earned Charles Durning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his turn as Ehrhardt), but this one’s the real deal.


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