“To be or not to be…that is the question”
That is also where all the trouble starts. Every six months or so BARNES AND NOBLE BOOKSELLERS conspires with THE CRITERION COLLECTION to make me spend my money and buy far more DVDs and Blu Rays than I intend to. The Criterion sale puts these titles, that previously were on the higher end of my price range, into the extremely tempting how-can-you-not-buy-twenty area of 50% off. So, of course…I buy twenty. This time one of my purchases was one of my favorite Ernst Lubitsch movies, TO BE OR NOT TO BE.
The movie stars Jack Benny as that great, great, Polish actor Joseph Tura, and Carole Lombard stars as his wife, Maria Tura. Joseph and Maria Tura are actors in Warsaw, Poland right at the beginning of what would become World War II. Joseph is a bit of a prima donna, and his wife is becoming frustrated with his lack of attention and respect for her. The theatre troupe is currently performing HAMLET while rehearsing for a new play meant to give a realistic representation of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. One night, during the evening performance of HAMLET, Maria invites an admirer back to her dressing room. Her admirer is a very handsome young airman, Lt. Stanislav Sobinski, whom she instructs to leave the audience to visit her when Hamlet starts his famous speech. Naturally, complications ensue but just when you might be inclined to think that this is going to be just another romantic comedy the Nazis invade Poland. Literally.
From there TO BE OR NOT TO BE turns into a darkly funny movie dealing with World War II, spies, gun fights, intricate ploys and costumes, fake beards, and THE MERCHANT OF VENICE. If you have not seen this movie I won’t go any further into details about the plot, except to strongly recommend that you see it. If you have seen this movie, I will say that it looks gorgeous on Blu Ray from Criterion and it certainly a film that deserves a place in any classic movie collection.
This film was made at a time when America was not yet involved with the growing global conflict that was World War II. Hitler and his Nazi regime where out in the world wreaking havoc but Americans had not yet experienced the war first hand. This would change of course, because by the time the movie was released Hitler would be moving across Europe, Pearl Harbor would be bombed, and one of the movie’s stars would be killed in a plane crash. This was the final film of Carole Lombard, who died on January 16, 1942 when her plane crashed returning from a trip to sell war bonds. She was 33 years old. She had taken the part of Maria despite strenuous objections from her husband, Clark Gable, and she would go on to say that the making of this film was the happiest time of her career.
TO BE OR NOT TO BE was not terribly successful at its release, but over the years it has grown in appreciation and was named one of the fifty best comedies by Premiere magazine in 2006. It was remade in 1983 by Mel Brooks, with himself and Anne Bancroft in the lead roles.
For me, while the 1983 version is good and has some great moments, the 1942 version is the one that I prefer. Carole Lombard and Jack Benny are perfectly cast, and the entire ensemble is amazing! There is also something daring and pointed about this film that the 1983 version can’t replicate. This movie was made as World War II was happening. It was made at a time when most Americans didn’t seem too concerned over Adolf Hitler and his regime, and yet here was Ernst Lubitsch making a film that really seemed to be saying “Hello? I think we need to start paying attention over here!” The film is undeniably funny, smart, and extremely well made. But it is also a look into a moment in time that would not come again…the moment where America still believed that there would only ever be one World War.