Monday, October 27, 2008

Alas, poor Carole

Tonight is the last night of TCM's October Star of the Month salute to Carole Lombard, and it's only fitting that the night should start off with her final film, To Be or Not To Be, at 8:00 PM ET.

Lombard stars as Maria Tura, the wife in a husband-wife pair of actors in the Poland of 1939. Her husband, Joseph, is played by Jack Benny. Together, they plan a great new triumph satirizing the Nazis in neighboring Germany -- until those darn Nazis invade and conquer Poland. The poor Turas are relegated to doing their stock Shakespeare. Meanwhile, a young pilot in the Polish air force, Lt. Sobinski (played by a young and virile-looking Robert Stack), goes to the Turas' theater every night to watch Hamlet. He does this because he's in love with the lovely Maria, and every night when Joseph starts Hamlet's famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy, Sobinski gets up from his seat to go see the object of his affection.

The Nazis' invasion, of course, scuppers all these plans, and Lt. Sobinski flees the country in order to go to England and fly with the Polish military-in-exile. One day, he's asked to smuggle into Poland a scientist who's part of the Polish Resistance, but he believes that the scientist is actually a double agent working for the Nazis, as this man has no idea who a famous actress like Maria Tura is. As a result, Sobieski ends up parachuting into Poland himself to meet the Turas, and get them to apprehend this man.

What happens next is sheer comedy. Naturally, the Turas have no idea how the brutality of dictatorships works, which should lead to their slipping up and letting the whole big secret out. Instead, their actions turn the exercise into such a big farce that the Nazi authorities, paranoid as they are, don't have any idea whom or what to believe.

Ernst Lubitsch directed, and was outstanding at comedy. It helped, however, that he had a cast that was equal to the task of making Lubitsch's vision work on screen. Lombard, of course, was a master of the screwball comedy, and goes through the movie effortlessly, but in no way implying that she doesn't care about the material. Jack Benny did more of his work in radio, and later television, but he was good at movies too, probably getting the best line: during a rehearsal of the Turas' Nazi satire, Benny is playing Hitler, and when he walks into the room, the rest of the cast gives the Nazi salute and says "Heil Hitler!" Benny's response? "Heil myself!" Even Robert Stack does OK here, even though he's not somebody you'd think of when you think comedy. There's also a great supporting cast, with often seen names such as Lionel Atwill, Felix Bressart, and Sig Ruman.

To Be Or Not To Be is one of the underrated comedy classics, and is not to be missed.

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