Carole Lombard's final film, the Ernst Lubitsch dark comedy "To Be or Not To Be," long has been a subject for serious criticism -- even soon after its initial release in the spring of 1942, when New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote some less-than-complimentary comments about it (http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9500E7DE143CE33BBC4F53DFB5668389659EDE).
In response, Lubitsch defended the film in the March 29, 1942 Times, where he wrote,
"I had made up my mind to make a picture with no attempt to relieve anybody from anything at any time, dramatic when the situation demands it, satire and comedy whenever it was called for. One might call it a tragical farce or a farcical tragedy.
Certainly, its release time -- mere months after both Pearl Harbor fully thrust the U.S. into the war and Lombard's death in an air crash -- worked against the movie's success at the time of its release. Time has vindicated the director, as "To Be" is usually considered one of his very best films and a shining example of dark comedy.
Now, professor and author Maria DiBattista, who wrote about Carole in her fine book "Fast-Talking Dames" (http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/54354.html), examines "To Be" as part of the 2016 compilation "A Companion to Film Comedy."
DiBattista refers to the film as "perhaps the defining and supreme example" of what she calls "totalitarian comedy." And she writes at the outset that the very notion is meant to be disquieting, in fact noting that during the Nazis' occupation of Poland during World War II, writer Witold Gombrowicz included this in his diary:
"In moments when devastating conditions force us to complete inner transformation, laughter is our last resort.It draws us out of ourselves and allows our humanity to survive independently of the painful changes in our shell."
Moreover, DiBattista isn't referring to comedies "sponsored by, or designed to placate, totalitarian regimes," calling them "unremittingly dreaful." Instead, the reference is to "comedies that represent totalitarian governments and their ideology in all their dreadfulness, but that do so un-seriously."
Totalitarianism, she argues, "threaten this comic understanding of what a liberated personality and renewed society might be like." And while Lubitsch explored a similar theme when lampooning the Soviets in his 1939 "Ninotchka," the world was distinctly darker three years later. And while "Ninotchka" was (mostly) set in Paris, "To Be or Not To Be" takes us directly into the Warsaw conflict, not a fictitious land as Tomania was in Charlie Chaplin's satiric but ultimately optimistic "The Great Dictator" (1940).
How does Lubitsch approach this? DiBattista says he "burlesques [Adolf] Hitler without for a minute underestimating him." It's a comic diminishment of both the dictator and his regime -- think of the frequent references to "Heil Hitler," which she states is used "as a means of comic punctuation, employing it as a panicky end-stop whenever Nazis fear their loyalty might be questioned..." However, she notes Lombard later uses the phrase for a differing effect.
Carole's entrance into the film, where her Maria Tura asks the director whether he likes her dress -- a gown out of place for an anti-German satire the Warsaw troupe plans to put on -- helps define her character's personality. Yes, she's a bit flighty and egotistical (although nothing compared to her spouse, Jack Benny's Josef Tura), but she's consciously aware of her sexual power, both unplanned (as when the Polish flyer portrayed by Robert Stack becomes a suitor) and intentional (when she later engages in espionage to seduce the traitorous professor and prevent him from handing the Nazis a list of Polish underground members).
Lombard's scenes with Stack help transform the film from farce to dramatic adventure, as it's during their meeting the characters learn war has been declared. Writes DiBattista, "Lombard, who literally seconds before the announcement [of war] handled her naive and adoring suitor with her customary amatory skill, immediately responds to the sudden intrusion of tragic reality into her playhouse world."
Her Maria, thrust into this new environment, adapts quickly, becoming a spy -- which she'd played on the dramatic stage -- in this real-life one. Meeting the traitor Siletsky, she admits being tempted by his offer to join "the winning side," but responds, "but what are we to do with my conscience?"
Siletsky replies that all Nazis want "in the final analysis... is a happy world for happy people" -- presumably fewer but happier people, a la Ninotchka's vision of a post-purge Russia. His subsequent comment, "We're not brutal. We're not monsters. We love to sing. We love to dance. We admire beautiful women. We're human," only adds to Nazi banality...as DiBattista writes, "an inducement to moral as well as sexual surrender to evil."
Maria uses his inflated sense of self to lure him into writing a signature she'll later fake as his suicide note once the underground kills him. When he takes her into his arms, she completes her "surrender" with a rapturous "Heil Hitler!"
DiBattista's entry on the film is 20 pages long, a well thought-out essay on this masterpiece of dark comedy. It's worth a read.