A major Hollywood studio plans a comedy film mocking a prominent world leader and featuring a pair of comedians involved in an assassination plot. A foreign nation, outraged over the director’s artistic sensibilities, uses his image in its own propaganda, citing him and his work as the epitome of a culture that must be annihilated. A high-profile critic in the most prestigious newspaper in the country pans the film as tasteless and unfunny. Even some of the film’s production staff begins to second guess their director, wondering if by making light of a real evil, they are making it easier for Americans to not take it seriously.

The year was 1942; the film was To Be or Not to Be.

'To Be or Not to Be' (1942)

'To Be or Not to Be' (1942)

When Ernst Lubitsch’s comedy began filming, America was still on the sidelines of World War II. By the time the film opened, the nation had been attacked on its own soil by one foreign power and had committed itself to opposing the spread of fascism.

Yet To Be or Not to Be was not a typical wartime propaganda film. Its characters were not, for the most part, soldiers engaged in formal combat against the Nazis. Members of the acting troupe at the center of the film were Polish, and as the film opens they are rehearsing their own political satire: Gestapo. That play, complete with a Hitler look-alike who prompts audience guffaws by entering a room and solemnly barking “Heil Myself!” never does get to open. The German army overruns Warsaw and shows an unsurprising lack of humor about being mocked in the public square.

Through a set of comedic circumstances, the “great, great Polish actor, Joseph Tura” (perhaps you’ve heard of him?) and his wife, Maria, find out that Professor Siletsky is collaborating with the Nazis and planning to hand over a list of Poles active in the resistance to the buffoonish “Concentration Camp” Earhardt. Maria tries to get the list from Siletsky while fighting off his lecherous advances. Soon her life, not just her chastity, is in danger, and the troupe devises an elaborate ruse that includes once again impersonating the Fuhrer, as well as delivering the most moving rendition ever of Shylock’s “If you prick us, do we not bleed?” soliloquy from The Merchant of Venice.

Bosley Crowther of The New York Times famously savaged To Be or Not to Be, prompting Lubitsch to write a letter defending himself in response. Lubitsch might simply have reminded the reading public that the Nazis came after him first—Geoffrey O’Brien reminds us in the pamphlet accompanying the Criterion Collection DVD of the film that the director’s visage was featured in the Nazi propaganda film The Eternal Jew. A Russian-born, Jewish, German-American, Lubitsch was just about the last director in Hollywood one needed to convince to take the Nazis seriously. He wrote in his reply to Crowther: “American audiences don’t laugh at those Nazis because they underestimate their menace but because they are happy to see this new order and its ideology being ridiculed.”

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'To Be or Not to Be' (1942)

'To Be or Not to Be' (1942)

Today, it is the film’s whiplash transitions from farcical jesting to deadly earnest that make To Be or Not to Be look daring. One moment Maria and her would-be adulterous suitor are trading tawdry bedroom innuendos (“this is the first time I've ever met a man who could drop three tons of dynamite in two minutes”), but when the subsequent moment of decision comes there is little hesitation about risking life and limb. Carole Lombard gives an all-time great performance as Maria; the scene in which she has to pretend to seriously entertain the Nazi’s lecherous advances is so affecting precisely because she cannot, must not show the repulsion we all feel.

The film is also not afraid to portray its heroes as flawed egotists. Joseph’s feelings are more hurt that a man keeps leaving during his Hamlet monologue than at the prospect of his wife’s adultery. But the characters’ very venality is what makes their instinctive answer to the call of duty the more poignant. Here’s Jack Benny as Joseph discussing plans to retrieve the list of names from the traitorous Selinsky:

Dobosh: As soon as you're in his room, you hit him over the head with the butt of the gun.

Joseph: All right.

Dobosh: Then you take his keys, open his trunk and burn the papers. And then you shoot him.

Joseph: All right . . . Just a minute, what’ll happen to me? They’ll kill me!

Dobosh: Well . . . we’re going to keep our fingers crossed.

Joseph: Good . . . [double take]. Hey, wait a minute—you go to the hotel, and I’ll cross my fingers!

To Be or Not to Be ended up being a high-water mark for many of its participants. Jack Benny would go on to do comedy for another three decades, making the transition from radio to television without much of a further career in movies. His co-star, Carole Lombard, would not live to see her final film’s premiere. While on a tour promoting war bonds, she died when the plane she was on crashed in the Nevada desert. Lubitsch lived to see the end of the war but his work was slowed by a heart attack a year after To Be or Not to Be, and he completed only four more films before dying in 1947.

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James Franco and Seth Rogen in 'The Interview'
Image: Sony Pictures

James Franco and Seth Rogen in 'The Interview'

I wouldn’t want to overstate the similarities between the production histories of The Interview and To Be or Not to Be. The United States isn’t at war with Sony’s hackers, and Seth Rogen didn’t immigrate to this country from North Korea. Whenever there is a DVD of The Interview (and there will be), I doubt it will be on The Criterion label. Nevertheless, when we find ourselves in seemingly uncharted territories, it is always a good thing to remind ourselves that there is nothing new under the sun.

We’ve always laughed at the face of danger. The scarier things got, the more we loved the entertainers who helped us do it. As for people who take orders from tyrants because they are afraid?

At the end of To Be or Not to Be, the acting troupe open the doors of their getaway plane and the actor dressed as Hitler commands two German soldiers to jump to their death. Without hesitation, they salute the man they think is their dictator and follow orders. In his letter to The New York Times, Lubitsch insists that American audiences had contempt not only for the dictator, but for the men who blindly follow his orders simply because he is in a position of power over them.

“I am positive that that scene wouldn’t draw a chuckle in Nazi Germany,” he wrote. “It gets a big laugh in the United States of America. Let’s be gratified that it does, and let’s hope that it always will.”

For more on the film, check out Ken’s podcast (with Todd C. Truffin), originally recorded for Film Geek Radio.

Watch the trailer for the film on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7W_B10VbYjI

Kenneth R. Morefield is associate professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I & II, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.

Watch This Way
How we watch matters at least as much as what we watch. TV and movies are more than entertainment: they teach us how to live and how to love one another, for better or worse. And they both mirror and shape our culture.
Alissa Wilkinson
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.
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