To Be or Not to Be – The Criterion Collection #670 (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)
August 15, 2013 by Dennis Amith
“To Be or Not to Be” is a dark comedy that is considered to be an Ernst Lubitsch masterpiece! Featuring a wonderful performance by Jack Benny and a final performance featuring Carole Lombard, “To Be or Not To Be” will be regarded as one of the finest Hollywood comedies ever made. And as for this Blu-ray release from the Criterion Collection, it’s the definitive version of the film to own on video. Recommended!
Image are courtesy of © 2013 Criterion Collection. All Rights Reserved.
TITLE: To Be or Not to Be – The Criterion Collection #670
YEAR OF FILM: 1942
DURATION: 99 Minutes
BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: 1080p High Definition, 1:37:1 aspect ratio, Monaural in English, Subtitles: English SDH
COMPANY:Janus Films/THE CRITERION COLLECTION
RELEASE DATE: August 27, 2013
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
Original Story by Melchior Lengyel
Screenplay by Edwin Justus Mayer
Produced by Ernst Lubitsch
Music by Werner R. Heymann
Cinematography by Rudolph Mate
Edited by Dorothy Spencer
Casting by Victor Sutker
Production Design by Vincent Korda
Set Decoration by Julia Heron
Carole Lombard as Maria Tura
Jack Benny as Joseph Tura
Robert Stack as Lt. Stansilav Sobinski
Felix Bressart as Greenberg
Lionel Atwill as Rawitch
Stanley Ridges as Professor Siletsky
Sig Ruman as Col. Ehrhardt
Tom Dugas as Bronski
Charles Halton as Producer Dobosh
Henry Victor as Capt. Schultz
Maude Eburne as Anna
Halliwell Hobbes as Gen. Armstrong
Miles Mander as Major Cunningham
As nervy as it is hilarious, this screwball masterpiece from Ernst Lubitsch stars Jack Benny and, in her final screen appearance, Carole Lombard as husband-and-wife thespians in Nazi-occupied Warsaw who become caught up in a dangerous spy plot. To Be or Not to Be is a Hollywood film of the boldest black humor, which went into production soon after the U.S. entered World War II. Lubitsch manages to brilliantly balance political satire, romance, slapstick, and urgent wartime suspense in a comic high-wire act that has never been equaled.
When it comes to legendary filmmakers, Ernst Lubitsch is one director that many cinema fans will have him listed on top of their list.
One of the most successful German filmmakers to work in Hollywood, Ernst Lubitsch worked in the silent era and would eventually be known for films such as “Trouble in Paradise” (1932), “Ninotchka” (1939), “The Shop Around the Corner” and the masterpiece “To Be or Not to Be” (1942).
In truth, when it comes to the oeuvre of Lubitsch films, the fact is that Lubitsch has created many entertaining films that cinema fans will consider as favorites. And fortunately for fans, The Criterion Collection has released several of his notable films such as movie musicals “The Love Parade” (1929), “Monte Carlo” (1930), “The Smiling Lieutenant” (1931) and “One Hour With You” (1932) released by the Criterion Collection in their Eclipse Series DVD set “Eclipse Series 8: Lubitsch Musicals”.
Also, with the Criterion Collection releases of “Trouble in Paradise” (1932), “Design for a Living” (1933) and “Heaven Can Wait” (1943).
But for a filmmaker with a distinguished career, one masterpiece that Lubitsch fans look towards one of his best is “To Be or Not to Be”, a film that did not do well when it was first released in 1942, during World War 2 and people could not understand why a comedy about the Nazis would be released in theaters. But the fact of that era was that no one was appreciative to any filmmaker that would even try to make comedy about Nazi ideology. Critics blasted the film and considering what was happening in the world at that time, emotions were still high, especially when their was worry that the Nazi’s were winning the war in Europe.
For Ernst Lubitsch, “To Be or Not to Be” would be his first film about war and a film that unfortunately bombed in the box office but it was a film that would gain a following and earn respect by future critics and viewers decades later.
While the film was nominated for an Academy Award for “Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture”, the film would receive its distinction as an important Hollywood classic when it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” in 1996.
The film was originally going to star Miriam Hopkins as Maria Tura but after seeing her part as much smaller than Jack Benny’s, she withdrew from the film and actress Carole Lombard (who was out of Hollywood temporarily as she and her husband Clark Gable tried to conceive a child) asked Ernst Lubitsch for the part. And despite not sure if Lombard could play the part, having an actress of her caliber would help in receiving funding for the film but also it helped allowed Jack Benny to have top billing because he had all the lines and to complete the production, despite Walter Wanger withdrawing as producer, the film would gain Alexander Korda as co-producer.
