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To Be or Not to Be
Release Date(s)1942 (August 27, 2013)
Studio(s)Westchester Films (Criterion - Spine #670)
Released in 1942, Ernst Lubitsch directed Jack Benny and Carole Lombard to comedy gold in To Be or Not to Be. It was meant as a satirization of both actors in the face of danger and of Adolph Hitler and his Nazi-occupation of Poland from 1939 to 1945. A controversial film for its time, it has since become a comedy classic, even being remade in 1983 by Mel Brooks.
To Be or Not to Be is, for me, a very special film. Nowadays, you can satirize pretty much anything and get away with it. It’s not uncommon anymore. South Park has been doing it for a very long time, but in 1942, a satirization of Adolph Hitler was almost certain to be taken the wrong way. Truly terrible things happened during World War II, and director Ernst Lubitsch, being of German descent himself, decided the best way he could deal with it was to laugh it. Fortunately for him, Jack Benny felt the same way, as did the beautiful and talented Carole Lombard (who unfortunately died in a plane crash nearly two months after the film was released). Critics at the time, however, didn’t feel that way and took the film very seriously.
In the midst of a World War II, mixing tones in a film that was sending up the Third Reich was bound to find some controversy. The film would go on to be seen as a comedy classic, but not right away. It’s a very smart film, setting up the characters early on and everything having to do with them coming into play later in the film. It’s very funny, but it’s also quite dark at times, particularly when the Nazis invade Poland in the opening act. It’s grim and tragic, and you do feel the sympathy creeping in. Afterwards, the film takes its time in building up the comedy again. It’s not one screwball antic after another with no pretext or semblance. It’s very well-balanced in that regard.
I’d like to think that Quentin Tarantino had the film in mind when he made Inglorious Basterds, which has to do with the same subject matter and also deals with it in similar ways. There is a major difference here though. To Be or Not to Be is more about the satirization, whereas Tarantino is more about the truth. Comparing these two films is like comparing oil to water, I know, but it does give you a window into how the times have treated each film. Inglorious Basterds, a violent but well-made film with a satirical edge, does well and doesn’t stir up much controversy about its content. The same cannot be said for To Be or Not to Be, which is a shame. I think if critics had been a little more open-minded and kept their politics in their pocket, they might have seen the film for what it was and is: a well-made piece of dramatic comedy.
For the film’s Region A Blu-ray debut, Criterion has saw fit to utilize a newly restored 2K digital transfer from both the original 35mm nitrate camera negative and a 35mm nitrate fine grain composite. Even though it’s a bit of an outsourced transfer, the results are still top notch. There’s a very solid and stable picture on display with a healthy amount of natural-looking film grain. Image detail is quite spectacular, and while there is some fault with the sharpness during some of the scenes (particularly the transitions between the scenes), I think it’s all inherent in the material itself and not necessarily the fault of the restoration teams. I didn’t see signs of any film defects either, at least not readily apparent ones. Brightness and contrast are both stable and even, and shadow delineation is also very good. The film’s soundtrack, which is an English uncompressed mono track, is also very good. All of the dialogue is clean, clear and understandable, and the score enjoys a nice boost in clarity. The sound effects, such as gunshots (in particularly), sound very dated, but are still effective. Overall, it’s a terrific-looking and sounding presentation worth of the Blu-ray format. There are also subtitles in English for those who might need them.
The supplemental material is a little brief, but excellent. There’s a very good and very informative audio commentary by film historian David Kalat; Lubitsch le patron, a 2010 French documentary on the director’s career; Pinkus’s Shoe Palace, a German silent short film from 1916 directed by and starring Lubitsch; two episodes of The Screen Guild Theater, a radio anthology series: Variety from 1940, with Jack Benny, Claudette Colbert and Lubitsch, and a radio adaptation of the film from 1942; and finally, a 24-page booklet with an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien and a 1942 New York Times op-ed by Lubitsch. The commentary and the short film are the best extras here, but all of it is well worth your time to check out.
To Be or Not to Be may not be significant in terms of being a landmark comedy film, because it wasn’t, but it is significant for how it treats its subject matter, how it mixes tones and how its director was unapologetic about all of it. Misunderstood for its time, but now thankfully regarded as a classic comedy film, you’ll find Criterion’s Blu-ray release of the film very rewarding.
- Tim Salmons