Perhaps the first modern black comedy is the one the incomparable Ernst Lubitsch made a couple of years after his most heartwarmingly human film The Shop Around the Corner (1940); I’m referring to that brilliantly mordant satire on actors and Nazis, the 1942 swan’s song for the luminous Carole Lombard, and Jack Benny’s finest big-screen hour, TO BE OR NOT TO BE (available on DVD).
Lombard’s shocking death at age 33 in a plane accident shortly before the release of this picture threw an irretrievable shroud over the work, a dark glass through which its built-in gallows humor became blacker and bleaker than intended. There was vast controversy at the time, too: How could Lubitsch make light of a situation as terrible as Hitler’s invasions? As though he was.
To Lubitsch–a Polish German Jew who had lived more than half his life in Europe–this war was far more real than to Americans who criticized the film’s wickedly sophisticated brilliance. In Lubitsch’s view, one of the Nazis’ worst traits was their bad manners, and the director understood all things with the sublime sense of inversion conveyed in Thomas De Quincey’s famous maxim: “If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination.”
Times have finally caught up with To Be or Not to Be, today’s prevalent black humors and irreverence being perfectly suited to a movie in which one of the key jokes involves the often repeated line: “So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt?!”
No other picture I can think of has so accurately portrayed a theatre company, and especially the actors in it. Benny and Lombard are incomparable as a famous Polish husband and wife acting team–their competitiveness, her deft manipulation, his susceptibility to flattery. And now that just about everyone in the cast has passed on, Lombard’s death has been erased as a burden on the movie, and she and Benny and all the others are equally alive in this vivid treasure from the Golden Age’s World War II.
Especially memorable in the supporting cast—besides dear Robert Stack, who is golden boy-beautiful and innocent in this his first screen appearance–is the sublime Felix Bressart, who had just played Jimmy Stewart’s best friend for Lubitsch in The Shop Around the Corner, as well as one of the main three Russians with Garbo in Lubitsch’s 1939
Ninotchka. Bressart plays a lowly bit-part actor in the company, but Lubitsch’s intensity in Bressart’s scenes is palpable, and he gives Bressart the famous Shylock speech from The Merchant of Venice, especially apt as the Holocaust was beginning: “Hath not a Jew eyes…?
Bressart’s running gag-line in the picture is: “It would get a terrific laugh..!” in response to a rejection by the stage director of some comic idea he had suggested. “It would get a terrific laugh” could have been Lubitsch’s motto, as well, and Bressart becomes the filmmaker’s mouthpiece all the more when he even goes for a laugh on: “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you poison us, do we not die…?” by letting the breaths of the “p”-sounds blow the other actor’s hair a touch. The Lubitsch Touch: delicate as a feather, lethal as only the best artists can be.