October 16th, 2007

carole lombard 06
  • vp19

Was there 'To Be' a title change? Heaven 'Forbid'!

As Carole Lombard rode an eastbound train from Los Angeles in January 1942 for what ultimately would be her final public appearance, selling war bonds in her native Indiana wasn't the only thing on her mind. She was also concerned with studio interference over her upcoming movie...or, more specifically, her upcoming movie's title.

Today, we know the film as "To Be Or Not To Be," a brilliant display of dark comedy. But United Artists officials -- aware it was just over a month since Pearl Harbor and the U.S.' official entry into war -- also began to worry the title might be deemed too Shakespearean, too highbrow for a mass audience, and the studio wanted this film to resonate beyond the 1942 equivalent of art houses. So director Ernst Lubitsch, who probably didn't care much for their decision, suggested an alternative title -- "The Censor Forbids." In his biography "Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter In Paradise," author Scott Eyman states Lubitsch's proposal was tongue-in-cheek, but UA was taking him seriously.

The proposed change didn't please either of its stars, Jack Benny or Lombard, In fact, when her train made one of its stops on Jan. 13, Carole wired studio president Grad Sears to protest:

"In the interest of a picture of which I am an investor as well as a participant, I feel that my investment is jeopardized by the proposed title change. I consider the title 'The Censor Forbids' suggestive and definitely question its good taste. It in no way conveys the spirit of the picture and is unbecoming to an organization as important as United Artists. So strongly do I feel about this that had the picture been offered to me under [that] title, I definitely would not have accepted the engagement nor would I have invested in the venture under any circumstances whatsoever. I strongly recommend no change be made from the original title ... which in my opinion fits the picture, the story and the situation. Will you please advise me."

Benny was equally vehement, saying a film by that title would do his career "irreparable danage" as he had "tried for years to build up a reputation for clean humor over the radio...I have never had to stoop to sensationalism to attract an audience."

Sears sent telegrams back to both Lombard and Benny stating "The Censor Forbids" had been Lubitsch's idea. That day, Lubitsch wired Sears that he wanted to withdraw his alternate title, noting both stars "not only dislike the title but are afraid that the vast majority of exhibitors in advertising will use this title for undignified sexual exploitation and I cannot deny that such a possibility exists." He also said Benny would "flatly refuse to mention 'The Censor Forbids' on his broadcasts," thus denying the film a key promotional outlet. "I have never weakened on 'To Be Or Not To Be' despite resistance by sales department because I know that anything unusual always meets with resistance."

As a result, United Artists capitulated and left "To Be Or Not To Be" as the film's title. Whether Carole Lombard was aware of this before her ill-fated return west is apparently uncertain.