Professor Siletsky : “I wonder if you really know what Nazism really stands for?”
Maria Tura : “I have a slight idea”
Professor Siletsky : “In the final analysis, all we’re trying to do is create a happy world.”
Maria Tura : “And people who don’t want to be happy have no place in this happy world. Well, that makes sense.”
Throughout the years I have savored watching Ernst Lubitsch’s “To Be Or Not To Be” (1942). I found it daring to make a delicious satire about an egomaniac totalitarian and his destruction of lives. After many repeated watches, I now marvel at its precision, sophistication and boldness. I wonder how a comedy about our current pandemic and how its botched handling has created so much further hardship would play at this moment?
When first released, Lubitsch’s film was panned by critics. A piece in The New York Times read: “And yet, in a spirit of levity, contused by frequent doses of shock, Mr. Lubitsch has set his actors to performing a spy-thriller of fantastic design amid the ruins and frightful oppressions of Nazi-invaded Warsaw. To say it is callous and macabre is understating the case.” Lubistch penned an op-ed in the same newspaper responding to the attacks, “I am accused of three major sins—of having violated every traditional form in mixing melodrama with comedy-satire or even farce; of endangering our war effort in treating the Nazi menace too lightly; and of exhibiting extremely bad taste in having chosen present-day Warsaw as a background for comedy.” Thank goodness for laughter – to help us endure our predicaments – our foibles – the life that surrounds us – and to be able to mock our own worst uncertainties. “A laugh is nothing to be sneezed at,” a character mentions in the film. Mind you, Lubistch understood that there’s a fine line between laughter, fear and tears. I think what may have shocked everyone was the nimble way in which “To Be Or Not To Be” makes a comedy out of a tragedy. “War. It’s really war,” comments Maria Tura (played by the luminous and hilarious Carole Lombard in her final role). “People are going to kill each other and be killed.”
It takes place in Warsaw on the brink of the German occupation, and a troupe of actors are performing “Hamlet.” The company is led by husband and wife Maria and Josef Tura (winningly played by a formidable Jack Benny). The two married actors are deeply in love but drive each other crazy. While Josef performs Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, a young pilot Lt. Stanislav Sobinski gets up to visit Maria backstage. “You might not believe it, but I can drop three tons of dynamite in two minutes!” he tells Maria about his fighting prowess. She entertains his adulation.
When the war breaks and Hitler conquers Poland, young Sobinski finds himself in England helping the British Royal Air Force and uncovers that there’s a spy – Professor Siletsky – delivering vital information to the Germans in Poland. The acting Turas and their colleagues of thespians are pressed into a dangerous counter operation. When Professor Siletsky is face to face with Maria he tells her, “As a matter of fact, I’m not responsible for your being brought here at all. There’s a charming young man in England – gave me a message for you. A rather strange message: ‘To be or not to be.’ You, no doubt, know it’s deeper meaning?”
In the opening scene, there’s an illusion established – an actor pretending to be Hitler creates a commotion on the streets of Warsaw. This sets up what will become a stratagem of trickery – of using the theatre and artifice as a form of deception. Details and comic situations are established only to be used as the foundation for a larger comedic payoff. There’s sangfroid as well as dark humor that becomes delectable because of the way the boundaries are able to stretch (there’s the hilarious scene involving a dead corpse). The dialogue itself is filled with double entendres and rich complexity that you cannot ingest in just one sitting. “Shall we drink to a blitzkrieg?” proposes the treacherous Siletsky. “I prefer a slow encirclement,” responds Maria.
The film looks gorgeous, and there’s some superb editing by unsung pioneer Dorothy Spencer who’d worked with John Ford in “Stagecoach” and Alfred Hitchcock in “Foreign Correspondent” and “Lifeboat.” There is quite a suspenseful sequence in the theatre where a character is chased and hides in the row of seats – then jumps behind the curtain. Which is then raised to reveal an assassination. Surprising and thrilling. Spenser’s cutting and construction of that action is masterful.
