Sunday, March 15, 2009

Film Ignorance #30: To Be or Not to Be

Film: To Be or Not to Be
Rating: Yep, It's a Classic
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Stars: Jack Benny, Carole Lombard, Robert Stack
Year: 1942
Reason for Ignorance: Never heard of it

Ignorance Rating*: Pending

Based on this and Ninotchka, I believe I understood the Ernst Lubitsch formula: take a serious subject with world historical implications, in which many people have or will die, and then turn it into a ludicrous comedy. In Ninotchka, Soviet famine and the threat of Stalinist liquidation became the subject for a sophisticated, ingenuous romantic comedy. In To Be or Not to Be, Germany's occupation of Poland, the Polish resistance, and the threat of concentration camps are the basis of an absurd and very, very funny farce.

The star of To Be or Not to Be is Jack Benny, a radio comedian who would occasionally do movies. He is not a suave or sophisticated comic player along the lines of Grant, nor does he offer the rugged charms of Gable, or the folksiness of Stewart. He is a radio comedian, at least one brow lower than all of those that I just mentioned, but very, very funny. Think Bob Hope, and you'll be in the right ballpark.

After seeing the ultra-sophisticated Ninotchka, I wasn't quite expecting slapstick farce of To Be or Not to Be. But it's damn funny. Benny and Lombard are a husband and wife team starring in Hamlet in pre-war Poland. Lombard doesn't take her vows too seriously, so she starts romancing a young Air Force flyer (Robert Stack, in a pre-Unsolved Mysteries role). Stack gets up for a little rendezvous with Lombard every time Benny starts hamming his way through "To be or not to be." This enrages Benny, but World War II breaks out and there's nothing to be done about it.

After the war, Benny, Lombard, and Stack get involved again, both romantically and in a plot to murder double agent Professor Siletsky before he can meet with the German commander, Col. "Concentration Camp" Ehrhart. From there, the movie throws every gag imaginable at you, and most of them work. An actor playing Hitler says "Heil myself." Benny does a bad, hammy impression of Ehrhardt for Siletsky, then gives Siletsky the same treatment for Ehrhardt. Lombard also has to seduce them both, and keeps getting caught in sticky situations. And over and over again, no matter who he's impersonating, Benny asks everyone if they've heard of him. The running joke is that no one has ever heard of him, but finally Ehrhardt has head of him, and dismisses him as a ham.

This is really a movie that shouldn't have worked. For starters, it's an absurd farce about the Polish resistance trying to assassinate a Nazi double agent; form and content started off at odds with one another. Benny can't really act, and was clearly just a radio ham doing ridiculous impersonations on screen. But the role (like all of those Woody Allen writes for himself) takes advantage of the fact that the comedian has zero range, is a complete buffoon, but knows his way around a one-liner. By playing that thinly veiled version of himself/his showbiz persona, Benny makes this cockeyed creation seem sublime. Ninotchka it ain't, but there aren't many movies that are funnier.

*The "Ignorance Rating" is the percentage of people who voted "Yes" on the poll for this film. If ten people vote in the poll, and 5 of them have seen the movie, I give it an ignorance rating of 50. It's just a ballpark way for me to know how egregious my ignorance was in this case.


MovieMan0283 said...

I found To Be or Not to Be hilarious for the first 10 minutes. Then the jokes kind of died up, as it set up the darker aspects...which kept going for an hour or so, then it becomes a comedy again and the laughs roll in through the end. I found it kind of an odd experience in that sense, but everyone else seems to mention only the non-stop laughs in their reviews ... was there a mix-up in the projection room, so that someone accidentally played the middle reels of The Mortal Storm in the middle of my Lubitsch comedy (fat chance, as I saw it on TCM!)?

Also I like your take on the Lubitsch touch but it collapses aside from those two films...what about, for example, Trouble in Paradise! Wait a light of Madoff and AIG, perhaps high-class thieves SHOULD be considered in the same class as ruthless Stalinists and goosestepping Nazis...

Graham said...

Ah yes, well, I was kidding about the Lubitsch formula - I was quite aware that these two films were the only ones that qualified for it. But to have even done that twice is amazing for any filmmaker.

I take your point about the darker aspects in the middle of the film. I think everyone (myself included) glosses over them for two reasons: 1. They're easy to forget in light of the ending, which humorously wipes all that stuff away (a common enough reaction - it's amazing how often peoples' only conception of a film comes from it's ending)
2. It's hard to take it seriously even when it's happening, as you're watching a comedy with freaking Jack Benny, and you know no one's going to die...besides, of course, the millions of people who did die, which is what makes the whole undertaking very weird.

I wonder: would this have been possible a few years later, when the phrase "concentration camp" was unlikely to summon up any manner of comedy no matter how it was used? I think it probably couldn't have been funny in, say, 1947, although I'd argue it should have been - personally I think humor is the best way of dealing with enormous subjects like this. But that is, I have no doubt, a controversial view.