TO BE OR NOT TO BE managed, thanks to its special director and select cast—and specific timing—to make a treat out of ingredients that portend bad taste. Comedies about the peacetime military can succeed (No Time For Sergeants, Stripes, Private Benjamin) pointing up its farcical straight-jacketing of ordinary life. Jokes about war, when they work at all, usually require some generational distancing from the event (MASH, Catch-22, Kelly’s Heroes). Pulling laughter from an ongoing conflict—from a tragic part of it—requires a director with the touch of Ernst Lubitsch and performers with the charm and skill of Carole Lombard and Jack Benny. *
A troupe of Polish actors, including a married couple (Jack & Carole), their theater closed down in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, get involved with a resistance operation and run rings around their invader overlords. Written by Edwin Justus Mayer, from an idea conceived by Melchoir Lengel (Ninotchka) and director Lubitsch, it was shot for $1,022,000 in the fall of 1941, several months before the US entered the war. Deftly managing satire and pathos, farce, innuendo and a spit at Hitler, its critical reaction on release in March of ’42 was mixed, with many questioning whether such a subject merited mirth: it’s now accepted as a classic. Homegrown war-related tragedy shadowed it when, two months before it came out, returning from a war-bonds tour, Lombard was killed in a plane crash. **
At 33, Carole Lombard was at her best here: she loved the part, and it shows in her delightfully calibrated performance, sexy and determined—critic Danny Peary aptly describes her here as ‘ethereal’. Top billed, she actually plays second to Jack, and her work is matched by the best screen acting of Benny’s career. Their sardonic asides sprinkle partnership salt into a gem-peppered script, which mocks the Hitlerian ideology by cleverly humanizing the vanity behind their villainy. The stars fencing with the traditional egotism of actors is a fitting foil for their salute-happy pretense. 22-year-old Robert Stack plays the pilot besotted by Lombard’s ‘Maria Tura’. She swoons when he innocently brags “You might not believe it, but I can drop three tons of dynamite in two minutes.”
Also delightful are Lionel Atwill as one of the hammier in a troupe of hams who always sees fit to “play it big”; Sig Ruman as the pop-eyed, apoplectic buffoon ”Col. Erhardt’ (later dually appropriated by John Banner and Werner Klemperer for Hogan’s Heroes); and Tom Dugan, dead-pan to a tee as perennial spear-carrier ‘Bronski’, who has to impersonate the Fuhrer at a critical moment.
Black comedy not yet in vogue during those dark days, mixed reviews fueling a puzzled public, it grossed $2,100,000, coming in 62nd for 1942. Oscar-nominated for Werner Hayman’s music scoring (Miklos Rozsa had turned down the project, galled by the subject matter) it also features Stanley Ridges (a strong culprit), Felix Bressart (given a heartfelt ‘Shylock’ soliloquy), Charles Halton and Maude Eburne. Quick-eyed buffs can spot Helmut Dantine. 99 minutes.
* Timing is everything in comedy: related, the right release-date is crucial; when this came out in ’42, the grotesque fate of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the full reveal of concentration camp horrors were still in the future—no one could/would have made this in 1945. The needless 1983 remake by Mel Brooks features svelte work from Anne Bancroft and Charles Durning, but also stars Mel, whose grating persona is harder to digest. MASH and the resulting, seemingly inescapable TV series were set in Korea, but had squat to do with that humorless grind: they were steam-vent allegories for the follow-up imbroglio. Good Morning Vietnam and Tropic Thunder had sufficient distance from the shame of our Indochina invasion to be bearable—but did anyone ask the Vietnamese? Recently, deep into our never-ending, aimless state of eternal enemy-generating conflict, two that work are Three Kings and War Machine, one that curdles is Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. One thing seems a cinch: past the now-ancient early warning sign of Dr. Strangelove, no-one’s going to be around to make a laff-riot about a war between the US and Russia/China. Maybe 10,000 years later.
** The screenwriter Mayer, formerly a snooty hot-shot New York playwright, had once sniffed that Hollywood was “The abode of prosperous failures…the retreat of intellectual beachcombers…an outlet of stereotyped forms and sentimental postures..” Eventually, the downturned mouth beneath his upturned nose needed food, and sunny California fed him. Contemporary critical bashing of this story, seeing only the slapstick and not the deceptively sly and subversive subtexts was led by The New York Times, whose squawking Bosley Crowther was second only to Pauline Kael for being able to so often miss the point with such supercilious tone-deaf monotony, tooted “callous…a shocking confusion of realism and romance…frankly, this corner is unable even remotely to comprehend the humor..” Robert Stack later fired back: “It was tragic. The press just did a terrible number of Lubitsch and the arrogance he had in supposedly making fun of the Polish situation. But he was a Jew from the Old Country himself! It was the best satire and put-down of Nazism that’s ever been done, but they weren’t hip enough to pick up on what he was doing.”
Like Lombard, this was Jack Benny’s favorite role as well: son of Polish immigrants, the former Benny Kubelski was 47 at the time and didn’t consider himself more than a comedian: “The trouble was that I knew lots about radio comedy, a little about stage comedy and nothing about movies.” Lubitsch shrewdly perceived more: “You think you are a comedian. You are not even a clown. You are fooling the public for 30 years. You are fooling even yourself. A clown, he is a performer what is doing funny things. A comedian, he is a performer what is saying funny things. But you, Jack, you are an actor, you are an actor playing the part of a comedian and this you are doing very well. But do not worry, I keep your secret to myself.”
What it comes down to is—in the dictionary, next to the word ‘timing’, there should be a picture of Jack Benny.