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.

(To Be or Not to Be will be screened as the final film in the Main Library series “Glamour and Guffaws: Carole Lombard‘s Comedy Classics” at 2pm Saturday, May 4, at ImaginOn, 300 E. 7th St. Admission is free.)

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