To Be or Not to Be (USA, 1942)

Directed by: Ernst Lubitsch. If you read about “great American comedy”, or “great comedy in cinema”, or even if you just read about film, you’ll keep stumbling across Ernst Lubitsch. But if you’re like me, 30 and under (or frankly, 60 and under—my parents don’t really know Lubitsch), you might be less aware of him and his work than you are of his immediate successors, the people and films who were inspired by him and his films—Mel Brooks and Billy Wilder for starters. And if you look at the way he oversaw the intersection of comedy and real-world politics, you can probably make an argument for a lineage that runs up to today’s prominence of political comedy—Jon Stewart, John Oliver, etc. What I’m more interested in right now, though, is just how this film worked, how funny it was, and how it kind of mirrors a bunch of other films I’ve seen recently, plotwise, namely the theme of the regular person in extraordinary circumstances, the regular schmuck compelled into the role of an international spy, and the hilarious consequences that result from it, which was central to The In-Laws, Central Intelligence, and which is also kind of present, although in non-comedy terms, with the heroic part emphasized, of a regular person called to a noble duty, in Anthropoid. In this film, of course, the heroic stream is the underlying nugget of substance motivating the comedy, the McGuffin, providing the excuse for all of the comedic shenanigans, which is what the movie is really about. In that respect, this is, of course, a really funny movie, if you’re like me and you love that strain of Jewish-American mid-century or late-century kind of tradition of American comedy. The short version of this review is basically: I could watch Jack Benny all damn day. But looking at the film itself, it’s interesting to note how the leading lady, Carole Lombard, is basically the leading protagonist, and how the two leading men, Jack Benny and Robert Stack, kind of take a back seat to her, or at least, how their dynamic revolves around her, and their motivations revolve around her. (And I’m heartbroken to see that this was dear Carole Lombard’s last film before she died in a tragic airplane crash!) Here, she’s basically the straight-person, leading the beating heart of the movie, the spy stuff, to give context to Jack Benny’s and the rest of the cast’s antics, but she does a great job leading the way. Basically, I’d say that, like the other Lubitsch I’ve seen, Ninotchka, there’s a good reason why this one keeps coming up over and over again.

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