“To Be Or Not To Be” has not lost its edge, it’s only gotten sharper.
Joseph Tura : “Wait a minute. I’ll decide with whom my wife is going to have dinner and whom she’s going to kill.”
Maria Tura : “Don’t you realize Poland’s at stake?”
Lieutenant Stanislav Sobinski : “Have you no patriotism?”
Joseph Tura : “Now listen, you… first you walk out on my soliloquy and then you walk into my slippers. And now you question my patriotism. I’m a good Pole and I love my country and I love my slippers.”
Available to stream on HBO Max, Kanopy and The Criterion Channel.
Original Story by Melchior Lengyel
Screenplay by Edwin Justus Mayer
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
Starring Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack, Felix Bressart, Sig Ruman
The Making of “To Be or Not to Be”
Production on “To Be or Not to Be” began on November 6, 1941, and would be completed in 42 days. (Carole Lombard would return for some additional work on New Year’s Eve, posing for stills shot by Robert Coburn.) The biggest problem early in the shoot was Jack Benny’s insecurity about acting the central role in such an important production by a major filmmaker. He seemed dumbfounded that Lubitsch had not only cast him but was building the film around him. Finally Lubitsch set him straight: “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.” According to Benny’s daughter, Joan, he loved his director and “would have done anything for Lubitsch.” But even after the encouraging words, he remained nervous about his role. In the words of supporting player Robert Stack, “Jack was an innocent. He’d never done a movie that worked. He’d always ask me, ‘Is this funny?’ and I’d say, ‘Jesus, don’t ask me.’ ‘But you’re an actor,’ he’d say. Basically he was scared to death.” Benny seemed to appreciate having Lubitsch act out his scenes for him, saying later that he was “about the only director who ever really directed me… The trouble was that I knew lots about radio comedy, a little about stage comedy and nothing about movies.” One of Lubitsch’s techniques to protect his star was having Benny do multiple takes of many of his crucial scenes. Stack recalled that “Specifically, the scene where Jack comes home and finds me in his bed asleep and does a series of double takes, he made Jack do at least 30 takes.” Still, Lubitsch respected Benny’s opinion and would redo a scene if Benny himself, after looking at the rushes, thought it could be better.
In addition to its worried star, the film had other difficulties relating to the subject matter itself. Miklos Rozsa, Korda’s musical director, refused to score the film because he disapproved of the film’s satirical treatment of the Nazi threat. (Werner Heymann took over to create the musical score.) During the shooting of a scene where storm troopers marched in the street, a female visitor to the set, who had just come from Poland and had endured such scenes for real, fell into a faint. Despite the problems, however, the atmosphere on the set was light and congenial. Candid photographs shot during breaks in filming invariably show everyone in the cast and crew laughing hilariously. Lombard, who told friends that this was the happiest experience of her career, would drive to the set from her ranch in the San Fernando Valley even on her off days, just to watch Lubitsch work with the other actors. Although Lubitsch treated his script with total respect, he often found moments of inspiration on the spot. One example: In the scene at the end where the Nazi Col. Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman) goes behind a closed door to commit suicide, the script indicates only that a shot rings out. But Lubitsch added a topper where Ehrhardt – who has established a habit of screaming out for his assistant’s help at every turn – is then heard once again yelling for “Schultz”!
