When the concept of satire or farce comes to the conversation, we rarely think of history. And that’s really too bad. It must have been Karl Marx who noticed that history repeats itself. First as tragedy. Second as farce. But we never seem to learn the lessons it offers. Take Ernst Lubitsch. He was one of the great storytellers from the early days of the motion picture industry. As the world watched the frightful oppression of Nazi-invaded Warsaw, Mr. Lubitsch chose to create a farce that he hoped might prevent a tragedy.
In To Be or Not to Be (echoing those fateful lines from Hamlet), Mr. Lubitsch beseeches us to consider the implications of our thoughts and our actions. With a cast that included the stunningly beautiful and recently deceased Carole Lombard as well as the ever-hilarious Jack Benny, Lubitsch weaves a captivating tale of intrigue, romance and, of course, great humor. Unfortunately, audiences in America just didn’t get it. The film was repudiated and even reviled by critics who thought it was in poor taste to juxtapose comedy against the backdrop of Poland’s invasion by the Nazis.
Time has been kinder to Lubitsch than it has been to his critics. The film isn’t so much about Nazis overtaking Poland as it is an inverted mirror revealing a troupe of Polish actors invading the world of Nazidom. Therein lies its brilliance as a topical satire.
Opening commercially in March of 1942, less than a year after America entered World War II, it dares to poke fun at Hitler and the Nazi regime, and in a way that is arguably more barbed than Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. The story has aged quite well. Jack Benny and Carole Lombard play actors in a Polish theater company who, thanks to Lombard’s flirtation with a pilot (Robert Stack), inadvertently find themselves working with the Resistance. Using all the tricks of their mutual trade, Lombard pretends to seduce a Nazi spy (Stanley Ridges) while Benny impersonates both that spy and a Gestapo colonel (Sig Ruman), doing his best to spout totalitarian talking points (“We do the concentrating, and the Poles do the camping!”)
Lombard was able to put a dizzy spin on lines that would choke another actress. When Robert Stack (the young pilot) tells her he’s nervous because he’s never met an actress before, she replies, “Lieutenant, this is this first time I’ve ever met a man who could drop three tons of dynamite in two minutes.”, a great double entendre on paper that gets transformed into something more rapturous by her dreamy delivery.
Truly an engaging and provoking commentary on totalitarianism and the power of art to transform us all. Would that there were more Lubitschs!