Friday, January 14, 2022

Lombard's Last: ‘To Be or Not to Be’ 1942


Carole Lombard was just 33 when she appeared  in her last film, "To Be or Not to Be."

Carole Lombard’s last film, To Be or Not to Be, also turned out to be one of her best. The ’42 film is an incredibly nimble high wire act of smart satire, broad comedy, and heartfelt drama. At 33, Lombard was at the top of her acting game in both comedy and drama, and Carole gives a terrific final performance.

To Be or Not to Be has that same layer of urgency that Casablanca possessed. Both films had war-time era plots that were informed by real-life events. Casablanca was premiered at the end of ‘42, to capitalize on when the city had just been captured by Allies. To Be or Not to Be premiered on Feb. 19, 1942, just over a month after Lombard was killed in a plane crash, when she was returning home to Hollywood, from selling war bonds. The timing was tricky for this political satire, what with the U.S. now in WWII and the star’s sudden death. Yet, To Be or Not to Be had its champions from the beginning, and only increased over the decades.

Carole Lombard & Jack Benny are Maria & Josef Tura, an acting couple in
"To Be or Not to Be." O/T: Lombard had the most beautifully curved forehead ever!

Carole Lombard and Jack Benny, with young Robert Stack and a fine cast of character actors, are guided by the great Ernst Lubitsch. The director, producer, and screenwriter brought his famed “Lubitsch touch” to what was his favorite film. Melchior Lengyel, Edwin Justus Mayer, and uncredited Lubitsch wrote the multi-faceted script. To Be or Not to Be unreels a convoluted but brilliantly told tale that all comes together perfectly by the finale. Hitler’s hostile takeover of Europe hardly seems like hilarious comedy material. But this was a subject near and dear to director Lubitsch, who was a German Jew. I won’t give away the series of unending spoilers, but they serve as satiric tweaks throughout.

This famed writer/director was a legend even while he was alive. Sadly, he suffered
a heart condition, and died in 1947, just five years after Carole Lombard.

To Be or Not to Be begins in the summer of ’39 in Warsaw, Poland, with Hitler about to attack. Jack Benny and Carole Lombard make a fine team as a husband and wife acting duo, Josef and Maria Tura. They are performing Hamlet while also rehearsing an upcoming satire on Hitler. Though Hitler and war loom ever closer to Poland, Josef is more preoccupied with his wife Maria's fidelity. With good reason, as Maria tells a handsome young flier, Robert Stack, to meet her during Josef's "To Be or Not to Be" soliloquy. When Stack’s swain is off to fight the Nazis, he notices that Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges) seems shady as he takes soldiers’ messages for family members. He reports his suspicions and soon the Turas and their acting troupe are enlisted to head the professor off at the pass.

Jack Benny assumes several poses in "To Be or Not to Be," but the most hilarious
may be his take on "Hamlet."

Jack Benny has his best film role as Josef Tura. As the “ham actor” playing Hamlet, his scenes are a hoot. In Benny’s various disguises to fool the Nazis, his master thespian has a field day, but often overplays his hand. One scene I love is when he tries to stretch small talk with villain Professor Siletsky, trying to buy time. Jack gives hilarious variety to the line: “So they call me ‘Concentration Camp Ehrhardt’…” I never thought Jack Benny was funny as a comedian in terms of his stand-up material. It was Benny’s droll delivery, side-long glances, and body language that made him so memorable.

Carole Lombard's Maria considers a new backstage romance in "To Be or Not to Be."

In theory, Lombard is playing the straight man to Benny’s showboat actor. Yet, as Maria, she gets to be seductive and airily vain, but also smart and with a good heart. Lombard delivers her comic lines with ease, whether Maria’s dinging her jealous husband or flirting with the flier. The star expertly navigates from sly comedy to the dramatic scenes, where she is effortlessly believable. Also, I’m always struck at what a versatile, lovely speaking voice Carole possessed. This was Lombard’s last film before her sudden demise, and she was at the height of her powers as a consummate comic, natural dramatic actress, and high-class beauty.

Robert Stack, a young flier who waits for his cue to romance in "To Be or Not to Be."

