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ALEX FARBA


 

Alex Farba Deleon is a filmfestivals.com ambassador

MY FILM FESTIVAL REVIEWS


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Budapest Classic Marathon "To Be or Not to Be " Lubitsch, 1942

"To Be or Not To Be", Lubitsch, 1942.

by Alex Deleon

This film came out at the height of German conquest in Europe when it looked like Germany under Hitler was well on the way to winning the war and conquering the world. It was a very dark comedy designed to buck up people's spirits at a very dark time by poking fun at the Hitler regime and showing that they were not as invincible as they seemed to be. (In a far different vein than Chaplin's Great Dictator two years earlier)

The setting is Warsaw just before and after the Nazis invaded and occupied that country to start WW II, the first of many countries they would soon subjugate. The story centers on a popular Polish stage actor by the name of Truba, played by Jack Benny, at the time America's best known radio comedian. His wife Maria, also a prominent actress, is played by Carole Lombard, one of the most glamorous Hollywood stars of the time, who died soon after in a tragic plane crash following a wartime tour to cheer up the troops.

Truba, a gigantic ham, has been portraying Hamlet on the stage but the wife has a secret tryst with a handsome young aviator (Robert Stack, as Lt. Sobinski) who adores her and comes to see her every night from a seat in the middle of the first row. She agrees to see him in her dressing room every time that Truba launches into the long "To be or not to be" soliloquy on stage, but only then. 

This sets up the running joke of the picture. Benny on stage begins his monologue and suddenly a spectator in the front row gets up and clambers out to his chagrin -- a body blow to his actor's fragile ego. This will be repeated several.times later always setting up a comical situation back stage. 

 

However the Shakespearean title of the picture also called into question the entire survivability of Europe as the German steamroller rolled on. In the course of the story Benny's troupe will put on German uniforms and Benny himself will play Hitler with a phony mustache to bamboozle the Gestapo which is trying to stamp out the underground resistance movement. Truba and his troupe must thwart a spy from England who has a list of names that could put the underground resistance out of business. The whole thing half comedy, half drama, gets so complicated it's hard to follow, but all eventually escape to England where, at another Hamlet performance in a free country a different young man scoots out as the soliloquy begins. Is Lombard now three-timing Benny???

Lubitsch, who was from Germany, knew what was really going on there and was trying to put the American public on alert, but his early warning message about concentration camps in comedy code went unheeded until the end of the war when the gigantic German atrocities were finally revealed. 

A rather unfunny throwaway line by a Gestapo officer, "We do the concentrating, they do the camping" sort of sums up why the American public was not ready for such heavy handed joshing at such a terrible time. The film was a box-offi flop but is probably funnier and more entertaining today than it was then, now that the real events being satirized are so far back in time. Today it is worth seeing mainly for comedian Jack Benny in a rare major screen role and Carole Lombard who was kind of a living legend as Clark Gable's real life wife in her last screen appearance. The plane crash that killed her happened just before the release of the picture putting a damper on the whole thing along with the intended uplifting humor.

The Korda production credit was the Hungarian connection qualifying this film for inclusion here.

 

 

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