Tuesday, March 06, 2012
“It’ll get a terrific laugh…”
By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
Beginning in the 1930s and continuing well into the mid-'50s on radio (and for a number of years on television afterward), The Jack Benny Program was a “Sunday night at seven” institution for millions of American households. The titular star of the broadcast, a comedian who was practically unique in his insistence on making certain his writing staff received most of the credit for his success, revolutionized humor by, not putting too fine a point on it, becoming the godfather of the modern American situation comedy. His innovations included self-referentially setting the storyline of each week’s show amongst the background of preparing his broadcast, breaking “the fourth wall” and having his “gang” (the program’s supporting characters) get the lion’s share of the laughs poking fun at the star. Above all, Benny masterfully mined humor from pettiness, vanity and miserliness while simultaneous creating a lovable “everyman” that the listening audience couldn’t help but want to hold to its collective bosom.
Benny tried to duplicate his radio and TV success on the silver screen, and though he made a number of entertaining films, the comedian never really was satisfied with the end result. A lot of this had to do with that many of his movies, such as Love Thy Neighbor (1940), Buck Benny Rides Again (1940) and The Meanest Man in the World (1943), were little more than slight variations of the character he played on radio; Neighbor and Buck Benny in particular featuring many of the regulars from his show (Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Don Wilson, Phil Harris, Dennis Day). On occasion, Jack would get the opportunity to flex his acting muscles in vehicles such as Charley’s Aunt (1941) and George Washington Slept Here (1942) so it shouldn’t be too surprising that Benny considered these movies among his favorites. But Jack — and many others, including myself — always felt his finest hour on film was in a production released to theaters 70 years ago on this date: Ernst Lubitsch’s black comedy classic To Be or Not to Be (1942).
On the eve of the German invasion of Poland in 1939, a Warsaw theater troupe headed up by “that great, great actor” Josef Tura (Benny) rehearses a new anti-Nazi play entitled Gestapo. The troupe’s producer, Dobosh (Charles Halton), is dissatisfied with what he’s watching, arguing that Bronski (Tom Dugan), the actor playing Adolf Hitler, simply ian't convincing as the Fuehrer. In an effort to prove his authenticity, Bronski steps outside to walk among the Warsaw population…and though he gets a few stunned and anxious stares, his cover is blown when a girl timidly asks for his (Bronski’s) autograph.
Later that evening, as the troupe performs Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Josef’s wife Maria (Carole Lombard) entertains a young Polish pilot named Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack) in her dressing room. Sobinski is very much in love with Maria, and has been signaled to pay her a nocturnal visit at the moment when husband Josef starts Hamlet’s famed “To be or not to be” soliloquy (naturally, Josef is dismayed when he spots the young airman leaving in the middle of his performance). Maria loves her husband very much but doesn’t dismiss having an innocent flirtation with Stanislav…an “affair” that ends with the news that Germany has invaded Poland and World War II is underway.
Under the thumb of Nazi terror, Warsaw has been reduced to rubble (the theater has been closed and the troupe thrown out of work due to a curfew and other restrictions) but a vibrant Polish underground is determined to throw off the yoke of their oppressors. In England, Sobinski and his fellow pilots spend an evening of singing and revelry in the company of a Polish resistance leader, Professor Alexander Siletsky (Stanley Ridges), who generously offers to get word to the pilots’ families. Stanislav tells Siletsky that while his own family is safely out of Poland, he would like the professor to deliver a message to Maria: “To be or not to be.” But he is troubled by the fact that Siletsky — who claims to be a lifelong resident of Warsaw — is unfamiliar with Maria Tura, and after the professor starts off for Poland, Sobinski relates the incident to his superiors (Halliwell Hobbes, Miles Mander). Both men, having realized that the information on the pilots’ families would be vital to the Nazis even if Siletsky weren’t a spy, instruct Sobinski to fly to Warsaw immediately and stop the professor.
