As a self-professed fanatic of American films from the 1940s, it is embarrassing to admit that I have never seen the original of To Be or Not to Be, although I have seen the 1983 Mel Brooks remake several times. The fact that the DVD of the Ernest Lubitsch film has been out of print for years is a poor excuse, so I finally rectified this situation by watching the original.
Finally seeing the 1942 film after seeing the Brooks version a few weeks ago, I was struck by how closely the remake followed the screenplay of the original. Brooks, not about to pass up the opportunity to dress up as Hitler, combined two roles and that necessitated the changing of a few character names. I had suspected that Mel Brooks had used his special brand of humor to make the film funnier. I also thought that that later film, with the benefit of hindsight which has made the scope of the horrors of the Holocaust better known, would have been the more hard-hitting of the two. The most significant change is the remake was to turn the dresser of the leading lady (Carole Lombard/Anne Bancroft) from an elderly lady to a gay man, making the 1983 film the first to deal with the Nazi persecution of homosexuals. But when all the evidence is considered, it is the 1942 original that emerges as the better film. The performances by Jack Benny, Carol Lombard, and the often overlooked Sig Ruman are all wonderful, and they deftly walk a narrow line between comedy and drama allowing this to be a satire of a deeply serious subject while avoiding offense or tastelessness.
Years later, Charlie Chaplin reflected that had he known the full scope of the horrors of the Holocaust, he probably would have never satirized Hitler and his regime in The Great Dictator (1940). Ernest Lubitsch died at the relatively young age of 55, in 1947, when the terrible destruction reaped by the Nazi was still being catalogued, and if he had any later day regrets over making To Be or Not to Be, they are not recorded. Lubitsch was himself a German-born Jew, and although he had been based in Hollywood since 1922 and had become a naturalized US citizen, he was highly concerned about the possibility of offending Jewish groups. Only one character, the struggling actor Greenberg, is Jewish, a fact that is only implied. “What you are, I wouldn’t eat!” Greenberg says to a fellow performer who has been adding his own lines to his part as Hitler in their satirical play, two which the actor replies, “how dare you call me a ham!” Relegated to tiny roles, Greenberg dreams of one day performing the role of Shylock from The Merchant of Venice. Although he twice recites the “hath not a Jew eyes?” speech, the word “Jew” has been carefully excised, and does not appear anywhere else in the film. Greenberg is played with quiet sensitivity by Felix Bressart, a Prussian-born Jewish actor who fled from the Nazi, first to Austria, then to Hollywood, appearing alongside Sig Ruman as a Russian bureaucrats in Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939). Well-loved by the Jewish and German communities in Hollywood, Bressart would work again with Lubitsch in Shop Around the Corner (1940).
Jack Benny, along with Groucho Marx and a handful of others, was one of only a few Vaudeville actors to successfully transition to television. Unlike Marx, he did not also have a successful film career in between, and his leading role in To Be or Not to Be is his only screen triumph. Benny’s comedy is derived almost completely from his flawless delivery, expressive inflection, and meaningful pauses. In this respect, perhaps the greatest heir to his style of comedy in 1983 was not Mel Brooks, but frequent Brooks collaborator Gene Wilder.
To Be or Not to Be is also, unfortunately known as the last film appearance of Carole Lombard, who died two months before its release while on a tour to sell war bonds. Since she was serving her country at the time, she was considered the first American female casualty of World War II. Lombard looks stunning in a sleek satin evening gown by costume designer Irene. The next thing to notice is that Lombard, who has always had glamour and a flair for comedy, had also developed the ability to handle more dramatic moments. Her death at the age of 33 sadly deprived us of the opportunity to see her move into more mature roles.