I've got a list of favorite, funniest films — haven't we all? — and I'm always glad when one of them is restored and rereleased. This time it's Ernst Lubitsch's immortal "To Be or Not To Be," which the Criterion Collection has now upgraded to Blu-Ray. This satiric comedy takes aim squarely at Hitler; it was made before the U.S. entered the War in December 1941 and released in early 1942, when the enormity of what the Nazis were doing was as yet unclear. Even so, it was controversial in its day and I don't suppose Lubitsch — or anyone — would have made it in 1943, 1944 or thereafter. In any event, it is blisteringly funny.
The conceit is that Jack Benny — of all people, and he is very good in the role — is Josef Tura, Poland's greatest actor and biggest ham. His actress-wife, Maria, is very supportive, but prone to entertain young airmen in her dressing room. Hence, "To Be or Not To Be;" when Tura is onstage giving Hamlet's soliloquy, the coast is clear. After Poland is invaded, the acting troupe — which had been preparing an anti-Nazi play, and thus is fully outfitted with Nazi scenery, costumes, and fake mustaches — is somehow drawn into the Polish underground. Virtue, and the Polish actors, are, of course, triumphant.
Benny is more than matched by Carole Lombard as Maria; she is at the top of her skill here, in her final film. (Following the declaration of war in Dec. 1941, Lombard embarked on a war bond rally. The 33-year-old comedienne was killed when her flight back to Hollywood crashed into a Nevada mountaintop.)
A young Robert Stack plays the Polish airman in question, and the film is filled with wonderful character performances from Sig Ruman as the bumbling Colonel Ehrhardt, Stanley Ridges as the dangerous Professor Siletsky, Lionel Atwill as a pompous actor who's an even bigger ham than Tura and Tom Dugan as an unsuspecting stand-in for the Führer. Best of all, and perhaps the heart of this Lubitsch classic, is Felix Bressart as an unassuming spear carrier who always wanted to play Shylock — and at a moment of extreme peril gets to do so.
(This film is not to be confused with the 1983 Mel Brooks remake, a vulgar affair missing the nuance and power of the original. There was also a misguided 2008 stage adaptation from the Manhattan Theatre Club, which somehow also failed to amuse.)
Criterion, as is its habit, packs the new digital transfer with bonus features. Most fascinating of these is the oddest: Pinkus's "Shoe Palace" (also known as "Shoe Palace Pinkus"), a 1916 silent film starring and directed by Lubitsch. This was part of the Sally comedies series, the popularity of which gave Lubitsch the opportunity to start directing. That said, these films about a haggling Jewish businessman named Sally Meyer are so stereotypical as to be objectionable by present-day standards. It is also somewhat astounding that the worldly, sophisticated director — purveyor of the legendary "Lubitsch Touch" — started in this manner, but it was the success of the Sally films which enabled him to get to Hollywood in 1922.
More to the point is the reason Criterion has unearthed this 60-minute silent. From the time of his arrival in the United States, we are told, Lubitsch put aside the use of any stereotypical Jewish characters — until, apparently, "To Be or Not to Be," where the character of Greenberg, the Shylock-spouting supernumerary, is as "Jewish" as Lubitsch in Pinkus's "Shoe Palace." This is not used for laughter in the later case, mind you, but for enhancing the gravity of the situation and sweetening the victory of the Polish actors over the Reich. In any event, this early film presents an unknown, and thoroughly unexpected, side of Lubitsch.
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