It was playwright Oscar Wilde, of course, who said, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.”
You may agree with Mr Wilde, or not, but it’s fun to see this idea spun into a story that parodies both society and itself.
Now, by “society” we mean Warsaw society during the 1939 German invasion of Poland, which, as you know, was the Last Straw in a series of events that begat World War II.
The 1942 comedy, To Be or Not to Be, centres on a troupe of anti-Nazi Warsaw thespians, the headliners being Joseph and Maria Tura (Jack Benny and Carole Lombard), a blithe married couple who take their careers Very Seriously.
This prestigious theatre group is currently staging Shakespeare’s Hamlet, while rehearsing an upcoming play about Nazi Germany. Alas, the group is told they cannot perform the Nazi play, Berlin sensitivities being what they are, even though Poland is still a sovereign country.
The group extends the Hamlet run, but that, too, has a limited shelf life following the events of September, 1939.
So members of the troupe – including the self-absorbed Turas – dedicate themselves to joining the Resistance. Their plan is to infiltrate the occupiers’ ranks by imitating Nazi officials, using costumes and props from aborted anti-Nazi play. What could go wrong?
(It’s fitting that a theatre troupe should Go Up Against the Nazis, given the theatrics and pageantry the Nazis themselves staged in 1930s Germany.)
Yet, the joke is on the actors when they realize the Nazis are uncanny replicas of the characters in the defunct play.
To Be or Not to Be uses themes of imitation, duality and repetition. A conversation – or, soliloquy, such as Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” – is repeated throughout the film, and each time these words become more amusing, but also darker, revealing the barbarism of Nazi occupation.
For example, Benny-as-Tura reprises his role from the defunct Nazi play to impersonate a Colonel Ehrhardt, Chief of the Warsaw Gestapo. Tura-as-Ehrhardt chuckles when he learns people in London refer to him as “Concentration Camp Ehrhardt”. Later in the film we meet the actual Colonel Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman), who chortles about his nickname the same way Benny-as-Tura had.
This is how repetition makes the story more sinister. Tura’s laughter is silly – a joke shared between he and the audience – but it’s also an indictment against Colonel Ehrhardt. As for the real Ehrhardt, his laughter is somewhat chilling; he relishes his role as mass murderer.
Each scene lays the groundwork for what comes next. Nothing is wasted. The script treats us to several plot twists, with just as many payoffs. There is no Talking Down to the audience.
To Be or Not to Be is, in fact, a masterclass in screenwriting.
Critics of the day weren’t wild about To Be or Not To Be, and you can’t really blame ’em. The film was released in 1942, when the outlook was fairly bleak for Europe’s occupied nations. Our pal Bosley Crowther of the New York Times wrote, “[Director Ernst] Lubitsch had an odd sense of humor—and a tangled script—when he made this film.”¹
Modern audiences have a higher appraisal. “To Be or Not to Be did something rare, then or any any time,” writes Geoffrey O’Brien, “by interweaving farce and disaster in such a rigorously structured fashion as to elicit, in the very same scenes, genuine anxiety and a hilarity so acute that is has something like an ecstatic kick.”²
Sadly, this was Carole Lombard’s last film. She would die in a plane crash in January, 1942, when the movie was in post-production. Co-star Jack Benny was apparently distraught at the news of her death, and he cancelled both his radio show that week and his appearance at a preview screening.
We implore you to see To Be or Not to Be. You’ll like how smart and funny it is, and how it never diminishes the the cruelty of war and occupation.
¹New York Times. (Retrieved July 5, 2019) The Screen, by Bosley Crowther.
²O’Brien, Geoffrey. The Play’s the Thing. Criterion Blu-ray booklet.
To Be or Not to Be: starring Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Written by Edwin Justis Mayer. United Artists, 1942, B&W, 99 mins.