|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.
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.
FYI: I put all the movie overflow on my public FB movie page.
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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.