In early January 1942, as Lubitsch was editing the film, United Artists informed him that To Be or Not to Be, with its Shakespearean reference, seemed “too highbrow” a title and that thought should be given to changing it. Impishly, because he had anticipated censorship problems with the script, Lubitsch suggested The Censor Forbids as an alternate title. Suspiciously, both Lombard and Benny fired off almost identical cables describing the new title as “suggestive” and allowing that, as participants and investors in the film, they objected strongly to the change. Benny even said he would refuse to promote the movie on his radio show if such a title were used. Lubitsch then informed UA that, in view of these objections, he had no choice but to withdraw the alternate title. UA, clearly overmatched, said no more about it. On January 16, the world was shocked to hear that Carole Lombard had been killed in an airplane crash. She had been in her home state of Indiana for a war bond tour and had raised more than $2 million in defense bonds. Lombard was due for an appearance on Jack Benny’s radio program in Los Angeles, and she and her mother boarded a Transcontinental and Western Air Douglas aircraft that crashed into a peak of Potosi Mountain near Las Vegas. Everyone aboard was killed instantly. Lombard was mourned internationally and hailed in the U.S. as a heroine who died serving her country. Gable was devastated by her death and, according to some, never fully recovered from it. The tragedy prompted some slight re-editing of To Be or Not to Be, including the deletion of Lombard’s line, “What can happen in a plane?” The reworking required additions to the budget, which finally came to $1,022,000. (tcm.com)
About Carole Lombard
Carole Lombard was born Jane Alice Peters on October 6, 1908, Fort Wayne, Indiana…After studying acting and dancing as a child, she made her screen debut as a 13-year-old tomboy in “A Perfect Crime” (1921); legend has it that the actress was cast in the role after the film’s director, Allan Dwan, saw her playing baseball in the street. She left school at the age of 15, and she first appeared under the stage name Carol (after 1930, Carole) Lombard in a leading role in “Marriage in Transit” (1925). She made more than 20 silent films during the 1920s, mostly cast in bit roles or as a supporting player in several Mack Sennett-produced comedy shorts. In 1930 she signed a seven-year contract with Paramount and was occasionally afforded the opportunity to display her comic skills in such films as “Fast and Loose” (1930), “It Pays to Advertise” (1931), and “Man of the World” (1931). It was also during this period that Lombard appeared in “No Man of Her Own” (1932), her only film with future husband Clark Gable (married 1939). Lombard’s big break finally came with “Twentieth Century” (1934), in which she co-starred with John Barrymore in what many regard as the prototypical film of the screwball comedy genre. The film established Lombard as one of the leading comic actresses of the 1930s and served as a showcase for her unique dichotomous persona of sophisticated glamour and earthy audaciousness.
It was the first of four such comedies for which Lombard remains best known, the others being “My Man Godfrey” (1936), a high-society farce in which Lombard (in her only Oscar-nominated performance) costarred with her ex-husband, William Powell; “Nothing Sacred” (1937), which featured Lombard as a woman misdiagnosed with a fatal illness and Fredric March as the unscrupulous reporter who tries to exploit her story; and “To Be or Not to Be” (1942), an anti-Nazi satire starring Lombard and Jack Benny as leaders of a Polish theatrical troupe. Although remembered primarily for her comedic skills, Lombard was also a highly capable dramatic actress, as evidenced by her performances as a noble and selfless nurse in “Vigil in the Night” (1940) and as a waitress mired in a deceitful mail-order romance in “They Knew What They Wanted” (1940). Lombard’s other well-regarded films of the period included the melodrama “In Name Only” (1939), in which she appeared opposite Cary Grant; the comedy-drama “Made for Each Other” (1939), co-starring James Stewart; and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” (1941), in which Lombard’s performance highlighted director Alfred Hitchcock’s only attempt at straightforward comedy. In January 1942 Lombard visited her native Indiana to participate in a war-bond rally. As Lombard and her mother were returning home on January 16, they and 20 others were killed in a plane crash outside Las Vegas, Nevada. Lombard was at the peak of her popularity; her death stunned the nation and left husband Gable emotionally shattered. Pres. Franklin Roosevelt expressed the feelings of millions in his telegram to Gable: “She brought great joy to all who knew her and to millions who knew her only as a great artist.…She is and always will be a star, one we shall never forget nor cease to be grateful to.” (britannica.com)
