In 2002, the American Film Institute selected To Be or Not to Be as one of the 50 funniest American movies of all time. In March of 1942, when the film was initially released, most critics weren't laughing. A movie lampooning Adolf Hitler may have been acceptable a few years prior (see, for example, Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator , though even then Chaplin began to regret his decision after learning more of the Nazis' "homicidal insanity"). But by 1942, Pearl Harbor had been attacked, America had entered World War II, and, to make matters even more dour, the star of To Be or Not to Be, the radiant Carole Lombard, had died in a plane crash less than two months before the premiere.
All told, those who saw To Be or Not to Be had their reasons not to be amused.
Now, however, with the benefit of time's remedial passing and decades worth of hindsight, Ernst Lubitsch's classic stands as an entertaining, surprisingly audacious, and powerfully poignant comic gem. One of the great filmmaker's final features (he would pass away just five years later), it is today most shocking not so much for the comedy itself, but rather the abrupt yet effortless shifts in tone, from screwball hysterics to genuinely austere observations.
The very premise of the picture is amusing in its improbability. A troupe of Polish stage actors have their current production of Gestapo shut down for fear of insulting the Führer (and from what we see of the play, he probably wouldn't be pleased). Not long after, all involved instead find themselves unwittingly caught in a dangerous web of espionage, donning disguises and playing assorted parts in an elaborate charade. Leading the thespian assembly is the husband and wife diva duo of Maria and Joseph Tura (Lombard and Jack Benny). On the political side is the Polish pilot, Lieutenant Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack), who also happens to be enamored with Maria, and the traitorous spy, Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges), who likewise develops a fondness for the female star. In order to prevent sensitive documents from falling into German hands, Maria, Joseph and essentially every other member of their ensemble must adopt various roles to pull off one ruse after another, thus putting themselves in unprecedented danger while never losing sight of what matters most—nationally and professionally.
Lombard, who never looked bad, looks better than ever, and her performance, though tragically her last, is also one of her best. In To Be or Not to Be, she conveys everything that had come to define most of her characters. She swoons like a dumbstruck schoolgirl when Sobinski brags about his ability to drop three tons of dynamite in two minutes ("Would you permit me to show you my plane?" he asks her in one of several suggestive exchanges in the film). Conversely, she adroitly stands up to Joseph when his pomposity gets out of hand, matching his bravado with her own brand of feminine wit, a pointed skill Lombard had perfected years before. With Siletsky, when Maria must perform under the most stressful of conditions, Lombard plays it two ways: flighty as she pretends to naively go along with the professor's plot, shrewdly as she holds her own cards close to her chest, working her own angle.
As Joseph, who assumes the more pivotal role(s) in the con, Benny plays the lead figure superbly, in all his tremendous arrogance and simplicity. Ego and jealously drive Joseph, who becomes an eventually willing participant in the spy game as much to prove his acting ability as his patriotism. Once wise to the recurrent rendezvous between his wife and Sobinski, he is as equally upset about the perceived infidelity as he is that fact that the pilot walks out on his soliloquy to meet Maria. As he assumes several guises, these hang-ups get the better of him at most every turn. Acting as Siletsky or the German Col. Ehrhardt, he's baffled to learn that nobody seems to have heard of the "great, great polish actor Joseph Tura," and he can barely contain his dismay when, in character, he's told that what Joseph did to Shakespeare, the Nazis are doing to Poland. Though he's cocksure and clever, he is also a resentful husband, so while he must work alongside Sobinski for the greater good, his animosity toward the soldier never dissipates (until suspicions are shared with the younger man at the film's magnificent conclusion).