For Jack Benny, even his own father had misgivings about the film, walking out because he was disgusted that his son would wear a Nazi uniform. But when convinced by his son to watch the whole film, according to Benny’s memoirs, his father ended up loving the film and watched it dozens of times.
While for Carole Lombard, Lombard’s biographer Larry Swindell has said of Lombard’s work on the film, “it was the happiest experience of her career”.
Unfortunately, three weeks after the film ended production and Carole Lombard wanted to do her part for the U.S. during the war to promote bond-selling, she was was killed in an airplane accident.
“To Be or Not to Be” is set in Poland and focuses on members of a Polish theater company before they were occupied by the Nazis.
The top lead talents of the theater are Maria Tura (portrayed by Carole Lombard) and her husband Joseph Tura (portrayed by Jack Benny). We see as one local actor in the theater, named Bronski, wants to prove that he can act and look like Adolf Hitler and appear in Warsaw before the 1939 invasion, but even a young girl recognizes the actor for not being the actual Adolf Hitler.
As Joseph is to play Hamlet, his wife Maria has been receiving bouquet of flowers from a man. While bugged by it, the show must go on but for Joseph, he is upset when he sees a man in uniform leaving his seat. The man is Lt. Stanislav Sobinski (portrayed by Robert Stack), a pilot who tells Maria about his love for her work and her. And immediately wins her over when he tells her that as a pilot, he can drop three tons of explosives in less than a minute.
And their affair begins and she tells him to come into her dressing room when her husband starts his “To be or not to be…” speech. But as the two are to have their privacy, Maria receives word that Germany has declared war on Poland and Sobinski knows that he will now have to leave and fight.
Hitler has conquered Poland and we learn that the Polish division of the British Royal Air Force is trying to fight for its country and before Sobinski and others prepare for their fight, they share a song and drink with the Polish resistance leader, Professor Siletsky who is planning to go back to Warsaw. All the pilots give Siletsky their address to bring to their love ones at home but when Sobinski gives his message to Siletsky to give to Maria back home, he questions Siletsky about Maria Tura, he doesn’t know who she is. Considering how popular Maria is in Poland, he is shocked that he never knew of her, but then he tries to correct himself as if he does.
Now suspicious of him, Sobinski tells his superiors of what happened and they realize that he may be working with the Nazis. Sobinski’s superiors send him to Warsaw to warn the resistance but manages to meet up with Maria, who plans to pass on the message for him.
Siletsky has two Nazi soldiers to bring Maria to his hotel and when Siletsky delivers his message to Maria, he tries to recruit her as a spy for the Nazi. Hoping to warn the resistance, Maria, her husband and Sobinski know they have no choice but to kill Siletsky before he relays his information to the Nazis and surprisingly, Joseph Tura proclaims that he will be the one to kill Siletsky.
But in order for them to do so, they and their fellow actors from the theater must put on an act that would fool Siletsky and the Nazis. Will they succeed?
“To Be or Not to Be – The Criterion Collection #670” is presented in 1080p High Definition (1:37:1 aspect ratio) in black and white. Compared to the Warner Home Video 2005 DVD release, there are quite a few differences one will notice with this 2013 release. For one, how much clearer the video is, without any blurring. Also, noticeable is the contrast, white and greys are well-contrast, black levels are nice and deep. And last, is detail. Details on clothing and environemnts is much more apparent in this Blu-ray release. The video is much cleaner and I have to say, it’s the definitive version of the film to own at this time!
According to the Criterion Collection, “This new digital transfer was created in 2K resolution on a Lasergraphics scanner from the original 35 mm nitrate and camera negative and a 35 mm nitrate composite fine grain at Metropolis Post in New York. The restoration was performed by the Prasad Group, India and the Criterion Collection.
“To Be or Not to Be – The Criterion Collection #670” is presented in English LPCM 1.0 and features subtitles in English SDH.
According to the Criterion Collection, “The original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35 mm optical soundtrack print. Clicks, thumps, hiss and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.”
“To Be or Not to Be – The Criterion Collection #670” comes with the following special features:
- Audio commentary – Featuring an audio commentary by film historian David Kalat.