About Editor Dorothy Spencer
Dorothy Spencer was a distinguished artisan who made her mark in one of the relatively few behind-the-scenes fields which Hollywood, in its historically typical yet weird gender breakdown, allowed women to toil–editing. Although she worked for several different studios during the late 1930s and early 40s, Spencer started her career at Fox Studios and, once settling in at the reconsolidated 20th Century-Fox Studios in the 40s, wracked up approximately 50 credits for the company through the late 60s. She thus made her mark on that studio’s product in a way comparable to composer Alfred Newman and other veteran male stalwarts whose careers have received more attention and acclaim. Spencer also became a trusted favorite of a number of talented directors over the years, earning multiple credits with such filmmakers as Edward Dmytryk, John Ford, Tay Garnett, Henry Hathaway, Anatole Litvak, Jean Negulesco and Mark Robson. Spencer began in the industry in the 1920s, and at the venerable age of 20, earned her first credits on the modest Fox efforts “Married in Hollywood” and “Nix on Dames” (both 1929). Most of her early credits are in lighter fare, in contrast to the epics, action pictures and weighty dramas which came to dominate her credits once she was better established. Beginning in the mid-30s, Spencer earned credits at Paramount and Universal, but until 1943 worked primarily on independently produced features released through United Artists. It was through this distributor that Spencer enjoyed her first ongoing collaboration with a noteworthy Hollywood craftsman, Tay Garnett. Although several of their joint efforts (“Stand-In” 1937, “Eternally Yours” 1939) were comedies a bit different from the rugged pictures one associates with Garnett, these films, and the more typical “Trade Winds” (1938) have the crisp narrative drive found in Garnett–and in Spencer’s editing. 1939 was a breakthrough year for Spencer. She worked on the first of three films with John Ford (and veteran cutter Otho Lovering) on her most important film to date, the Oscar-winning “Stagecoach.” Ford was famous for frustrating editors by shooting few takes and editing his work in-camera as he shot, such that editors had to piece together footage largely as he planned. Spencer and Lovering nonetheless deserved credit–and their Oscar nomination–for their brisk timing and ordering of shots. This was especially notable in the now-legendary chase across the flats, where Ford, Lovering and Spencer were unafraid to break the 180 degree rule of editing, and used subtle interplays of picture and sound to increase the scene’s suspense.
Spencer rejoined Fox (20th Century-Fox since 1935) in 1943, where she would stay for the next quarter century, seeing the old studio system through its dying days and its major changes. (It’s perversely fitting that her last film for Fox would be so determinedly old-fashioned in format yet so aggressively, trashily hip and trendy in content, “Valley of the Dolls” 1967). Having worked with Ernst Lubitsch on “To Be or Not to Be” (1942), she immediately reteamed with him for “Heaven Can Wait” (1943). A more typical collaboration, and Spencer’s longest-ever, developed with the robustly craftsmanlike Henry Hathaway, including “Down to the Sea in Ships” (1949), “Fourteen Hours” (1951), “North to Alaska” (1960) and “Circus World” (1964). She worked in many genres, but did some of her most memorable work in epics and action films, including wartime intrigues like Elia Kazan’s “Man on a Tightrope” (1953) and Litvak’s “Decision Before Dawn” (1951, her second Oscar nomination), and exotic spectacles (“Demetrius and the Gladiators” 1954, and the infamous but technically proficient “Cleopatra” 1963, her third Oscar nod). More intimate films, such as Dmytryk’s WWII character study “The Young Lions” (1958), or Fred Zinnemann’s drug-addiction drama, “A Hatful of Rain” (1957) only highlight her versatility. Having worked with former editor turned director Mark Robson at Fox on “From the Terrace” (1960) and “Von Ryan’s Express” (1965), Spencer continued her last major collaboration after she parted company from Fox. Some of their independently produced efforts were small in scale (“Happy Birthday, Wanda June” 1971) but at least one film seemed, for better or worse, reminiscent of Hollywood days of yore. Having worked in the disaster genre before (Negulesco’s “The Rains of Ranchipur” 1955), Spencer gave a last big display of her powers in Robson’s narratively cliched but technically impressive hit, “Earthquake” (1974). Spencer received her fourth and final Oscar nomination for work which admirably highlighted the film’s lavish special effects. She likewise did her polished best with her final credit, “The Concorde–Airport ’79” (1979), and though the film as a whole was not worthy, it at least enabled Spencer to reach a personal landmark of 50 years as that unseen artist, the Hollywood editor. (tcm.com)