Shot down over Warsaw, Stanislav sends Maria to rendezvous with his contact, a bookseller, while he recuperates after nearly being shot by Nazi soldiers. Josef returns home and finds the young pilot in his bed (and wearing his pajamas), is naturally curious as to what Stanislav is doing there. He receives a hurried (and incomplete) explanation from Maria, who arrives in time to tell the two men that she was picked up by Nazi soldiers and taken to Siletsky’s hotel. Siletsky arrived in Warsaw before Sobinski, and after having delivered the pilot’s message, approaches Maria about joining the Nazi cause. Despite being confused by the events, Josef realizes that he needs to stop Siletsky (by killing him) before the professor delivers the information to the Nazi command: he may be angry about being cuckolded, but he still ia a patriot at heart.
Maria returns to the professor’s hotel, where she pretends to seduce Siletsky…but they are interrupted by a member of the theater troupe (George Lynn) disguised as a Nazi officer. The faux officer informs Siletsky he has an appointment with the head of the Gestapo — who also is a fake: it’s Josef in disguise. His mission is to wrest the information on the Polish underground away from Siletsky and then dispose of him…but learns during the course of their conversation that the professor has a duplicate copy of the information in a trunk back at his hotel. Stanislav and the theater group frantically try to think of a plan to obtain that extra copy but before they can formulate anything Siletsky concludes that he’s been duped by Tura. In his escape attempt from the theater, he is killed by Sobinski.
Josef must now impersonate Siletsky — and returning to the hotel, he attempts to destroy the duplicate information but is interrupted by the arrival of another Nazi officer. Captain Schulz (Henry Victor), adjutant of the Gestapo head Tura impersonated earlier, takes Tura-as-Siletsky to Colonel Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman), the genuine article. Josef is able to do some fast thinking to avoid spilling any information (identifying men who already have been shot as resistance leaders), and during this conversation he learns that Hitler himself will be visiting Warsaw the next day.
The body of the real Professor Siletsky is found in the theater the next morning…which is unfortunate for Josef, as he still is continuing his impersonation. Arriving at Ehrhardt’s office, he is ushered into a room and asked to wait until Ehrhardt has finished an appointment with two other officers. Inside the room is the corpse of Siletsky, but Tura manages to shave off the dead man’s beard and attach a false one…thus making Ehrhardt and his men think the deceased professor actually was an impostor. But when several theater members, led by hammy actor Rawitch (Lionel Atwill) in disguise, burst in and blow Tura’s cover in order to spirit Josef away from his captors, Tura and company realize it will only be a matter of time before they are rounded up by the Germans.
To escape out of Poland, Josef and his actors concoct a diversion, with Bronski in the part of Hitler and his friend Greenberg (Felix Bressart) as a defiant Jew who interrupts the Fuehrer’s appearance at the theater; the theater company and Stanislav then steal the Nazis’ transportation and head for the airport, stopping off at Maria’s just in time to rescue her from the advances of an amorous Ehrhardt. Our heroes are successful in their flight from Warsaw and land safely in Scotland, where that evening, Josef and his fellow thespians put on a production of Hamlet…and all goes well until “To be or not to be…”
The director of To Be or Not to Be, Ernst Lubitsch, was admired and respected by his peers, critics and audiences both when he was making films and long after his death in 1948. Lubitsch specialized in urbane romantic comedies that reeked of elegance and sophistication with just a touch of the risqué (daring but never smutty) that artfully avoided any complications with the Motion Picture Code, and earned his directorial style the nickname “the Lubitsch touch.” Lubitsch didn’t take a writing credit on To Be (the honor goes to Edwin Justus Mayer, based on a story by Melchior Lengel) but he devised the character of Josef Tura with Jack in mind, joking that every comedian’s dream is “to play Hamlet.” Benny would later reminisce about the experience in saying he worked well with Lubitsch because the director told him to forget everything about acting (“which wasn’t too difficult,” he cracked) and just follow his lead as Ernst acted out every gesture and vocal inflection for Benny’s benefit. “He was a lousy actor, but a great director,” was Jack’s final verdict.
