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The persistent question in To Be or Not To Be is this: what use is a clown during wartime?

There might not be a definitive answer, but Ernst Lubitsch‘s most dramatic work (by default) is a comedy that has to be taken seriously. It’s also startling proof that it’s harder to laugh when you’re standing too close to the fire. It’s only in stepping back that you can feel the warmth without getting hurt.

That was the case when this comedy about Hitler and Hamlet premiered right smack dab in the middle of Word War II.

To Be or Not To Be (1942)

Directed By: Ernst Lubitsch

Written By: Edwin Justus Mayer

Starring: Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack, Stanley Ridges, Tom Dugan and Sig Ruman

Hitler walks calmly through a small street in Warsaw, Poland. The two countries aren’t yet at war, but the darkening cloud of it looms overhead. As the townspeople stop their shopping, stall their cars in the street, and begin to surround the man, a young boy asks for his autograph. He’s a huge theater fan.

Of course, Hitler isn’t actually Hitler. It’s the actor Bronski (Tom Dugan), who is made up to look like a funny little man with a mustache for a satirical play the Polish theater company will be staging after their run of “Hamlet” comes to a close.

To Be or Not To Be doesn’t waste time in making its comedic mark. The sight of Hitler casually strolling through Warsaw is a jarring enough one, but the entire next scene (a rehearsal of the play) is full of people yawning while saluting Der Fuhrer, and Adolf himself saying, “Heil myself.”

The writing here is non-stop humor, whether it’s one-liners, character based, slapstick or the natural result of misunderstandings and mistruths. It only lets up whenever something deeply traumatic happens (like, say, the invasion of Poland).

For the entire elongated first act, there’s no real story or stakes. It’s simply a matter of spending time with these wonderful people that seem to have a good time even while fighting. There’s Maria Tura (Carole Lombard), the lead actress of the company who foolishly opens the door to romance with a young admirer in the military named Sobinski (Robert Stack) despite her marriage to lead actor Joseph Tura (Jack Benny channeling the hubris of Orson Welles who had just premiered Citizen Kane a year before).

So, yes. It’s a Poland inhabited by American poster children. No one even attempts a Polish accent (which is probably for the best). This cultural remapping is a fascinating one which exists as a bit of historical fantasy fulfillment. The Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor a year before this film’s release, and the sheer Americanism of “Poland” here plays out a bit like the Inglourious Bastereds pumping round after bloody round into Hitler until his face is no longer a face. The casting is, on the surface level a necessity (and Lombard was one of the biggest stars of the time), but on a deeper level, it’s a way of placing America there when it all started. Giving the cavalry a chance to save the day before things get too out of hand.

The first act crashes into the second when Nazi tanks cross over into Poland. Things aren’t funny anymore. This massive event grabs those able to make us laugh by the throat and threatens to silence them. However, with incredible deftness and guile, Lubitsch and company draw every ounce of humor that can be mined from the situation. It’s black humor to be sure, but it’s damned funny. The result is that high stakes have suddenly been brought into glaring focus. What began as a standard, madcap romp becomes a movie where people are fighting not only for their lives but for their way of life. The comedy contrast shows just how sacred something as simple as laughing can be when it’s taken away. Does an actor remain an actor in dark times? How do you make a Nazi cross? What good is a clown in wartime?

The most direct reference to this comes right after Sobinski and some other military pals sing a rousing beer hall chant. Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges) notes that he’s happy to see they all still have their humor. Sobinski replies, “We’re funnier over Berlin.”

That’s it right there. The entire tone of the film delivered in two lines. Hilarious but grave. Few directors and casts have been able to strike such a precarious balance so well, and To Be or Not To Be remains a study in how to stay serious while making everyone roll in the aisles.

Sadly, audiences of the time weren’t rolling. They were outraged. This comedy was released when people couldn’t fathom mocking something as dangerous as Naziism and Hitler’s threat to the world. The Great Dictator had done it two years earlier, but the US wasn’t in the war at that time. Hitler was a figure rife for parody, not the reason our sons and brothers weren’t going to come home ever again. Plus, Lombard had been killed in a plane crash (returning from a trip to sell war bonds) before the release.

For many reasons, no one really felt like laughing.

Fortunately, the skill of the flick lived beyond that environment and survives as a classic of the genre (whatever genre that might be). It shifts from raucous comedy to spy thriller effortlessly. It’s difficult to tell who is spying for whom, and the (now unimportant-seeming) problem of Maria romancing a young man behind her husband’s back complicates allegiances. Joseph has gone from star actor to member of the SS, but Maria remains true to the cause of Warsaw and her new romance.

The question of what a clown can offer in wartime is a purely personal one (and one audiences at the time of release seemed to answer loudly with boos), but the title of the film itself and the consistent structural references to “Hamlet,” offer something else entirely. Will you let war change you? Violence? Hatred? Your enemies?

To that effect, there’s a strange scene in the middle of the film where Professor Siletsky (a dapper older man) tries to sell Maria on the benefits of Naziism. He asks if he looks like a monster. He tells her that they’re only trying to make a happy world. He calmly reassures her that Hitler is a benevolent leader who thinks only of his people’s welfare. On the one hand, it’s a true attempt at humanizing Hitler by allowing a character time to do so in dialogue. On the other, Ridges’s delivery is so subtly, perfectly evil that he satirically achieves vilifying the Nazi cause and coming of like the serpent swearing the apple won’t do any harm. It’s a masterful performance, but it’s also something deeper that speaks to what the rest of the movie so thoroughly accomplishes. Beneath the roar of laughter and behind the charming smiles, the true vilification of Nazis isn’t in their wanton warmongering or their unimaginable cruelty. Loss of life is damnable, but loss of humanity is a different brand in the warehouse of evil entirely.

Oscillating freely between sharp drama and carefree comedy, To Be or Not To Be points out this profound dichotomy, mourns the death of man and mankind alike, but challenges the audience not to give up their humor in the face of terror.

I can think of no better way to celebrate Memorial Day weekend.

Next Thursday, we’ll take a drive down the immortal Sunset Blvd.

Celebrate more ancient flicks by reading more Old Ass Movies


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