About Writer Melchior Lengyel
Mr. Lengyel, who was born in a tiny town on the Puszta, where his father was an estate overseer, completed his education in Budapest and had his first play, “The Great Chieftain,” produced there by the experimental Thalia Theater in 1907. “Typhoon,” a tragedy about a dedicated Japanese diplomat, won him international renown in 1910. The principal role was played by Laurence Irving in Britain and by Walker Whiteside in the United States. The Lengyel comedies, “The Czarina,” a satirical portrait of the Russian Empress Catherine, “Sancho Panza,” “Antonia” and many others were hits on the Continent and on Broadway. A remarkably imaginative and versatile author, Mr. Lengyel wrote in all theatrical forms with success. He provided Bela Bartek, a close friend, with the libretto for “The Miraculous Mandarin.” Its audacious sex situation caused the banning of this work by both the Nazis and the Communists, but today it is a showpiece of the Hungarian Opera Ballet and is regularly performed. In 1924 Ernst Lubitsch filmed “The Czarina” in Hollywood as “Forbidden Paradise” with Pola Negri. He later directed screen versions of three other Lengyel plays: “Ninotchka” with Greta Garbo, “Angel” with Marlene Dietrich and “To Be or not to Be” with Jack Benny and Carole Lombard. Mr. Lubitsch also supervised a talkie of “The Czarina,” entitled “A, Royal Scandal.” “Ninotchka” also served as the book for Cole Porter’s last musical, “Silk Stockings.”
In 1939, Mr. Lengyel won the title as the man “who made Garbo laugh.” He told it this way: “I was introduced to Miss Garbo at the edge of a swimming pool. ‘You have a comedy for me?’ she asked. I told her it was yet but an idea, and I read a memo from my notebook. She was highly amused. In fact, she laughed out loud at the possibilities the idea offered. ‘I like it.’ Then she turned and dived back into the pool.” The memo that he had read to the enigmatic actress and on which “Ninotchka” was based was just three sentences in length. It read: “Russian girl saturated with Bolshevist ideals goes to fearful, capitalistic, monopolistic Paris. She meets romance and has an uproarious good time. Capitalism not so bad, after all.” Mr. Lengyel’s comedies and dramas were staged by Max Reinhardt in Berlin and Vienna and some were produced and acted by Beerbohm Tree in London…Between the two world wars, he was known also as a proficient golfer. Vacationing at an Adriatic resort, he met Bernard Shaw and Gene Tunney, who were on a walking tour. Mr. Tunney challenged the playwright to a golf match with Shaw as referee. Mr. Lengyel sent a ball flying into a tree, where it was caught in the foliage. Shaw advised fetching a ladder, but Tunney instead shook the tree. The ball fell near the hole, and Mr. Lengyel won the round. Shaw commented: “I’m delighted that a writer has defeated a boxer.” The Hungarian playwright attributed his longevity and iron constitution to his farm‐boy youth and peasant ancestry. He frequently wrote for several hours a day and then enjoyed a good meal and a glass or two of wine. “I stopped smoking when I was 76 and I’ll tell you why,” he said. “I came upon a photo of a Hollywood party. There, at a table sat Max Reinhardt, Bruno Frank, Franz Werfel, Lubitsch and myself. We all had cigars in our mouths. I realized that the other four had died shortly after and I haven’t smoked since.” His English was halting and so were his German, his French and his Italian. His wife often had to intervene as interpreter. “I am no linguist,” Mr. Lengyel once remarked, smiling wistfully. “I have never been able to get inside another language, and my own is so little known. But, think of it, writing with my obscure tongue as my only instrument, what I have had to say has been heard all over the world.” (nytimes.com)
About Director Ernst Lubitsch
