Does it sometimes seem as if Carole Lombard's best films often are overshadowed by contemporary rivals? For example, "Twentieth Century" (above), her breakthrough movie, is a comedy classic, but it tends to be ignored in favor of its far more popular Columbia stablemate, "It Happened One Night." Similarly, you can make a case that "My Man Godfrey" is the greatest screwball ever made, but what film more frequently gets that praise? "Bringing Up Baby." (It wasn't until the 1980s that William Powell was lauded anywhere close to the level of Cary Grant, and in terms of pure recognition, Carole is no match for Katharine Hepburn.)
It wasn't until reading an article yesterday that I consciously linked another Lombard masterpiece to one released in the same year. The pictures?
"To Be Or Not To Be," and
"Casablanca," both made in 1942 (although the latter wasn't released until the following January).
Both are wondrous examples of Hollywood campaigning against Nazism during the darkest days of World War II. But "Casablanca," a crowd-pleaser if ever there was one, gets all the attention while "To Be," though hardly ignored, rarely basks in the glory. And one notable film historian wonders why.
Thomas Doherty teaches American studies at Brandeis University and wrote the well-received book "Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939," not to be confused with the later-discredited "The Collaboration." He wrote this thoughtful piece for The Tablet, a magazine focusing on Jewish American issues (http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/235331/hollywood-anti-nazi-ernst-lubitsch).
While Doherty certainly doesn't denigrate "Casablanca," he writes "To Be" covers much the same ground, though he refers to it "a racy, risky black comedy of manners" -- just what one would expect from director Ernst Lubitsch. He calls it "every bit the expression of wartime values and classical Hollywood style as its more famous birth cousin."
Doherty notes the comedy takes a darker, more somber tone once Germany declares war on Poland, and the romantic triangle of Lombard, Jack Benny (as Maria Tura's actor husband Josef) and Robert Stack (as the young, infatuated Polish flyer Sobinski) is thrust into service to their native land.
Doherty also brings a perspective on the film's most Jewish reference, something younger generations might not recognize: the monologue by Greenberg (Felix Bressart) from Shylock's soliloquy in "The Merchant of Venice." A Shakespearean line omitted from the script is "Hath not a Jew eyes?" As Doherty writes:
"Still radioactive, the word 'Jew' was seldom heard on the Hollywood screen, even in war-minded scenarios where the topic of anti-Semitism was front and center." [He cites the 1940 film "The Mortal Storm," where a Jewish professor murdered by Nazis is not named as such.] "Alas, no paper trail seems to have survived to explain the significant omission from Shylock's speech."
Doherty adds this angle comparing "To Be" to "Casablanca":
"If 'Casablanca' is hailed as the definitive example of the collaborative magic of 'the genius of the system,' 'To Be or Not To Be' is imprinted with the genius of one man, the great, great director Ernst Lubitsch." [Yes, that is a play on Benny's character referring to himself as "that great, great actor Josef Tura."] Doherty defines the "Lubitsch touch" as
"an effervescent European sophistication laced with risque banter and sexual sparks -- but that never crossed over into the smarmy, that skated right up to the edge of the Production Code without breaking through the ice."
Alas for Lubitsch, fate was conspiring against him. It went into production Nov. 6, 1941 and finished that Christmas Eve, 17 days after Pearl Harbor thrust the U.S. fully into the war. (Lombard did her final photoshoot on New Year's Eve.) Carole's death on Jan. 16, 1942 -- coming as America was beginning to mobilize -- cast another pall on the film, Doherty wrote.
Billed as "the picture everyone wants to see," things didn't quite turn out that way when it hit theaters in early March, after a brief delay from United Artists. While it would be the studio's biggest hit of 1942 and, as expected, did its best business in big cities (shades of "Twentieth Century"), Doherty adds "each of the four films starring Abbott & Costello that year outgrossed 'To Be or Not To Be.'"
As time went on, Lubitsch's work became better appreciated, both in Hollywood and elsewhere (in the early 1960s, one Paris theater ran it for more than a year). It's now considered a masterwork of dark comedy, though it hasn't entered popular culture in the same way as "Casablanca." For example, the latter's closing scene and Humphrey Bogart's remark,
has been adapted to satirize the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate accord, where President Trump said he was more interested "in Pittsburgh than Paris":
The cartoon Trump says, "We'll always have Pittsburgh."
Perhaps when we hear a reference to "So they call me 'Concentration Camp Trump,'" we'll know "To Be" has made that jump...but we'll leave it at that.
"To Be or Not To Be" will run next Saturday and Sunday (June 10-11) in New York as part of Film Forum's salute to the 125th anniversary of Lubitsch's birth. Learn more at http://filmforum.org/series/the-lubitsch-touch.