To Be or Not to Be (1942)

To Be or Not to Be (1942), produced and directed by Ernst Lubitsch.

We are dropped into a Gestapo comedy of questionable taste: Hitler arrives and says "Heil myself!" Are we in for a feature length "Springtime for Hitler"? Wait, fooled us! We are seeing a rehearsal of a Polish theater company. Some of whom are Jews, torquing the situation even further.

We have a brief interlude of ham actor comedy: Carole Lombard and Jack Benny sort of playing themselves playing Shakespeareans. Benny could never be a leading man or Hamlet: that's part of the joke. Young Robert Stack is a pilot smitten with Lombard (understandably he really was).

Then the German invasion and the plot turns more ominous, but the comedy is even wackier. Benny impersonates people on both sides of the same conversation while still zinging his wife for cheating on him.

In the end the actors triumph over the nazis!

This got a lot of criticism at the time for being (a) in very bad taste, and (b) an unpleasant mix of comedy and drama. It is has been more appreciated since.

One line provoked the most outrage: speaking of the ham actor a nazi says: "Yes, I saw him before the war. What he did to Shakespeare we are now doing to Poland". Even Lubitsch's friends and defenders asked him to take that out but he wouldn't. For some reason no one minded Lombard's wide-eyed sexual emphasis on "Lieutenant, this is the first time I've ever met a man who could drop three tons of dynamite in two minutes".

This was Lombard's last picture, not released until after her death. She, her mother and 20 others died in a plane crash when returning from a tour selling war bonds.

Finally, an aside: you notice how in movies the nazis always have the best uniforms? The camera loves them, and in this film we have wall to wall black fabric with white detailing. I had always heard this was intentional, that the uniforms were designed by theater costumers to look good and intimidating. Looking it up, I see that they were actually designed by a graphics artist: Karl Diebitsch, who was also an SS officer. He lived until 1985; Hollywood should have paid him royalties. If he weren't a nazi.

Available on Blu-ray from Criterion. The excellent packed commentary track gives great analysis of the film and its context, with a wealth of material on everyone involved.

He presents the layers of the movie: (1) the screwball romantic comedy of ham actors and suspicion of infidelity, (2) the comedy/drama of resistance to the invaders, and (3) the crazy inside-out notion of the theater being larger than life: how the actors defeat the soldiers, how they are ahead of their adversaries at every point. We see the costume Gestapo before the real one, and meet the fake Hitler before the actual fuhrer.

The opening city scenes would have reminded audiences of Lubitsch's romantic comedy The Shop Around the Corner (1940). Until the nazis arrive.