In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.
To Be or Not to Be 
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Writers: Melchior Lengyel (original story), Edwin Justus Mayer (screenplay), Ernst Lubitsch (uncredited)
Starring: Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack, Stanley Ridges
Running Time: 99 minutes
Reason for inclusion: I had never seen an Ernst Lubitsch film.
Accolades: One Oscar nomination (Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture), National Film Registry, #49 on AFI’s 100 Laughs
While watching To Be or Not to Be, I couldn’t help but be amazed that such a bold political satire (and spoof of the Nazis) was filmed and released during the thick of World War II in 1942. Here is a film that pulls no punches, even including multiple Hitlers, cracking jokes about a real-life horrifying situation. Yet most astonishingly, it remains tasteful.
The film takes place in Warsaw during the Nazi occupation, and it follows a Polish theater company caught in the middle of it. Josef Tura (Jack Benny) and his wife, Maria (Carole Lombard, in what is tragically her last role), are the biggest names on the bill, but both have such out of control egos that they bicker back-and-forth more often than not. Their rocky relationship leads Maria to fall for a starstruck young pilot named Stanislav Sobinski (a 23-year-old Robert Stack), who has been sending her flowers during her shows.
Sobinski leaves Warsaw to join the fight against the Nazis, but he eventually returns on a top secret mission to find a possible spy. This traitor, Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges), attempts to recruit Maria to join the Nazi cause. At this point, the film gets more and more farcical, as the theatrical group becomes entangled between the two sides, with many of the actors posing as important members of the Nazi regime.
While it can get a bit tricky following the surprisingly complex plot, especially as there are multiple people playing both the “real” and “fake” versions of the same character, it all comes together quite nicely in the end. What I loved most about the film is how it combines so many different genres and ideals. Take a political satire, throw in a bit of screwball comedy, a dash of startlingly effective suspense, and some romance, and the end result is masterful.
To Be or Not to Be represents a number of firsts for me. Not only is this my first Lubitsch (and certainly not the last), but it is also the first I have seen from either of its co-stars, Jack Benny and Carole Lombard. Benny is someone I have heard a lot about over the years, and his hammy, over-the-top performance in this is great fun. Lombard is the perfect counterpart, both stunning in appearance and quick with her tongue. They are both ripe with razor sharp dialogue, and each member of their theater group is given their chance to shine as well.
To Be or Not to Be is loaded with witty one-liners and a number of unforgettable scenes (“Heil me!”), and its influence is still felt today. The theater scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds bares more than a passing resemblance to its counterpart in this film. Bottom line, this is a hilarious yet suspenseful film, and it has made me eager to see more of the famous “Lubitsch touch.”