21 January, 2010

Movie Review: To Be or Not to Be (1942)

Inglourious Basterds got its kicks out of rewriting history, attempting to give viewers the cathartic release that reality denied them: Hitler burning, sooner rather than later, in a well-plotted holocaust of his own. In truth, however, the war went on much too long, Hitler exacted a wide-spread and long-lasting influence, and his death like so many others came at his own hand, excusing him from justice and revenge. Tarantino's mission may be well-intentioned, but because it bears no semblance to history and because it doesn't have any practical application to current events, the triumphant release the film's finale may release in us is at best fleeting. I say "us" meaning twentysomething, non-Jewish, American kids who have in no way been directly affected by Adolph Hitler's atrocities in Europe since I think that's the target audience of the film. I have yet to read any responses to the film from people who actually survived the death camps over sixty years ago.

Recently I came across Ernst Lubitsch's 1942 comedy To Be or Not to Be, a film which I assume exerted some influence over the writing of Tarantino's last picture. Both involve resistance groups staging attacks against occupying Nazis while Hitler enjoys a visit to the local theater. Both involve our valiant yet buffoonish heroes sporting silly disguises while improvising taut dialogues with somewhat more clever enemies. Both comfortably assume that the Nazis will be outwitted by the end. The difference between To Be or Not to Be and Inglourious Basterds, though, is that the former film was made at a time when history was actually being written rather than rewritten. In 1942, Hitler's men actually were in Poland, actors and Jews and unhappy Poles actually were being oppressed and killed, the uprising was in effect and could use support of any kind, and the final outcome was still several years to come. In a historical context, To Be or Not to Be really had "something at stake," a crucial element of storytelling according to any writing workshop instructor. That Lubitsch swore by an Allied victory with such certainty was a move of uplifting patriotism.

But even aside from its context, the film is incredible--suspenseful, hilarious, and moving in equal parts. The movie begins with a stage actor portraying Hitler (Tom Dugan) effetely heiling himself after being "Heil Hitler"ed by so many of his men. It's a perfectly-delivered bit of improvisation from the bit actor, but it's roundly attacked by his director Dobosh (Charles Halton), who wants no humor in a serious film about such a grave subject. When Lubitsch's film was released, it too was apparently attacked for making light of the War, but Dobosh and the contemporary audiences seem not to realize the intense power that humor can have in providing a stark contrast to more serious moments. Adding humor to a film emphasizes just how bleak the moments without humor--the non-humor--are. With just one tone, the whole film risks slipping into melodrama.

So when a Jewish actor, having seen Warsaw destroyed, his play censored, and his neighbors killed, quotes the spat-upon Jewish Shylock of The Merchant of Venice to his friend ("If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?"), the moment comes across as raw and sincere rather than laughable and trite. We've already roared at Shakespeare and bad acting; we needn't laugh at a man's expression of grief, outrage, and confusion.

To Be or Not to Be is a fine film, well acted by Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Stanley Ridges, and Sig Ruman, wittily directed, fast-paced, and sharply written by Edwin Justus Mayer. A story of intrigue and disguise, it combines a standard love triangle with a thrilling tale of political uprising and assassination. The revenge of a spurned and humiliated lover surrenders to revenge against an occupying invader, and the inflated arrogance of the cuckold proves the most valuable weapon against the arrogance of the enemy leaders. Twists in one plot influence events in the other, and the audience is left always guessing what tricks will be needed for the next narrow escape and--more importantly--always hoping that the narrow escape will be successful. The characters are broad and silly yet always convincing, and in the course of the film their fortunes earned a place close to my heart.

To Be or Not to Be was dismissed in its own time and is largely forgotten today, but it's a terrific comedy and an important installment in World War II cinema. It ranks #72 on the TSPDT? list.

To Be or Not to Be
d: Ernst Lubitsch w: Edwin Justus Mayer
(Jack Benny, Carole Lombard, Stanley Ridges)

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