It's in this subplot of marital conflict that To Be or Not to Be bears its intimate heart, and is where Lubitsch, as one would expect, excels. Romantic and quarrelsome banter bristles with delightful double entendres, and that the same relationship troubles distinguishing the director's best films can also exist in the midst of war testifies to the universality of his frequent themes of love, sex, deception, and amorous distraction. Also despite the dire situation of the sudden Nazi invasion, Lubitsch manages to keep the film and its characters ensconced in an appealing milieu. Following an air raid there are a few sorrowful depictions of the city in rubble, but quite quickly, we're back in a world of sparkling champagne, classy dresses, fur coats, and swank hotels.
There's always the game of love to be played with Lubitsch, and sex has always had its usefulness, but this time, there are grave repercussions framing the contest. New to this familiar cinematic world is a life or death tension that takes the typically playful "Lubitsch touch" and makes the whole approach quite touchy indeed. But that touch will not be repressed, and working with writer Edwin Justus Mayer, Lubitsch maintains the comedy for which he is so justly renowned.
Therein is the controversy of To Be or Not to Be: How to dare be funny when Hitler and the Nazis are running amok? To a certain extent, Lubitsch had been here before, with Ninotchka in 1939, where communists bore the brunt of the mockery (which was totally fine for American audiences at the time; Russians, however, were not so pleased). But that film was released before U.S. involvement in the war, so when a "heil Hitler" is played for laughs there, it gets a pass. When "heil Hitler" is thrown around in To Be or Not to Be, as it often is, mostly to show the ridiculousness of the phrase as a fail-safe expression to save face and nonchalantly prove loyalty, it elicited more than a few cringes. Yet it is funny, as when in a rehearsal of Gestapo Joseph yawns the greeting, alluding to the tiresome routine of it all, or when Bronski (Tom Dugan), playing Hitler, returns the salutation with "heil myself."
It's therefore mostly the juxtaposition of the comedy and the context that surprises, the "interweaving [of] farce and disaster in such a rigorously structured fashion as to elicit, in the very same scenes, genuine anxiety and a hilarity so acute that it has something like an ecstatic kick," as Geoffrey O'Brien writes. At one point, Maria incongruously shows up in a lavish gown for her concentration camp scene, and later, acting as "Concentration Camp Ehrhardt," Joseph quips, "we do the concentrating and the Poles do the camping."
Concentration camp jokes? In 1942?
Critical response to the film was subsequently harsh, most famously in the painfully humorless comments of Bosley Crowther in the New York Times: "To say it is callous and macabre is understating the case," for example. But to such reactions Lubitsch himself responded in a follow-up piece. "I am accused of three major sins," he writes, "of having violated every traditional form in mixing melodrama with comedy-satire or even farce; of endangering our war effort in treating the Nazi menace too lightly; and of exhibiting extremely bad taste in having chosen present-day Warsaw as a background for comedy." He goes on to brilliantly make a case for the film and its humor, stating, quite rightly, what matters most: "One might call it a tragical farce or a farcical tragedy—I do not care and neither do the audience. The picture plays—and that's the only important thing in this issue."
All the same, the Berlin-born Lubitsch makes it an obvious point to effectively cut down Hitler and his cronies. As the stage manager points out, the dictator is "just a man with a little mustache," and Col. Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman), for one, is presented as an inept buffoon. For all their bluster, this particular Nazi crew emerges as hopelessly incompetent. Similarly, as much as the actors within the film are carefully acting their respective parts for optimal effect—not overacting, lest the fate of Poland be "in the hands of a ham"—Lubitsch subtly ridicules the over-the-top posturing, presentation, and pageantry that was part and parcel of Nazism itself, with ever-present banners and costumes and threatening mandates.
In the end, it's all about putting on a good show and captivating your audience. And in an obviously more pleasing way, that's exactly what Lubitsch, Lombard, Benny and the others do.
To Be or Not to Be is a great comedy, a great comedy about Hitler and the Nazis, yes, but also a great comedy about Polish resilience and ingenuity and the keen human capacity to allow humor to persistently reemerge, erasing or at least diminishing despair. After all, as Felix Bressart's Greenberg character points out, "A laugh is nothing to be sneezed at."