Born on Jan. 28, 1892 in Berlin, Germany, Lubitsch was raised in a Jewish home, the son of Simon, a tailor, and his mother, Anna. When he was old enough, Lubitsch turned away from his father’s business in order to enter the theater and by 1911, was appearing as an actor in famed director Max Reinhardt’s Deutches Theater. Two years later, he had created the comic screen persona “Meyer,” a slapstick Jewish archetype who became a favorite of German audiences, and was also performing in movies. But Lubitsch soon made the transition from acting to directing with his debut film, “Fraulein Seifenschaum” (“Miss Soapsuds”) (1914), a one-reeler since lost to time. Eager to test his own range and gain acceptance as a dramatic actor, Lubitsch wrote and directed “Als Ich Tot War” (“When I Was Dead”) (1916), but the film failed to stir the interest of an audience who loved “Meyer.” Stereotyped as an actor, Lubitsch turned his full attention to directing and scored his first major success with “Schuhpalast Pinkus” (“Shoe Salon Pinkus”) (1916). The first Lubitsch picture to be shown in America was “Die Augen der Mummie Ma” (“The Eyes of the Mummy”) (1918), his first teaming of Pola Negri and Emil Jannings, and the first film to mark him as a serious director. It was his second film with Negri, “Madame Du Barry” (“Passion”) (1919) that proved to be his first masterwork, as well as helping to put the German film industry on the international map. With “Madame Du Barry,” Lubitsch became known for an unerring ability to humanize sumptuous screen spectacles and costume dramas by giving them the warmth that would endear them to the public. He easily oscillated between drama and comedy, as he did with the historical “Anna Boleyn” (1920) and the Pola Negri comedy “Die Bergkatze” (“The Wild Cat”) (1921). Lubitsch made a few more films in his native Germany, including “Das Weib des Pharao” (“The Wife of the Pharaoh”) (1922) and “Die Flamme” (“The Flame”) (1923), before striking out to America in search of greater success.
Lubitsch entered a new phase of his career when star Mary Pickford invited him to Hollywood to direct his first American film, “Rosita” (1923), a renamed adaptation of Jules Massenet’s comic opera, “Don César de Bazan.” The film proved to be both a commercial and critical hit, though Lubitsch and Pickford allegedly battled behind the scenes and never worked together again. Because of the success of “Rosita,” Lubitsch signed a three-year, six-movie deal with Warner Bros., which granted him near-absolute creative freedom, including final cut and his choice of technicians. With sophisticated comedies like “The Marriage Circle” (1924), inspired by Chaplin’s “A Woman of Paris;” “Forbidden Paradise” (1924), which reunited him with Pola Negri; and “Kiss Me Again” (1925), starring party girl Clara Bow, he began to hone his craft into his famed “Lubitsch Touch.” Though he made occasional forays into drama, as he did with “Three Women” (1924), Lubitsch came to specialize in the artfully risqué sex farce, where raised eyebrows and closed doors meant everything. After directing “Kiss Me Again” (1925) and “Lady Windermere’s Fan” (1925), his contract with Warner Bros. was dissolved due to his film’s marginal profitability. Lubitsch made his first picture for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, “The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg” (1927), which earned critical praise but was a financial failure. However, once he made the transition to sound, his career began to take off, thanks to his embrace of the newly popular genre of musical comedies. Following “The Patriot” (1928), he earned his first Academy Award nomination for Best Director for “The Love Parade” (1929), and proceeded to churn out such early classics as “Monte Carlo” (1930), “The Smiling Lieutenant” (1931), and “One Hour with You” (1932), all made for Paramount Pictures. After making what amounted to his last drama, “Broken Lullaby/The Man I Killed” (1932), starring Lionel Barrymore, Lubitsch hit his stride with “Trouble in Paradise” (1932), a romantic comedy about two jewel thieves (Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins), who break into a rich woman’s home, only to have one fall in love with her. Filled with sophisticated comedy and fun innuendo – which actually led to the film being pulled from circulation post-Hays Code – “Trouble in Paradise” was the first masterpiece from the director and one of his personal favorites. Lubitsch continued to delight audiences with “Design For Living” (1933), starring Frederic March and Gary Cooper, both of whom fall for Miriam Hopkins, and “The Merry Widow” (1934), based on the 1905 operetta by Franz Lehar. In 1935, Lubitsch was named head of production at Paramount, but since his real talent was in producing and directing motion pictures – not studio administration – he was relieved of his duties a year later.
