During the closing months of 1941, Carole Lombard told members of the press that "To Be Or Not To Be" was the best moviemaking experience she'd ever had. No doubt that finally making a film directed by Ernst Lubitsch (seen with cigar during a conference) -- an opportunity she had sought for nearly a decade -- had something to do with it, as well as working with Jack Benny, one of the most respected comic minds in Hollywood.
But Lombard, always cognizant of the big picture, probably also understood the importance of this picture at a time when the globe was uncertain of World War II's ultimate outcome...especially after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which occurred late in production on Dec. 7, added a new twist to the conflict by fully bringing America into it.
In light of the recent furor regarding "The Interview" (remember "The Interview"?), a film writer noted the somewhat similar environments in which Lubitsch and Seth Rogen's films opened. In Christianity Today, a mainstream Christian magazine that analyzes religion, politics and culture -- during the midst of the controversy regarding whether the Sony release would see the light of day after major theater chains declined to carry it -- Kenneth R. Morefield looked at "To Be Or Not To Be" while setting up the situation in which it was created:
"A major Hollywood studio plans a comedy film mocking a prominent world leader and featuring a pair of comedians involved in an assassination plot. A foreign nation, outraged over the director’s artistic sensibilities, uses his image in its own propaganda, citing him and his work as the epitome of a culture that must be annihilated. A high-profile critic in the most prestigious newspaper in the country pans the film as tasteless and unfunny. Even some of the film’s production staff begins to second guess their director, wondering if by making light of a real evil, they are making it easier for Americans to not take it seriously."
About the only major difference is that as far as we know, Nazi Germany never did the early 1940s equivalent of hacking to United Artists.
* The comedians? Benny and Lombard, of course -- and while their characters weren't plotting to assassinate Adolf Hitler, they had another target in mind. (If you've never seen the original "To Be Or Not To Be" -- and why haven't you? -- I won't give away anything more.)
* The Germans indeed impugned Lubitsch, who was Jewish and formerly lived in Germany, in its propaganda film "The Eternal Jew."
* The high-profile critic? Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, for decades a mainstream cinematic arbiter (his downfall would come a quarter-century later, when he was one of the few significant critics to pan "Bonnie And Clyde"). When "To Be Or Not To Be" came out, Crowther criticized it; most reviews were positive, although there was some debate regarding the tone of the film. (Carole's death before its release surely was another factor.) Lubitsch wrote a letter to the Times defending his movie: “American audiences don’t laugh at those Nazis because they underestimate their menace but because they are happy to see this new order and its ideology being ridiculed.”
Morefield admitted that comparisons between "To Be Or Not To Be" and "The Interview" only go so far:
"The United States isn’t at war with Sony’s hackers, and Seth Rogen didn’t immigrate to this country from North Korea. Whenever there is a DVD of 'The Interview' (and there will be), I doubt it will be on the Criterion label [as is the case for "To Be Or Not To Be"]."
Not to mention that the "Lubitsch touch," where he could cleverly couch a dirty or questionable joke in seemingly elegant terms, is something no one will ever accuse Rogen of having.
Morefield also writes, "Carole Lombard gives an all-time great performance as Maria; the scene in which she has to pretend to seriously entertain the Nazi’s lecherous advances is so affecting precisely because she cannot, must not show the repulsion we all feel."
The article is at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/december-web-only/how-to-make-comedy-and-assassinate-your-political-enemies.html.