The Star-Crossed Hamlet

“To Be Or Not To Be” was a perfect comedy that could only have been made in a democracy.

10.10.08 8:20 PM ET

David Thomson, a Brit who lives in San Francisco, is perhaps the most astute and observant film critic in the English language. His new collection of movie assessments, “Have You Seen?” is published this month. Below, his definitive appraisal of the Jack Benny/Carole Lombard masterpiece “To Be Or Not To Be.” For his views on Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown,” Akira Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai,” Howard Hawks’s “To Have and Have Not,” the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup” and others, click here.

The point may be obvious. It may gloss over fine issues of taste. But in some
total conflict, if one side is making To Be or Not To Be in the middle of a war and the other is not—you know which side to root for. No, there are no Nazi equivalents to this film, no film in which the Goethe Institute, let's say, sends a Schubert lieder singer on a tour of the United States and she tries to conduct an affair with a spokesman for the Bund. (You're tempted by the sound of it? But only because you've grown up in a culture addicted to irony, sarcasm, self- effacement, and that essential ingredient of American acting once identified by Kenneth Tynan—its Jewishness.)

It has to be said that Samson Raphaelson-Lubitsch's preferred writer chose to be unavailable for this project, because he feared that it would end in charges of bad taste. So Melchior Lengyel shaped the idea and Edwin Justus Mayer wrote the script about a Polish acting company in Nazi-occupied Warsaw that has a hard time doing Hamlet, but which gets drawn into a masquerade against the Nazis that may help win the war. This is the company led by Maria and Joseph Tura (Carole Lombard and Jack Benny), when he is doing Hamlet and she has a Polish flier after her and she tells the boy to rendezvous in her dressing room just after her husband begins the speech “To be or not to be ...”

What follows is nothing less than a farce in which the Nazis are the butt of the humor, but in which “So, they call me concentration camp Erhard, do they?” is relied upon to get repeated belly laughs. Some find it too much.

I suggest that its brilliance lies in the concentration on actors at the heart of the story and the casting genius that saw how far the already wounded face of Jack Benny could consider no greater crime against humanity than walking out on his big speech. And then there is Carole Lombard, ravishing, sexy, happy, and glorious in her gowns. She was dead shortly after the film finished shooting, and it may be that that took away from audience numbers as much as any question of taste.

Alexander Korda was a co-producer on the venture and Vincent Korda did the sets. Those gowns are by Irene, and Rudolph Maté did the photography. The faultless cast also includes Robert Stack, Felix Bressart, Lionel Atwill, Stanley Ridges, Sig Ruman, and Charles Halton. Of course, it is an artifice, protected from the real horror of war. But it has moments when to see the Turas-vain, self-centered, essentially small-minded is still to recognize how far cinema and egalitarianism can amount to models of ordinary decency.

The American cinema has made few lastingly useful political statements, and it has often taken fright at the risk of trying. To Be or Not To Be is the sort of film that would have earned murder gangs if the other side had won. It is still brave, and it still bespeaks a wholesome insolence in many Americans toward tyranny and the way of life ready to rationalize the death of flirtation.

Excerpted from "Have You Seen... ?" by David Thomson Copyright © 2008 by David Thomson. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.

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