Following…”Angel” (1937) with Marlene Dietrich, and “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife” (1938), starring Cooper and Claudette Colbert, Lubitsch returned to form with “Ninotchka” (1939), which starred Greta Garbo in a rare comedy role. In fact, it was so unusual for the Swede to appear in comedies that the movie poster immortally declared “Garbo Laughs!” – a cheeky reference to the famed “Garbo Talks” splashed across her 1930 talkie debut in “Anna Christie.” In this comedy classic, Garbo played a dedicated, but humorless communist sent to Paris by Moscow to retrieve a trio of Russian delegates and a cache of diamonds, only to loosen up and enjoy herself in the decadent city, thanks to Melvyn Douglas. Lubitsch next directed one of his most popular films, “The Shop Around the Corner” (1940), which starred James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as two store co-workers who detest each other in person, but carry on an anonymous letter-writing relationship without either knowing who the other is. With wry, subtle humor, the film was one of the greatest romantic comedies of its era and beyond – it would later be remade with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in the lead roles, “You’ve Got Mail” (1998). After going independent to direct the comedy of manners, “That Uncertain Feeling” (1941), a remake of his own “Kiss Me Again” (1925), Lubitsch helmed the classic political satire, “To Be or Not to Be” (1942), starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard as a husband and wife who perform anti-Nazi plays in Warsaw at the beginning of World War II. But in the ruins of war-torn Poland, they find themselves forced to impersonate Nazi officers – and even Hitler himself – in order to survive. Though darkly satirical, “To Be or Not to Be” was a highly entertaining picture that crossed a number of genre boundaries – thriller, political propaganda, comedy – and remained one of Lubitsch’s finest creative efforts. But the film suffered at the box office when weeks before its release, the film’s star Lombard died on Jan. 16, 1942 in a fiery airplane crash outside of Las Vegas, NV after raising money for war bonds in her home state of Indiana. A bereaved Lubitsch was forced to cut Lombard’s line “What can happen on a plane?” from the movie and saw his greatest film do lackluster business, as a grieving public was in no mood to watch a beloved yet now deceased comedienne make them laugh.
He went on to sign a new contract with 20th Century Fox and directed his first Technicolor movie, “Heaven Can Wait” (1943), a sophisticated, romantic and rather charming comedy about a lifelong cad (Don Ameche) who dies in his seventies and seeks entrance into Hell by trying to convince a doubtful Satan (Laird Cregar) that he has earned his way in by recounting his life’s many sins. The film earned him his last Oscar nomination for Best Director and was seen as his last effort displaying the Lubitsch touch. In fact, Lubitsch would go on to direct one final completed film in his career. He began making the romantic comedy “A Royal Scandal” (1945), which depicted a fictional event in the life of Catherine the Great (Tallulah Bankhead), but he fell ill during production. He was replaced by Austrian director, Otto Preminger, who did his best to maintain the Lubitsch touch, but ultimately fell short of the mark. Lubitsch returned to health and directed what became his last feature, “Cluny Brown” (1946), which starred Jennifer Jones as the titular character, the niece of a plumber who takes over for her uncle at an upscale home after he becomes indisposed and falls in love with a Czech author (Charles Boyer). Though not on the level as “Shop Around the Corner” or “To Be or Not to Be,” “Cluny Brown” was still charming entertainment that pleased critics and audiences. Lubitsch returned to musical comedy for the first time since 1934 with “The Lady in Ermine” (1948), starring Betty Grable and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. But just eight days into production, on Nov. 30, 1947, he died of a heart attack. He was 55 years old. Preminger again returned to fill the void, though Lubitsch received sole credit as director. (tcm.com)