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.


  1. One of my favorite movies, along with "My Man Godfrey", both starring the luminous Lombard. Thank you for this excellent post!

    1. I've always enjoyed Lombard in both comedy and drama, Carole was such a natural performer. But I never saw this one, because I got the impression that she was just window dressing as the leading lady. Well, CL does look great, but she banters beautifully with Benny, and her serious scenes with the Nazi villain are so subtle. Thanks for checking it out, much appreciated.

  2. Rick, I think you're right, Jack Benny was never better and his hammy hijinks are fun to watch in this wonderful film. Beautiful Carole Lombard was never lovelier, it is sad that she died so young and left her beloved husband, Clark Gable (and all of Hollywood, where she had worked since age 12), devastated. They worked very hard to get together as a couple, mostly due to the intransigence of Gable's second wife who wouldn't give him a divorce, and their romance was tragically short-lived.

    Jack Benny always struck me as a gay icon. I've been telling people for years, decades, really that I am 39 years old, a la Jack Benny, which my family finds hilarious. His mannerisms, timing, and his famous reaction, "Well!" all seemed to me to be very camp. He was a very funny and beloved entertainer and this movie shows his true talents to best advantage.

    Isn't it great that Jack Benny and Miriam Hopkins, subject of your prior post, did not get along, and consequently Lombard was cast instead in the part of Maria. Paramount and Lubitsch originally wanted Miriam, can you imagine what a different movie that would have been?

    Interesting that you note the mentorship Billy Wilder had with Ernst Lubitsch, who continued with that famous "touch" in so many of his wonderful films. They sure don't make 'em like they used to. It is truly insightful in our troubled times to watch a film made during some of the darkest hours in world history and remember what heroic steps people took to ensure victory for the just cause, and managed to create a classic black comedy to boot. Thank you for another great post on a terrific movie with a fantastic cast and creative team.

    1. Victor, I love reading your comments here, as well. Totally agree with you on Benny. And I need to start using that 39 years old line myself.
      Miriam would have brought her comic bitchery to the role, but I love Carole's breezy natural style. Lombard strikes me a so modern in her movies, she could have just as easily been a star today.
      And Wilder always sang Lubitsch's praises. And yes, looking back at the people of WWII's generation, and then seeing how people around the world are acting with today's challenges... well, that's why I turn to classic movies!
      Thanks for your kind words, too.