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Warner Home Video presents
To Be Or Not To Be (1942)

"Naturally, it's all very attractive and tempting. But what are we going to do about my conscience?" 
- Maria Tura (Carole Lombard)

Review By: Jon Danziger  
Published: April 21, 2005

Stars: Carole Lombard, Jack Benny
Other Stars: Robert Stack, Felix Bressart, Lionel Atwill, Stanley Ridges, Sig Ruman
Director: Ernst Lubitsch

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:39m:07s
Release Date: March 01, 2005
UPC: 085393197629
Genre: comedy

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A+ A-B-B- C-

DVD Review

Germany was having trouble, what a sad, sad story. Made at the height of the Second World War, To Be Or Not To Be is an Ernst Lubitsch picture of typically high style, with an added measure of political impudence. In the subsequent decades, making the Nazis objects of derision and satire became a stock in trade, particularly for Mel Brooks—it's not difficult to see why he was drawn to this movie, and remade it in 1983—but to take that stance when the war seemed to be turning Germany's way was an artistic act of defiance by one of the most talented refugees from the horrors of the Reich. (Certainly Lubitsch was preceded in this aesthetic respect by Chaplin, who had made The Great Dictator two years before. And whatever you think about the current war in Iraq, it's fair to say that it's yet to inspire a great screen comedy for the ages.) But even out of its historical context, there are many delights here, given not only the talents and deft touch of the director, but the comic inspiration of his two leading performers.

We are in Warsaw, in August 1939—that is, just days before the blitzkrieg. The Nazi threat is everywhere, and the powers that be deem it politically unwise to allow Warsaw's most prominent theater troupe to premiere their Hitler satire; instead, the repertory company is to extend its run of Hamlet. Featured in the title role of the play, and living up especially to the first syllable of his character's name, is Joseph Tura, who is one of the great actors ever to stride the boards—if you doubt that, just ask him. His Ophelia is played by his wife, Maria, just as famous and perhaps more talented than her husband; she has many male admirers, among them a smitten, dashing lieutenant, Sobinski, in the air force. It's when Tura delivers Hamlet's famous soliloquy, the first line of which provides the title for this movie, that Sobinski steals a few minutes backstage in Maria's dressing room—and Tura is most affronted that someone would dare walk out on his apex of thespian greatness. Acting!

Lubitsch's movie would work perfectly well as a hammy, backstage drama, and with Lombard, it could have been a variation on the themes of Twentieth Century, but war interferes: the Nazis come barreling across the border, and the theater comes to seem a distraction at best, perhaps even a dangerous extravagance. The Turas and the rest of their theatrical company, along with Sobinski, are ensnared in a plot; only they can keep a double agent from ratting out and then extinguishing the Polish resistance, which means that it's time to start playing not just for the stage, but for keeps. And Lubitsch has the actors to pull this off. Carole Lombard died far too young, and this was the last film she made; she gets top billing, and deserves it, for she's at turns lovely, alluring, sometimes a snake charmer, sometimes a snake. Jack Benny as Tura gives a broader performance, but he's awfully good; better known now for his years on radio and television, Benny made this film before his cheapskate persona took hold completely, and he's grand here. Swell and winning, too, is a young Robert Stack as Sobinski. Neither he nor any of the others in the film seem particularly Polish; in fact, when the squadron of Polish émigré pilots compare notes about their home, they might as well be talking about Nebraska, not Warsaw. (More or less, every time someone says "Poland," you'll subconsciously substitute in "America.") Wherever you came from, though, if you were fighting against the Reich, you were on the right side.

Some of Lubitsch's broader comic moments are full of silly slapstick—in fact, one of the stupider and most easily flustered Nazis bellows to a deputy in moments of panic—"Schultz!"—that so set the tone for decades to come that the makers of Hogan's Heroes pretty much ought to have been writing checks to the Lubitsch estate. But even more delightful is the way in which Lubitsch can make sophisticated, sexually informed comedy without being vulgar or crass; he's got a deftness that's largely missing in screenwriting today. A particularly heinous Nazi spy, for instance, proposes a toast to Maria, who perfectly parries him: "Shall we drink to the blitzkrieg?" "No, I prefer a slow encirclement." Lubitsch is generous enough even to give a few zingers to the Nazis, when, for instance, one of them assesses Tura's Hamlet: "What he did to Shakespeare, we are doing now to Poland." It's stinging, funny stuff like this that makes To Be Or Not To Be endure; it's a smart, funny, politically committed and generally wonderful movie.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Unfortunately, it looks as if the source material was awfully beat up—this print is full of some horrid scratches, and the transfer makes the best of a bad situation. Perhaps this title wasn't high-profile enough to merit a full-boat restoration, which is too bad.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Some hiss and pop; about what you'd expect from a mono soundtrack of this period.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 26 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. The Rounder, a short starring Jack Benny
Extras Review: Only two extras of note. The first is The Rounder (20m:00s), an MGM short starring Benny, who wears a straw boater and looks as if he stepped just off the vaudeville stage; it plays very much like a filmed one-act play, with little or no cinematic invention. Then Benny's trademark penny pinching is on display when he and child star Carolyn Lee implore us to Buy Savings Bonds! A Patriotic Drama (01m:32s).

Extras Grade: C-


Final Comments

This title may be overshadowed a bit by a couple of the big dogs in Warner's Classic Comedy Collection, but Ernst Lubitsch's movie is a model of elegant storytelling, high style, and politically aware moviemaking that never patronizes or becomes didactic. Extras are a little light and the print looks sort of beat up, but, especially as it features Carole Lombard's final performance, it's a delight to have it available on DVD.


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