Laughter in the face of murderous tyranny is a delicate proposition for any moviemaker to pull off. Charlie Chaplin bravely took up the challenge with “The Great Dictator” (in 1940, before America went to war with Hitler’s Germany), and Mel Brooks found satirical footing to mock Nazi evil even in 1968 with his over-the-top spoof, “The Producers.”
But perhaps slyest, most timely and skillfully executed of these raspberries to Hitler’s madness came from German immigrant Ernst Lubitsch, who brilliantly balanced comedy with tragedy in 1942’s “To Be or Not to Be,” a classic that now gets a well-deserved Criterion Collection treatment on Blu-ray DVD.
Combining the stylish wit and flair that defined the famed “Lubitsch touch” with an earnest grasp of the real-life cataclysm that surrounded this movie’s troupe of theater performers in war-torn Poland, Lubitsch – working from an original story by Melchior Lengyel (“Ninotchka”) – constructs a smart, complex tale that relies more on full-bodied characters and absurd situations than on jokes and shtick for its comic effects.
Jack Benny (in one of his best roles ever) and Carole Lombard (in, tragically, her final role) star as Joseph and Maria Tura, lead actors in a Warsaw theatrical troupe caught up in intrigue following the Nazi invasion of Poland. With their fellow thespians (a colorful ensemble that includes Felix Bressart, Lionel Atwill, Tom Dugan and George Lynn), the husband-and-wife actors work out an elaborate ruse to foil a cunning German spy (Stanley Ridges) and prevent him from delivering a list of Polish resistance fighters to the pompously cruel Gestapo Col. Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman).
The series of mix-ups and comic misunderstandings escalates as a dashing young Polish officer enters the picture and develops a crush on the blithe Maria, much to the chagrin of Benny’s vain, scenery-chewing Joseph, who longs only to savor his big dramatic moment in the troupe’s production of “Hamlet.”
Added to the National Film Registry in 1969 and voted number 49 on the AFI’s list of 100 Funniest Movies, “To Be or Not to Be” still holds up nicely as a funny, provocative poke in the eye of tyranny. An interesting side note: Mel Brooks remade the movie in 1983 with himself in the lead and his wife Anne Bancroft in the Lombard role. It was a competent comedy and a nice tribute to Lubitsch, but it was no match for the original.
Blu-ray extras in the Criterion package include an all-new audio commentary by film historian David Kalat; an hour-long documentary titled “Lubitsch le patron,” made for French TV in 2010; a booklet featuring an essay on the film and Lubitsch’s defense of the film against critics, and a copy of Lubitsch’s rare 1916 silent film, “Pinkus’s Shoe Palace,” a 45-minute comedy made in Germany and notable as the last time the director starred in one of his own films.
- Dennis King