TO BE OR NOT TO BE
Review by Gordon Justesen
Stars: Jack Benny, Carole Lombard, Robert Stack,
Felix Bressart, Lionel Atwill, Stanley Ridges, Sig Ruman, Tom Dugan
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Audio: PCM Mono
Video: Aspect Ratio 1.37:1
Features: See Review
Length: 99 Minutes
Release Date: August 27, 2013
“What he did to Shakespeare we are doing now to Poland.”
I’ve seen many films that could be defined as daring. However, in terms of being the most daring film to date, such an honor would have to go towards Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be. For the longest time, I was only aware of the version starring Mel Brooks in 1983, but had no idea that the initial version of this WWII satire was made and released as the war was going on!
And sure enough, the film was seen by many as “too soon” and an exercise in questionable taste upon its original release. Lubitsch’s goal was to make a pure mockery of the entire Nazi party, most notably the Fuhrer himself, by undermining their villainous force within the movie. Mel Brooks received the same criticisms for portraying Nazis in a similar fashion in The Producers, a film that was released more than twenty years later…now just think about that.
Set in Nazi-occupied Poland, the film basically boils down to a riotous clash between the Nazis and…well, a troupe of stage actors not of the highest caliber. The actors are all set to put on a play depicting the Gestapo, but real life matters end up putting a halt on that. Instead, they decide to put on a production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
The significance of the title has nothing to do with the play being beloved amongst the Polish. Rather, it has to do with the fact that one of the actors in charge of the production, Maria Tura (Carole Lombard, in her final screen performance), has selected the famous quote as a cue for a secret admirer to visit her backstage. This, of course, frustrates the actor on stage as it appears to happen on a nightly basis.
The quote also has a major part in influencing the theatre troupe to help with the Polish Resistance. In order to prevent a spy from possessing and carrying sensitive info, the actors attempt to put on an entirely different type of performance. Maria’s husband, Joseph (Jack Benny), ends up acting as two separate characters during this espionage farce. First, he disguises himself as a Gestapo official with hopes of intercepting the intel, and later passes himself off as the actual spy they’re trying to stop.
I am a sucker for edgy satires that pull absolutely no punches. And so going into this film and having not a single clue what to expect, you can imagine how exhilarated I was throughout the proceedings. Director Lubitsch, along with co-writer Edwin Justus Mayer, balances the overwhelming hilarity with a surprising amount of tension and drama. It’s very clear that Lubitsch served as a major inspiration for Mel Brooks with this film.
To Be or Not to Be was a film completely ahead of its time, and is still a major daring piece of work by today’s standards. And let’s face it; any film that portrays the Nazis as pure bumbling fools is more than ok in my book. In fact, it’s downright fantastic!
Criterion illustrates their brilliant stroke of film preservation yet again with a tremendous looking Blu-ray release. Presented in its original full screen aspect ratio of 1.37:1, the black and white picture looks astounding, with a level of detail that is nothing short of superb! Light and dark images both deliver strongly, and very little in the way of image distortion or noises.
Even with a mono track, Criterion always makes the most with sound performance. Here, the main ingredient is dialogue delivery, which is heard perfectly from beginning to end! Occasional music playback is heard in a most succinctly clear form, as well!
We have yet another stellar lineup of supplemental features in classic Criterion form for this Blu-ray release. To start with, we have a commentary with film historian David Kalat. There’s also “Pinkus's Shoe Palace”, a 1916 German silent short directed by and starring Ernst Lubitsch, along with a new piano score by Donald Sosin. There’s also “Lubitsch le patron”, a 2010 French documentary that details Lubitsch's career. We also get two fantastic episodes of “The Screen Guild Theater”, a terrific radio anthology series. The episodes are “Variety” (1940), starring Jack Benny, Claudette Colbert and Lubitsch, and “To Be Or Not To Be” (1942), an adaptation of the film starring William Powell, Diana Lewis and Sig Ruman. Rounding out the extras is a booklet featuring an essay by critic Geoffrey O'Brien and a 1942 New York Times op-ed by Lubitsch.
While it may have been a major risk to make a film like this during the height of World War II, To Be or Not to Be is nevertheless one of the most daring films to ever surface, if not THE most. And with this outstanding Blu-ray release from Criterion, this is a film that deserves to be discovered and cherished by a new generation.