To Be or Not to Be (1942) and the Importance of Satire

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Whenever I’m feeling really low, I reach for the Lubitsch. I suspect I’m not the only one who does this. From personal favorites such as Trouble in Paradise (1932), Design For Living (1933) and The Shop Around the Corner (1940), Lubitsch’s films never fail to bring a smile to my face, lifting my spirits and recharging my soul. After a pretty lousy few weeks, I revisited a favorite that I reserve for only the most desperate of times: Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 comedy masterpiece To Be or Not to Be (now streaming on The Criterion Channel of FilmStruck). With each viewing I’m left both with tears of laughter streaming down my face and scratching my head in a state of confused awe: How did Lubitsch manage to get this film made? In a world torn apart by war, with the ascension of fascists in positions of endless power and the looming threat of Nazi Germany invading European countries, how on earth did Lubitsch convince Alexander Korda and United Artists to make this film? And how did he convince Jack Benny and Carole Lombard to star? It had to be that infamous “Lubitsch touch.”

One of Ernst Lubitsch’s hallmarks was the timeliness of his comedic films. Although most of his films avoid overt political commentary, Lubitsch had a sense of what audiences needed to see and hear in relation to current events. One of the finest directors of the Depression-era, Lubitsch created much-needed escapism for American audiences. Distant European countries painted like rich fantasy worlds filled with expensive champagne, jewels, silk bias-cut gowns, custom suits and stylish hats. Lubitsch carefully selected glamorous actors for these extravagant, continental settings and put their characters in utterly ridiculous situations. He pushed boundaries and playfully flaunted convention, taking audiences a step outside their comfort zones. For the most part audiences eagerly lost themselves in the fantasy, however, some critics and audiences found many of Lubitsch’s films to be far too risqué and in poor taste. (See the delightful Trouble in Paradise and Design For Living for a healthy dose of “ooh la la.”) As such, Lubitsch was no stranger to controversy; matter of fact, he gladly welcomed it.

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The war-time To Be or Not to Be is quite possibly Lubistch’s finest work. Its biting sarcasm and wit, fearlessness in openly mocking Adolf Hitler by name (the “Heil myself” line is a real gut-buster) and critical timeliness with the story set at the onset of Germany’s invasion of Warsaw was as important as it was groundbreaking. Lubitsch understood the seriousness of Hitler’s actions, but also knew that ridicule and satire were powerful weapons against a fascist bully. He also took the opportunity to push the censors with clever, sophisticated sexual innuendo, a Lubitsch trademark. He and screenwriter Edwin Justus Mayer (co-writer of the very Lubitsch-esque 1932 film Tonight is Ours, directed by Stewart Walker and starring Claudette Colbert and Fredric March), managed to slip past the censors, working in some of the most daring, suggestive dialogue in any film:

Professor Siletsky: “Shall we drink to a blitzkrieg?”

Maria Tura: “I prefer a slow encirclement.”

Upon its release, To Be or Not to Be was harshly received by critics and audiences alike. Unlike Charlie Chaplin’s successful and highly-praised The Great Dictator (1940), which is often mentioned alongside To Be or Not to Be, many found the latter to be offensive and far too irreverent given the seriousness of Hitler and the Nazi threat to Europe and beyond. How could something so serious be reduced to a few running gags, fake beards and spirit gum, seduction and Shakespeare? Even Jack Benny’s father walked out of a screening of the film, citing it disrespectful and vulgar. (Eventually he came around and loved the movie, seeing it countless times.) In response to a scathing review by film critic Bosley Crowther, Lubitsch penned the perfect response published in The New York Times:

“I am accused of three major sins: of having violated every traditional form in mixing melodrama with comedy-satire or even farce; of endangering our war effort in treating the Nazi menace too lightly; and of exhibiting extremely bad taste in having chosen present-day Warsaw as a background for comedy. One might call it a tragical farce or a farcical tragedy—I do not care and neither do the audience. The picture plays—and that’s the only important thing in this issue.” 

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Lubitsch knew what audiences wanted and needed to see, however uncomfortable, resulting in much of his work being ahead of its time, later greatly appreciated by critics, film scholars and diehard cinephiles. He knew that one of the most powerful tools against fascism and tyranny was satire, however irreverent it seemed. Dealing with profound loss, feelings of powerlessness and fear of the unknown is much easier if you can find a way to laugh. Witty commentary in all its forms, from farce to parody and satire, strips away the power from those who threaten us. Who knows if Ernst Lubitsch was aware that his films, specifically To Be or Not to Be, would hold such incredible significance some 75 years later; it doesn’t matter. Let us hold onto and protect these precious cinematic gifts from the past, calling on them often. We will need them. Let us also embrace and protect new art which channels the same ideals Lubitsch held so dear; they will serve as guideposts in challenging times.