- Lubitsch le patron – (53:10) A 2010 French documentary on Ernst Lubtisch’s career.
- Pinkus’s Shoe Palace – (44:58) A 1916 German silent short directed and starring Ernst Lubitsch with a new piano score by Donald Sosin.
- The Screen Guild Theater – (17:22) Featuring two episodes of “The Screen Guild Theater” radio anthology series featuring “Variety” (1940, Duration: 29:31) with Jack Benny, Claudette Colbert and Lubitsch. And “To Be or Not to Be” (1942, Duration: 25:41) an adaptation of the film featuring William Powell, Diana Lewis and Sig Ruman.
“To Be or Not to Be – The Criterion Collection #670” comes with a 24-page booklet featuring the essay “The Play’s The Thing” by Geoffrey O’Brien and a March 29, 1942 New York Times article “Lubitsch Answers his Critics”.
Watching “To Be or Not to Be”, one should watch this film but also knowing the era it was shot.
This film came out during a time when America was at war, when rumors were that the Nazi’s were gaining a stronghold on Europe and for the most part, America’s sensitivity towards the war was at an all time-high. Those who saw previews and have not watched the film, would certainly be a person who disliked the film because it was a comedy and it featured people dressing up and disguising themselves as Nazi’s.
But this was a film which Ernst Lubitsch wanted to try something different within his career, to try a war movie that is a comedy about theater but there is no doubt that he was seeing how far he can go.
For one, a comedy featuring a woman having an affair with a younger man but yet be a comedy was never questioned by viewers or critics, if anything, it was about the film featuring with anything Nazi that put a bitter taste in the mouths of those viewing the film.
The film featured sexual innuendo with the use of war as the young Lt. Sobinski talks about his role in the military to a captivated Maria.
Sobinsky: I don’t know about it’s being thrilling – but it’s quite a bomber. You might not believe it, but I can drop three tons of dynamite in two minutes.
Sobinsky: Does that interest you?
Maria: It certainly does….
Maria then explains to her fan, “this is the first time I’ve ever met a man who could drop three tons of dynamite in two minutes.”
At a time when cinema was pushing decency, the fact that viewers or critics didn’t get the sexual innuendo showed how Lubitsch knew how to get away with things with his films.
But interesting enough was the fact that people were not bothered by the sexual innuendo, they were bothered by Nazi’s and many were bothered by the following line when Joseph Tura, in disguise, asks Colonel Erhardt if he has heard of actor, Joseph Tura. In response, Erhardt says, “What he did to Shakespeare, we are now doing to Poland.”
In fact it was a major contention within the staff who wanted Lubitsch to remove the offending line, but Lubitsch stood his ground and defended the line. Taking any written attacks of a line as an attack towards his film.
The film also is very smart in the way it uses its characters, especially in something so death defying that involves imminent death if caught, the fact that the theater group are more interested in putting on a great role, self-absorbed is rather fascinating. For Joseph Tura, he is more upset that a young man left his performance than the young man going to visit his wife in her dressing room.
The film is filled with moments and humor that probably made people feel uneasy as one jokes about the words “Concentration Camp” or the use of story plots that rely on moments of mistaken identity, but for this Lubitsch war film, it was a film of risks, a film with challenges and it was a film that challenged a viewer that tried to show that the Nazi’s were people too and that the opposition could be just as a bad as they are.
But if they Nazis are the antagonist of the film, how a group of actors were able to outwit them. It’s a black comedy that managed to have endured but enjoyed by many after many years since it was screened in theaters.
The film marks the final film starring Carole Lombard who was ravishing in her final film performance and it was a role that made her happy but also a film that fans have looked at as a fitting farewell.
As for the Blu-ray release, not only is this Criterion Collection Blu-ray the definitive version to own, for those who were dismayed of how much this DVD was selling for due to being out of print, should be thrilled that this HD version looks so much better than the original 2005 DVD. Also, you get an early Lubitsch short, two radio shows, an audio commentary and a documentary on the career of Ernst Lubitsch.
Overall, “To Be or Not to Be” is a dark comedy that is considered to be an Ernst Lubitsch masterpiece! Featuring a wonderful performance by Jack Benny and a final performance featuring Carole Lombard, “To Be or Not To Be” will be regarded as one of the finest Hollywood comedies ever made.
And as for this Blu-ray release from the Criterion Collection, it’s the definitive version of the film to own on video. Recommended!
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