Sunday, January 23, 2011

To Be or Not To Be | 1942 | Comedy = Tragedy + Time

To Be or Not To Be is a Nazi comedy, think more The Producers, and less Life is Beautiful. It's 1939 and a Polish theater company becomes involved with a Nazi spy and must resort to extreme measures - including posing as Adolf Hitler in a sea of SS - in order to survive. Even though it's clearly mocking the Nazi's, and is a kind of victory lap for allied filmmakers, it's not surprising that this movie was controversial when it was released. Now, with distance, it's just plain funny (the film, not the Third Reich).

What kind of funny?  In response to a choir of "Heil Hitler!" an actor posing as Hitler says "Heil myself."

It may not sound like much, but it works.

Meanwhile, a non-actor Nazi officer attempts to seduce the beautiful actress Maria Tura (Carole Lombard) with increasing desperation, "I'll give you a bracelet, I confiscated a beautiful one today. I'll give you extra butter rations. I'll give you three eggs a week."

Again, it may not look like much but it totally works.

Another thing that seems to have changed with time is our acceptance of flawed marriages. There are a number of screwball comedies that belong to the sub-genre comedy of remarriage.  These films feature a recently divorced couple, a couple on the brink of divorce, or a situation when one or both are involved in an affair. It's likely the fact that the affairs don't actually happen and are just assumed based on circumstance, but it's notable how cool screwball characters deal with it. Not James Dean cool, but James Bond cool. Controlled emotions, no drama and a bit of acidic humor. It all seems so grown-up and mature.

Contemporary movies seem to go straight to the gazing out a rain drenched window, and the wrong-doer needs to do a whole lot of penance to regain the favor of the audience.

The couples in classic screwball comedies didn't have the romantic notion of finding one person who "completes" you. Without the pressure of destiny these couples are able to maintain their good humor. Essentially, if there isn't just one person for you, then when you lose whoever you're with, well, you've just lost one, not The One...  which means there's another one out there. Easy.  Shrug it off and move on.

"To Be or Not To Be" includes many elements of screwball, but cast just slightly off kilter and to strong, dark effect:  The fancy hotel is being used by the Nazi's as a headquarters, the actress has a bias cut satin dress but it's a stage costume, and though cocktails and caviar are offered it is only to convert a civilian into a spy.

Plus, in screwball there's always people for the leads to bounce off, slow witted people who are mindlessly doing what is expected (the cranky newspaper editor, the wealthy housewife running a high profile home, the workaholic banker demanding results regardless of circumstances).  Here, it's the Nazi's who are blinded by regimented behaviors.  It's not a parallel comparison.  The Nazi's aren't a stand-in for the idle rich, but they are definitely the clueless, dopey ruling class.

"To Be or Not To Be" is screwball, but it isn't light and breezy.  It is Nazi's in Warsaw, after all.  And, the heroes do kill a man.  Still, somehow, Lubitsch uses shaving the beard off a day old corpse as the set-up for laughs...  And it works.

Released: 1942
Director/Producer: Ernst Lubitsch
Leads: Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack
Writers (screenplay): Edwin Justus Mayer
Writers (story): Melchior Lengyel