“The picture plays—and that’s the only important thing.”

Jill Blake

15 Responses To Be or Not to Be (1942) and the Importance of Satire
Posted By Emgee : January 21, 2017 5:53 am

“Whenever I’m feeling really low, I reach for the Lubitsch. I suspect I’m not the only one who does this.”

You’re right there, or those of his best disciple Billy Wilder.

If satire offends, it means it has found it’s mark, otherwise it’s not good satire.

Posted By Emgee : January 21, 2017 5:56 am

“Even Jack Benny’s father walked out of a screening of the film”

It seems the sight of his son in a Nazi uniform was too much for him; understandable, as he was Jewish.

Posted By LD : January 21, 2017 7:38 am

This is a film that gets funnier each time I see it but satire needs to be viewed with a certain mind set. It’s understandable why the subject of Nazi’s would not seem funny in the context of the times, although the full horror of the regime had yet to be revealed. Also the movie was released just a couple of months after Lombard’s death so there was a built in sadness for her fans.

Whereas Lubitsch had a touch, Mel Brooks had a punch. Brooks’ “Springtime for Hitler” in THE PRODUCERS is, of course, what I am referring to. Both films are satires and both accused of having questionable taste ( a criticism of many of Brooks’ films) at the time of their release. I wonder if the films would have received the acceptance they did if both Lubitsch and Brook’s were not Jewish. Both films are successful in achieving a goal of satire and that is to ridicule stupidity.

Brook’s remade TO BE OR NOT TO BE in 1983. Now, I will spend the rest of the day trying to get the song “Springtime for Hitler” out of my head.

Posted By Charles L. Berger : January 21, 2017 7:56 am

Ernst Lubitsch was a great director. His genius is what makes To Be Or Not To Be and Shop Around The Corner still shine more than 75 years after their original release. One only has to view the
remakes of these two movies to see how they pale in comparison to
Lubitsch’s two masterpieces.
The casting in the subject piece was wonderful. Benny as the
“ham” actor is so perfect. Part of Benny’s long time success as
a comedian on radio and Tv. Tragically, this would be Ms. Lombard’s final film. A wonderful final performance for her
many fans to remember her by. I have dvd’s of a number of movies,
including this one.

Posted By Doug : January 21, 2017 9:06 am

Forgive please, but not exact-from memory:
“The world is a terrible place and if you’re wondering, that is the reason for my humor, for the stories I write. To spite THEM…there is going to be Laughter.”
Sholom Aleichem, quoted in the forward of one of his books.

The Lubitsch productions I love most are “The Shop Around the Corner” and “To Be Or Not To Be”.
Leo McCarey’s “Once Upon a Honeymoon” is fine, and I like it quite a bit, but it seems heavy handed and melodramatic compared to “To Be…”.
Every good hero in a story needs a really bad, evil villain to battle, and Hitler was the ultimate villain.
The little Polish theater group ‘that could’…did.
I showed the Criterion edition of “To Be Or Not To Be” to a group of friends who hadn’t seen it before-every line, every bit of comedy business had us roaring. Lubitsch ‘touched’ us all these decades later, and he will remain timeless. A neat extra on the disc, aside from the great commentary by David Kalat is a radio episode starring Benny, Lubitsch and Claudette Colbert.

Posted By Doug : January 21, 2017 1:10 pm

Jill, I meant to commend you for the pictures on this post, especially the one at the top. Very fine!

Posted By Kathy Shaidle : January 21, 2017 2:06 pm

If satire changed anything that truly mattered, then the blood splattered throughout the Charlie Hebdo offices would have belonged to the Muslim terrorists, and not the cartoonists.

Satire has too often lulled people into thinking that someone, somewhere, is “fighting back” against XYZ. Satire is the drug of the smug.

Meanwhile, The Great Dictator (which Chaplin later repudiated) did a grand total of nothing to stop Hitler. Network is a brilliant film, but what did evils did it prevent? What about A Face in the Crowd? Nada.

By all means enjoy these outstanding films, but never kid yourself that they are “important” in the sense meant.

Posted By EricJ : January 21, 2017 2:46 pm

@Kathy: If you’ve seen Jon Stewart’s hilarious Daily Show deconstructions of North Korea’s nerdy-delusional posturing (“6 troop carriers, and four of them were Photoshopped??”), or Abrams & Zucker’s perfectly inappropriate burlesquing of Saddam Hussein in “Hot Shots, Part Deux” (who ultimately gets a grand piano dropped on his head, and his stripey shoes disappear underneath like the Wicked Witch of the East), you’d know the power of satire.
A tyrant sets out to rule through fear and awe, smoosh a banana cream pie in his face, and you immediately take away BOTH. Humor and dictators are mutually incompatible.
(Like Trump’s tantrums at SNL, Hitler once jokes that if he ever got to the US, the first target he wanted to go after was Spike Jones–But that was historically because Hitler had gas problems from a vegetarian diet, and took the tuba-farty noises in “Der Fuhrer’s Face” too personally.)

