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The Double Standard of “To Be or Not To Be” (1942)

At the outbreak of World War II, before the bombing of Pearl Harbor leading to the United States’ involvement in the war, there were a number of films made poking fun at Hitler and Nazism in general, always portraying Hitler as a sort of bumbling idiot and the object of ridicule. Probably the most famous example is the 1940 Charlie Chaplin classic The Great Dictator, in which Chaplin portrays Adenoid Hynkel, a Hitler-like character ruling the country of Tomania with an iron fist. However, the film I would like to explore today is somewhat lesser-known than The Great Dictator, yet carries a good deal more weight considering that the film’s release was the unfortunate victim of superbly bad timing.

This incredibly fast and complex story of mistaken identity in war-torn Poland, starring beautifully funny Carole Lombard and multi-talented Jack Benny, is dark humor at its best, concerning a group of actors who get mixed up with Nazi spies.The film is intended as a satire, and it is an uproariously funny piece that holds up extremely well with the passing years. Interestingly, it plays very much like a Mel Brooks comedy, with dialogue that could have easily been written by Brooks and scenarios that could have come from his comedic mind. Lending credibility to this statement, Mel Brooks did indeed remake this film in 1983, this time starring Anne Bancroft in the Carole Lombard role and Mel Brooks in the one played originally by Jack Benny. It is not hard to understand why it so appealed to him.

Carole Lombard and Jack Benny.

The filming of this movie began in October of 1941, while the U.S. was still at peace with the world, though Hitler had invaded Poland the month before and Europe was already in shambles. When Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, prompting the United States’ entry into World War II, To Be or Not To Be was just wrapping production, which was finalized on December 23. All of a sudden, this satirical parody of the Nazis didn’t seem so funny anymore. When the film was released on March 6, 1942, it angered critics and much of the public, who claimed that the film’s light treatment of the war which was now all too real to them, was inappropriate and offensive.

And as if that weren’t enough, To Be or Not To Be had another problem to contend with.

Carole Lombard in Indianapolis on the day before her death–January 15, 1942.

Shortly after filming was completed, Carole Lombard, an active liberal Democrat who was always eager to support political causes, embarked upon a tour to raise bond money for the war effort. On January 16, after raising $2 million in war bonds at a rally in Indiana, she boarded TWA Flight 3 back to Los Angeles. After re-fueling in Las Vegas, the plane took off again, but for reasons that are still unknown to this day, suddenly and brutally crashed into Potosi Mountain, killing all 22 passengers onboard. The smart, witty, universally loved star whose future looked extremely bright, was among the first casualties of the U.S. war effort.

One of my all-time favorite images of Carole Lombard that graced the cover of Life Magazine in 1938. I have this magazine in my personal collection.

With Lombard’s death, To Be or Not To Be had to be re-examined. In light of the circumstances, a line was removed from the print: a line in which Lombard, in reference to a plane ride with an admirer, says “What can happen on a plane?” Though upon release Lombard’s performance was hailed as one of the great comedic performances up to that point (as often happens when a film is released after a star’s death), the reality of her passing combined with the shifted connotations of the content creates a film that is funny, sad, and poignant all at the same time. What is created is a supreme work of irony–the circumstances surrounding the film mold it into something that it was not conceived to be, but much like an accident in the kitchen may lead to a new recipe, the concept works marvelously nonetheless. It is a highly enjoyable film, but with a sad quality throughout that can only be read from the future, knowing what we know now.

Here is the opening scene, which gives you a good taste of how the movie will play out right from the beginning. Note “Hitler”‘s utterance of “Heil myself” at 2:58, which was directly appropriated into a song in Mel Brooks’ Broadway musical The Producers.