What’s wonderful about watching Benny play Tura is that both the character and Jack’s radio persona share some similarities: the vanity, the hamminess (whenever Jack would do a spoof of a current movie on his show he always made sure he got the largest role) and that lovable schlemiel that resides in a world where everything terrible seems to happen to him. And yet there are differences: Tura is way out of his league playing spy, but he’s able to screw up his courage and risk certain death to help Sobinski (the man playing around with his wife) stop a dangerous man who threatens the lives of the people of Warsaw. He’s ready to fight on behalf of his country, and demonstrates tremendous courage in doing so.
The part of Maria Tura was originally conceived as a comeback role for actress Miriam Hopkins — Hopkins had worked with Lubitsch before in the vehicles Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Design for Living (1933), and in the pre-production stages of To Be or Not to Be was anxious to let the director lift her career out of its slump. But Hopkins didn’t want to work with Benny, and so her departure attracted the interest of Carole Lombard…who, despite resistance from Lombard's husband, Clark Gable, wanted very much to work with Lubitsch (and she’d also get to work alongside Robert Stack, who had been a friend of hers for many years since he was a teenager). After completing the film, Lombard would later tell friends that it was the most satisfying experience of her career…and the proof is up on the screen. Her performance as Maria is positively luminous; she simultaneously gives the character both a playful and ethereal quality — a woman deeply in love with her husband and yet naughty enough to stray a little from the fold when opportunity presents itself. Benny had nothing but the utmost affection for his co-star, whom he really got to know during their time on the movie — he later told friends: “She was one of the few gals you could love as a woman, and treasure as a friend.”
Sustaining Benny and Lombard is an outstanding “troupe” of supporting performers that include Stack, Bressart, Atwill, Ridges, Ruman and Dugan — none of these amazing actors hit a false note in their portrayals, and deliver Lubitsch and Mayer’s sparkling dialogue to perfection. Critics at the time of To Be's release lambasted Lubitsch for allowing the heroes to be nothing but a disparate group of actors…but I think it’s a brilliant concept: Josef and his friends are the only ones with ego enough to pull one over on the arrogant Nazis. And that screenplay! So many quotable passages of delicious double entendres that exemplify “the Lubitsch touch”:
MARIA: It's becoming ridiculous the way you grab attention. Whenever I start to tell a story, you finish it. If I go on a diet, you lose the weight. If I have a cold, you cough. And if we should ever have a baby, I'm not so sure I'd be the mother.
JOSEF: I'm satisfied to be the father.
MARIA: Tell me about yourself.
SOBINSKI: Well, there isn't much to tell. I just fly a bomber.
MARIA: Oh, how perfectly thrilling!
SOBINSKI: I don't know about it being thrilling. But it's quite a bomber. You might not believe it, but I can drop three tons of dynamite in two minutes.
SOBINSKI: Does that interest you?
MARIA: It certainly does.
SOBINSKI: You see, sir, the other night Professor Siletsky was addressing us at the camp, and I mentioned the name of Maria Tura…and he never heard of her.
ARMSTONG: Neither have I.
SOBINSKI: Oh, but, he's supposed to be a Pole who lived in Warsaw and she's the most famous actress in Warsaw.
ARMSTONG: Now, look here, young man, there are lots of people who're not interested in the theater. As a matter of fact, there's only one actress I ever heard of…and I certainly hope I'll never hear from her again.
JOSEF: It's unbelievable! Unbelievable! I come home to find a man in the same boat with me and my wife says to me, "What does it matter?"
SOBINSKI: But, Mr. Tura, it's the zero hour!
MARIA: You certainly don't want me to waste a lot of time giving you a long explanation.
JOSEF: No, but I think a husband is entitled to an inkling.
JOSEF: Her husband is that great, great Polish actor, Josef Tura. You've probably heard of him.