Chaplin’s Great Dictator was too earnest, resorting to outright speechmaking by Chaplin and Goddard, but Lubitsch made the Nazis look silly and a threat, by Erhardt joking about concentration camps but ultimately panicking before his imagined leash-holders. The kill-or-be-killed hierarchy of the party was a frequent target of comic buffoonery (“We lose more darn Nazis that way”, as Daffy Duck put it), and even before we knew what the camps were really up to, our only complaints about Hitler were his ridiculous hysterias and his being a “skunk” who didn’t honor treaties.
And the Three Stooges (who had a few Jewish grudges of their own at the same time as Chaplin) managed to deliver a few well-earned kicks in the pants on that, as well as the insane morale-trolling of Bob Clampett’s cartoon “Russian Rhapsody”.
Satire is best defined as “Something you can’t UN-see.” :)

Posted By Emgee : January 21, 2017 3:04 pm

I don’t think anyone was under the illusion that The Great Dictator was going to stop Hitler. Satire is like a flea in a dictator’s ear: it’s not going to kill him, but boy does it annoy him. And it gives his opponents some comic relief and the feeling that they’re not alone in their hatred for the oppressor.

Posted By George : January 21, 2017 3:45 pm

The power of satire can be seen in Trump’s angry tweets bashing SNL and Alec Baldwin for their ridicule of him. Authoritarians can’t stand being lampooned. (Amazingly, Obama and G.W. Bush managed to serve 8 years each without going berserk over a TV show.)

Posted By EricJ : January 21, 2017 4:08 pm

GHW Bush, in a 20-year-later interview about the Berlin Wall, still managed to joke his own imitation of Dana Carvey’s SNL “Naahhgahhhduuutt…”–Not our most thick-skinned president, but still takes it in stride.
Trump’s SNL tantrums pretty much represent the narcissism and self-stylings that other dictators have–Namely that they spent so much time lovingly crafting their own invincible image in a personally state-run media, they can’t deal with the eventual reality of others NOT seeing them as they see themselves.

As for Billy Wilder, the utterly so-wrong lowbrow burlesque of “One, Two, Three” is a good example of what satire should do, even against a real enemy like Kruschev and the Cold War. Not just to mock silly culturally-xenophobic stereotype jokes against a foreign enemy we’re “supposed to fear”, but to make even their real habits look ridiculous and impotent against the power of free democratic smartalecks (no SNL pun intended) who learned how to think for themselves.
Wilder had it right: If you’re going to go low to satirize your enemy, go LOW and dive in with a showoff dive. That’s good ol’ Yankee rebelliousness for ya.

Posted By George : January 21, 2017 4:09 pm

EricJ said: “And the Three Stooges (who had a few Jewish grudges of their own at the same time as Chaplin) managed to deliver a few well-earned kicks in the pants on that …”

Alas, the Stooges also did a short making light of Japanese-American internment camps, 1944′s THE YOKE’S ON ME. The “Japs” who escape from a camp are such buffoons that even the Stooges are able to recapture them. Happy ending!

That’s harder to laugh at today than their send-ups of Hitler and Mussolini.

Posted By Doug : January 21, 2017 10:28 pm

Satire has a bit longer heritage than the movies. Call it “angry comedy serving a purpose”.
EricJ says:”A tyrant sets out to rule through fear and awe, smoosh a banana cream pie in his face, and you immediately take away BOTH.”
Exactly right. That’s why some tyrants jealously protect their image, never admitting to EVER making a mistake.
But Satire should be wielded like a scalpel, not a cudgel.
“To Be Or Not To Be” is the work of a surgeon; Lubitsch intimately knew the evil of the Reich, and I think his film not only mocked Hitler but also told the world, “Hitler is just a man! He CAN be opposed and stopped!”.

Posted By Tonya : January 26, 2017 6:18 pm

I still remember the first time I saw it as a teen. The dark turn was so heavy for me. It was a Jack Benny movie, for goodness sake, I didn’t know what was coming. But it remains to me one of my favorites for the sheer way it rattled me so, as it should have. Superb post, Jill!!

Posted By Jill Blake : February 27, 2017 9:55 pm

I just realized I hadn’t responded to comments here. This post went live when I was at Girl Scout camp with my daughter, so I didn’t have access to internet. I want to say that I really appreciate everyone remaining civil and respectful while discussing this film and the controversial topics surrounding it.

Doug–Aren’t they wonderful? I have my editor Christian to thank for the photo selection.

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