Robert Stack is incredibly young as the infatuated pilot, his good looks are actually soft here, rather than from the stone-faced looker he was later. One of his first films, he’s the male ingénue, but he does quite well. And off-camera, Bob admired Benny and adored Carole, who he knew personally.

Benny was 47 when To Be or Not to Be was filmed in late ‘41, Lombard was 33, and Robert Stack was 21. Stack turned 22 on Jan. 13, just before Carole’s Jan. 16th plane crash. Stack joined the Navy in ‘42, as a gunnery instructor.

Carole Lombard as an actress about to bid her men adieu in "To Be or Not to Be."

The supporting cast is hilarious: Tom Dugan as Bronski, whose “Hitler” impersonation is a hilarious; Felix Bressart as Greenberg, who longs to play Shylock;  and Sig Ruman as Ehrhardt, whose blame game battle cry is “Schultz!” As Professor Siletsky, Stanley Ridges is the most fascinating villain since Claude Rains, intimidating, yet charming.

The wonderful supporting cast of "To Be or Not to Be."

No wonder Billy Wilder considered Lubitsch an inspiration. He mentored with him writing screenplays for Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife and Ninotchka. The mix of satire with empathetic drama was a model for Wilder’s movies as director. Also, the plot of a troupe of theatrical actors taking on the Nazis sounds like a Mel Brooks movie, so no surprise that Mel remade the film in 1983.

Stanley Ridges memorable as Professor Siletsky.

I could pepper this piece with witty lines and scenes from To Be or Not to Be, but this was my first viewing and I was delightfully surprised, so I won’t spoil the fun. One scene though, between the Nazi professor and Lombard’s actress, demonstrates Lubitsch’s expertise in mixing comedic wit with dramatic weight. And this scene shows how timely To Be or Not to Be still is today:

Professor Alexander Siletsky: Mrs. Tura, you're an actress aren't you?

Maria Tura: Yes.

Siletsky: Naturally in the theater it's important that you chose the right part.

Maria: Very.

Siletsky: In real life, it's even more important that you chose the right side.

Maria: The right side? Well, what is the right side?

Siletsky: The winning side.

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Robert Stack & Carole Lombard between publicity shots for "To Be or Not to Be."
Carole was renowned as great fun to work with and young Stack adored her.

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Bette VS Miriam: “Old Acquaintance” 1943


Bette Davis & Miriam Hopkins toast each other at the end of "Old Acquaintance." 
AFTER their two hour acting bout!

I never saw 1943’s Old Acquaintance until I wrote this essay—gasp!—but have caught the famous shakedown scene between sparring stars Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins. I tend to gravitate toward Davis in her “bad Bette” roles and this movie seemed soapy and sappy. The WB film was based on the Broadway hit by John Van Druten, famed for smart stage comedies, so I was pleasantly surprised. 

The famous moment from "Old Acquaintance." Bette shakes Miriam like a Polaroid camera!

Old Acquaintance takes place over a near two decades in the rocky course of Kit Marlowe and Millie Drake's friendship. Davis’ Kit is a smart, no-nonsense writer of critically acclaimed but commercially-challenged books. Hopkins’ Millie, an indulged young wife, is forever competitive with Kit. With her bestie’s help, Millie wants to be a published author, too. However, the silly but steel-willed Millie wants to write commercial crowd-pleasers, and eventually succeeds.

Miriam Hopkins & Bette Davis as life-long friends & rivals in "Old Acquaintance."

Over the years, Kit becomes close to Millie's husband Preston, and daughter Deirdre, which becomes a bone of contention. Millie manages to wreck her marriage all by herself, yet has no problem in trying to pin the blame on Kit. In the final act, Millie's husband plans to remarry, her daughter is a grown woman, and Kit has a younger beau. All comes to a head when Millie discovers Preston professed his love to Kit, and daughter Deirdre is in love with Kit's young man. 

The roles of Kit and Millie offer a field day for Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins. The stars were re-teamed for Old Acquaintance after their 1938 hit, The Old Maid. Once again, Bette is the subdued, more sympathetic one, and Miriam is the glamorous gadfly. Interestingly, these two movies were the biggest hits from Miriam Hopkins' leading lady days. Hopkins has a ball as the high-strung trash novel writer. Miriam’s performance as a comic bitch is much more on-target than Candice Bergen's hit-and-miss performance in the remake, Rich and Famous. Miriam’s kinetic energy is funny, yet fearsome. Hopkins, a bigger star during the first half of the ‘30s, was also six years older than Davis, but now Bette was the bigger star. However, Hopkins more than held her own in Old Acquaintance!

