Friday, May 27, 2016

Tonight's Movie: To Be or Not to Be (1942) at UCLA

I was able to wrap up work for the week Thursday afternoon and head to UCLA last night for a great Carole Lombard double bill, TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942) and IN NAME ONLY (1939).

The films were being shown on the last night of the series Independent Stardom on Screen: Freelance Women in Hollywood, and they were introduced by Emily Carman, author of INDEPENDENT STARDOM: FREELANCE WOMEN IN THE HOLLYWOOD STUDIO SYSTEM.

I would have loved to have seen more films in the series, but between the Noir City Film Festival, the TCM Classic Film Festival, and traveling to Flagstaff for our son's college graduation, there simply wasn't time! I'm very glad I was able to attend the finale, especially as the movies shown are two of my very favorite Lombard films. I've previously seen each one several times, but not for quite a while and never in a theater.

Seen together, TO BE OR NOT TO BE and IN NAME ONLY encapsulate Lombard's many gifts, including the ability to play either high comedy or serious drama, all while looking incredibly glamorous.

TO BE OR NOT TO BE is a real high point in the careers of director Ernst Lubitsch and his stars, Lombard and Jack Benny. All three are brilliant, firing on all cylinders.

Sadly, the movie was released just weeks after Lombard's tragic death in a plane crash as she returned home from a tour selling war bonds. Her performance here underscores what a huge loss her early passing was to the cinema.

There isn't much to be said to describe the plot of TO BE OR NOT TO BE. Suffice it to say that a group of Polish actors, headed by that "great, great Polish actor" Joseph Tura (Benny) and his wife Maria (Lombard), become involved with the Polish resistance movement and foiling a Nazi spy. The genius isn't so much in the plot, but in how it's told, with a darkly comic style which was quite daring considering the film was released mere months after Pearl Harbor.

TO BE OR NOT TO BE is, to my mind, a flawless film. The screenplay by Edwin Justus Mayer is brilliantly constructed; case in point, the sequence where Benny first pretends to be "Concentration Camp Ehrhardt" and then replays the "scene" in another "role" opposite the real Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman, in what must have been his best role).

Jokes such as Lt. Sobinski (Robert Stack) walking out every time Benny begins Hamlet's soliloquy are the stuff of great, memorable comedy; by the end of the movie all Benny has to do is walk out on stage and the audience starts laughing. Some of the humor gets pretty dark, such as the fate of the two Nazi pilots, yet the viewer can't help chuckling in surprise.

The movie also walks a really interesting, rather daring line with the Turas' relationship. One never doubts that Joseph and Maria, who are both goofy hams, love each other, but they also love the adulation of audiences, and in Maria's case, that includes handsome young pilots.

The supporting cast is superb, including Felix Bressart as the spear carrier who would be Shylock and Tom Dugan as a Hitler impersonator who gets some of the biggest laughs in the movie. (What a joy to see this movie with an enthused audience!) Also in the cast: Charles Halton, Stanley Ridges, Lionel Atwill, Maude Eburne, and Miles Mander. All the actors have a chance to shine, down to the smallest roles.

TO BE OR NOT TO BE was photographed in black and white by Rudolph Mate, who later became a director himself. It runs 99 minutes.

TO BE OR NOT TO BE was released on DVD in 2005. In 2013 the Criterion Collection released the movie on DVD and Blu-ray. It was also released on VHS.

Very highly recommended.

Related post: Tonight's Movie: THE WIFE TAKES A FLYER (1942).


Blogger Rick said...

Absolutely. I'm in total agreement. Frankly, it's hard to imagine anyone seeing this movie and not being in agreement.

It's a great movie. Or perhaps I should say, it's a "great, great" movie.

I feel like watching it again right now. And maybe I will.

11:22 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks for sharing your endorsement, Rick! I hope anyone who's not yet seen this film will check it out...and those who have seen it will watch it again! :) Enjoy!

Best wishes,

1:58 PM  
Blogger Stephen Reginald said...

I'm glad the audience enjoyed seeing this classic on the big screen. When I taught a Carole Lombard class several years ago, the college students couldn't get past the fact that this was a comedy about the Nazis. They thought the whole film was in bad taste?!

10:39 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Stephen!

I seem to recall discussing that incident with you back when. That's a real shame!

There are times I find similar things in poor taste -- for instance, I can't watch HOGAN'S HEROES. Don't see the humor in it and the fact it was made long after the war, when the full weight of Nazi atrocities were known, just doesn't work for me.

But, as you know, TO BE OR NOT TO BE so brilliantly punctures the Nazis! And it simultaneously was a great propaganda tool from the darkest days of U.S. involvement in the war, when the outcome was far from certain. It's a shame the students couldn't appreciate the film in its context and see how daringly it shredded a very dangerous, very real and current enemy.

Thanks for sharing that!

Best wishes,

10:44 AM  

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