Friday, September 13, 2013

To Be Accurate

While I'm glad Mike D'Angelo at the The AV Club is trying to educate the public about Ernst Lubitsch's classic To Be Or Not To Be, some of the commentary is a bit off.

For instance, this line:

The film was already grappling with unusually weighty subject matter: Opening commercially in March 1942, less than a year after America entered World War II, it dares to poke fun at Hitler and the Nazi regime...

Less than a year?  This is three months after America entered the war--which means the film was planned and shot when the war may have seemed more distant to Americans.

Then we get:

[The film is] notable as one of the very few movies to feature radio and TV legend Jack Benny in a role more substantial than a cameo.

Very few?  Benny was never quite the movie star that, say, Bob Hope was, but he starred in about fifteen Hollywood movies.  The point about To Be Or Not To Be is Benny was finally offered a great role with a great director.

Here's a bit of analysis:

Because the second half of To Be Or Not To Be, once Benny starts impersonating Nazis, is so outlandishly hilarious, it’s easy to forgive the film’s comparatively sluggish first half, which is mostly setup for gags to come...

Yes, Lubitsch does take his time to set up the situations that pay off in scene after scene later in the film, but to call the first half of the film essentially a setup is unfair.  First, To Be Or Not To Be starts as a fairly amusing romantic comedy--a form at which Lubitsch was a master--mixed with farce. But he's trying for something different here, and just as the Nazis turned Poland upside down, so do they disturb and transform the film into something very different.  Lubitsch knew how to be funny the whole way through, but here he's intentionally shifting tone, turning the film into a straight action-thriller before bringing it back to farce and romantic comedy.  It's an interesting experiment--one that deserves more than merely being called sluggish, as if Lubitsch couldn't manage any better.

Then there's this:

[Benny's role] affords him endless opportunities to mine humor from desperate improvisation, parroting phrases he’d previously heard from [actor Sig] Ruman [who plays a Nazi colonel].

Not quite.  He can't parrot phrases from Ruman since he doesn't even meet Ruman until well after he's into his Nazi play-acting.  In fact, that's the joke--Benny plays Josef Tura, a major Polish actor performing as a farcical Nazi in a stage play who later has to impersonate an actual Nazi, and he does it so well because the Nazi's themselves are ridiculous. In fact, my favorite line in the film is when he finally meets Ruman, whom he's already pretended to be, and when Ruman says the exact same thing Benny has already said, Benny responds "I thought you'd react just that way."’s hard to believe that contemporary audiences and critics found the film offensively glib; it’s anything but.

Some reviewers found the film in bad taste, but much of this, apparently, was due to one line in particular.  Throughout the movie, when disguised as a Nazi, Benny fishes for compliments about himself as an actor, but no one's heards of him...until he meets Colonel Ehrhardt:

Josef Tura [disguised as a Nazi and speaking about Tura's wife]: Her husband is that great, great Polish actor, Josef Tura. You've probably heard of him.

Colonel Ehrhardt: Oh, yes. As a matter of fact I saw him on the stage when I was in Warsaw once before the war.

Josef Tura: Really?

Colonel Ehrhardt: What he did to Shakespeare we are doing now to Poland.

The line seemed to make light of true tragedy--and give the Nazis the upper hand.  Some of the people associated with the film, in fact, suggested Lubitsch cut the line, but he wouldn't hear of it.  Now, when the film is shown, this is often the biggest laugh.

Finally, there's this:

It’s also easier now to recognize Lombard’s performance as sturdy support for Benny rather than as the career highlight emotionally necessitated by her sudden death. Lombard was a great comedian, but she did much of her best work in lesser-known films like Hands Across The Table and The Princess Comes Across (both opposite Fred MacMurray, a great foil for her), which gave her more room to cut loose.

This is true as far as it goes, in that in her short career she starred in about forty films, but is remembered mostly for four comedy classics--Twentieth Century, My Man Godfrey, Nothing Sacred and To Be Or Not To Be.  It stands to reason that a lot of her best work is in lesser-known films.  But those other three, outside TBONTB, are in fact, among her best work as well.


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