By Lara Gabrielle Fowler
A group of Polish actors infiltrate a Nazi spy plot, wreaking havoc with their impersonations of key Gestapo figures and screwball antics. This is essentially the plot of To Be or Not To Be, a highly complex film ahead of its time in many ways and unlike any other film in Lombard’s filmography. Far from the typical screwball comedy, it mixes traditional comedy technique with dramatic, sinister overtones to create a very unusual spectacle that leaves the viewer mildly uncomfortable with what is happening onscreen, not knowing whether or not it is acceptable to laugh.
I have written about To Be Or Not To Be once before, to highlight the dualities intrinsic in the film and the problems that ensued upon release. Indeed, it is a film worth examining multiple times, as there are new and fascinating aspects of the movie each time one views it. Among classic film fans, it is highly regarded and revered as one of Carole Lombard’s great roles. Outside of the classic film community, it is rarely seen, perhaps due to the enormous complexity of the film that makes it more than a bit difficult to follow. The film builds upon itself almost exponentially, the plot moving so quickly with so much new information that the viewer’s attention has to be completely undivided in order to understand what is happening.
In this sense, To Be or Not To Be plays out rather like a Shakespearean comedy, complete with themes of mistaken identity and biting, witty lines. As the cast is performing Hamlet when they get involved in the Nazi spy plot, the film could be construed as a bit of a tribute to Shakespearean theater. In a move that would prove to be massively ironic, the Jewish character of Greenberg also recites Shylock’s famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech from The Merchant of Venice sporadically throughout the film. At this point in World War II, the true horrors of German concentration camps were unknown to the outside world. Had they been public knowledge at the time of this film’s release, it is interesting to think how To Be or Not To Be would have turned out. Charlie Chaplin, who had made his similarly war-related epic comedy The Great Dictator two years prior, stated that if he had known about the extent of the concentration camps, he would not have made the movie at all.
As it was, To Be or Not To Be was received indignantly upon its release, the victim of extremely poor timing. Filming began in October of 1941, Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, and by the time the film was completed on December 23, the U.S. had entered the war. Emotions were running high, and U.S. audiences were reluctant to view the war as anything worthy of laughter or merriment. Shortly after filming completed Carole Lombard, always an enthusiastic patriot, had embarked on a bond rally to raise money for the war effort. After raising a staggering $3 million in her home state of Indiana, she boarded a plane with her mother and agent bound for Los Angeles.
They never made it. The plane crashed into Mount Potosi in the Sierra Nevadas, and all 22 passengers on the plane were killed. To Be or Not To Be was released in March 1942, 3 months after Carole Lombard’s death, contributing to the film’s problems at the box office.
This film is one of my favorite Carole Lombard movies, due to the uniqueness and controversial nature of the plot. The humor is advanced and layered, relying more on pure wit than on sight gags or cheap shots. The focus on verbal humor combined with the complexity of the plot makes it a challenge to watch casually, but when one has time to truly focus on the film and only the film, it is a delight. Mel Brooks released a remake in 1983, and from the present time looking back, it may be noted that the original version of To Be or Not to Be is indeed strangely Mel Brooks-ish in tone.
Despite the many marvelous qualities of the film, To Be or Not To Be is probably best known to audiences as Carole Lombard’s final film. Numerous edits to the film had to be made following the tragedy of Carole Lombard’s death, including the deletion of one very eerie line in which Carole Lombard exclaims “What can happen in a plane?”
See you next time!
You really nail it here with this film, on how the comedy is layered and complex, not settling for straight slapstick or screwball, and that it can leave you slightly uncomfortable (especially in hindsight). People seem to love or hate this film (Pauline Kael, for one, disliked it), but I’m definitely one of its fans. It’s a movie that deserves more than one look.
Yes, I can see how people have trouble with it. I absolutely love it, I think it’s astounding how advanced the humor is. As I mentioned, I think it’s very Mel Brooks-y. I especially noticed it in one of my favorite scene–the one where the actor dressed as Hitler parachutes down from the plane, startling the peasants who think that Hitler just landed in their haystack. Seems like something straight out of “The Producers!”
Yikes – it seems like the timing for its release could not have been worse. Still, it looks like a must-see film. Thanks for reviewing!