Art imitating life? Miriam Hopkins & Bette Davis dig deep into their psyches to play frenemies! 

As for Bette Davis, I particularly enjoyed her relaxed performance as Kit in the character’s younger years. An idealized portrait of the Davis persona, Kit is wryly humorous, smart, straightforward, and sympathetic. Davis plays with restraint against Hopkins' dervish of a diva. This works for the movie and their performances.

Bette Davis as young Kit Marlowe in "Old Acquaintance." If that name sounds familiar, it's because that's what Columbia's Harry Cohn wanted to name Kim Novak!

While Bette has great moments as the 40-something Kit, Davis turns rather first lady-ish, as critic James Agee noted of her later WB performances. Bette snaps her lines as crisply as when Margo Channing chomps that celery stick in All About Eve. Also, why would sensible Kit slather on more makeup and sport a candy cane-style silver streak in her hair? Still, Bette has some stellar scenes, as when Kit and the young beau are at cross purposes regarding marriage. Davis’ finale with Hopkins, as they toast each other in friendship, is genuinely satisfying. Some critics carped as to why these two women were friends in the first place. Well, I've had some unlikely friendships that I've sometimes questioned, too!

Shellacking Bette Davis with makeup and a silver streak seems out of
character for the older Kit Marlowe. With Gig Young.

I found Old Acquaintance's story surprisingly adult for the era, with some great lines, and plot turns. The one major beef I have is with the last act. I realize older movies and plays had conventions that were less than realistic. But Old Acquaintance has one that’s just illogical: Kit puts off younger beau Rudd's marriage proposal. Rejected, he immediately is charmed by Deirdre, who he has just called a spoiled brat. They now instantly fall in love. Beau goes back to Kit, to tell her he will now marry Deirdre. And the young woman is hurt when she finds out Rudd had planned to marry Kit. If the former romance was a secret, I missed that plot point! If this had been presented gradually, it would be more believable. 

Though Kit acts as a surrogate mother toward Dolores Moran's Dierdre, she later is shocked that Gig Young's Rudd was romancing Bette's writer. John Loder at left.

John Loder as Preston Drake is solid if not exciting; Delores Moran is decent as daughter Diedre, but I can see why her career didn't go anywhere. Anne Revere has a delicious bit as a sharp reporter. I was shocked to find that Kit’s handsome young beau was Gig Young. Just five years younger than Davis, Young is impossibly youthful and gorgeous; a far cry from his later craggy good looks that were marred by alcoholism.

Gig Young was always distinguished, but I had no idea he was so handsome.

Vincent Sherman does another good job with a "woman's picture" as they were once called. He keeps the episodic story moving and stylish, to boot. Sherman keeps the ladies from chewing the scenery. I'm sure the WB director had his work cut out for him, as this was Bette and Miriam’s acting bout all the way.

Bette Davis & Miriam Hopkins feud was thus publicized on their first film, "The Old Maid!"

Old Acquaintance is far superior to the dreary remake, 1981’s Rich and Famous. Star and producer Jacqueline Bisset opted for the Davis role, with Candice Bergen cast as the crass pulp writer. While Bisset is a subtle actress and Candice has a flair for comedy, their remake felt even more old-fashioned than the original, despite the sex scenes. Bisset's writer isn't just serious, but morose through much of the movie. While Candice is often fun as the catty rival, Pauline Kael rightly pegged Bergen as giving a drag queen performance and that Bisset's character is more of a gay male fantasy. I thought this watching Rich and Famous because it reminded me of criticism about Sex and the City. Perhaps this is because gay men were at the helm of the respective productions?

All eyes back on Old Acquaintance: If you want to watch a stylish comedy-drama, with two great stars creating sparks, Old Acquaintance is a great match. 


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Bette as older Kit in "Old Acquaintance." Off-screen, Davis was working to form
the Stage Door Canteen, to benefit WWII troops.