EHRHARDT: Oh, yes. As a matter of fact I saw him on the stage when I was in Warsaw once before the war.
EHRHARDT: What he did to Shakespeare we are doing now to Poland.
That last line caused a little bit of concern among critics, who steadfastly argued that poking fun at a serious situation made Lubitsch guilty of cinematic high crimes and misdemeanors. My favorite line from To Be or Not to Be is one that doesn’t seem particularly funny at first hearing (in fact, it might make some viewers wince): posing as Ehrhardt, Josef responds to flattery from Professor Siletsky with the phrase “So they call me ‘Concentration Camp’ Ehrhardt…?” But as Josef desperately tries to stall for time while Sobinski and the rest of the actors dope out a way to retrieve vital documents from the spy’s hotel room, he begins to nervously repeat the phrase over and over again until it almost becomes a mantra…and it makes me laugh out loud every time I hear it.
With all these elements — solid script, first-rate cast, great director — you’d naturally assume that To Be or Not to Be cleaned up at the box office, correct? Well, it didn’t. Lubitsch’s WW2 satire had the misfortune of being released during World War II, and theatergoers didn’t particularly warm to a film that poked deadpan fun at such a serious conflict. With hindsight, we can see the brilliance of the movie — Lubitsch’s film has witty moments, to be sure, but it also contains sequences of nail-biting suspense (witness Sobinski’s arrival in Warsaw after temporarily escaping his Nazi pursuers, not to mention the tense scenes where Maria is literally being held prisoner in Siletsky’s hotel room). The director’s intention was to satirize both the Nazis and their ideology, but as George S. Kaufman famously observed, “Satire is what closes on Saturday night.” The moviegoing public simply wasn’t ready for a daring film that was able to find humor in a situation that seemed devoid of same — and a prime example of this sort of patron was Jack’s father, Mayer Kubelsky. Kubelsky went to see To Be or Not to Be…and horrified that his son was not only wearing an SS uniform but giving out with a “Heil Hitler!” in the opening scenes; he stormed out of the theater and refused to speak to his Jack. (When Jack finally convinced his father that his character was merely performing in an anti-Nazi play in the movie’s opening and that he was really the film’s hero, Mayer went back to see the movie again and again…and again. Like his famous son, it would become his favorite.)
But theatergoers also found it impossible to laugh when the movie’s female star, Carole Lombard, was killed in a plane crash about two months before the film’s premiere (she was on a World War II bond rally tour with her mother, Bess Peters, and Otto Winkler, husband Clark Gable’s press agent). Co-star Benny was devastated by Lombard’s untimely death, and refused to do his regularly scheduled program that following Sunday, substituting an all-musical half-hour. Because the actress had a line in the film — “What can happen in a plane?” — in response to Stack’s invitation to take a spin in the wild blue with him, the line was cut before the movie’s premiere (it since has been restored).
To Be or Not to Be ranks only behind Twentieth Century (1934) as my favorite Carole Lombard film, but it’s certainly my favorite of Jack Benny’s cinematic output; Jack never got another opportunity to extend his thespic range and after The Horn Blows at Midnight in 1945 (a film that he and his writers lampooned in endless jokes on his radio/TV show despite the fact that it wasn’t that bad) he limited his screen appearances to brief cameos such as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) and A Guide for the Married Man (1967). (He had planned to return to movies with a substantial part in The Sunshine Boys, but upon his death in 1974 his role was given to his lifelong friend George Burns). To Be is also my favorite Lubitsch film; a work of such maturity and pitch-perfect hilarity that I want to warn you: do not make the same mistake I did in watching the 1983 remake before seeing the Lubitsch version. (In all honesty, I didn’t have a choice — the Lubitsch film rarely got shown in those halcyon days before TCM). The more recent version with Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, heartfelt tribute though it may have been, is much too broad and slapsticky in its burlesque approach (it’s almost like watching a stage play)…and most assuredly lacks the subtlety of “the Lubitsch touch.”