This is the second in a series of weekly films selected and introduced by Film Studies faculty from the Kanopy streaming service subscribed to by Schaffer Library. You can access the Kanopy service so long as you are on campus or using the college VPN: at https://union.kanopystreaming.com
Most Hollywood films about Nazism are war stories, revelations of Hitler’s brutality, cautionary tales about the dangers of totalitarianism, or in some cases (Schindler’s List for instance) all three. As one might guess, the subject doesn’t lend itself well to comedy, as Jerry Lewis learned from making his as-yet unreleased catastrophe, The Day the Clown Died, likened by comedian Harry Shearer (one of the few people who has seen Lewis’ film) to “a painting on black velvet of Auschwitz.” Yet, as one of the key characters points out at the start of this week’s film, even when it comes to something as awful as the rise of fascism, “a laugh is nothing to be sneezed at.” There are some sterling examples of movies that incisively satirize the Nazis while never making light of the Holocaust: for example, Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940), Lina Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties (1975), and Mel Brooks’ The Producers (1967). Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 screwball comedy, To Be or Not to Be, is preeminent among them, showcasing the manic talents of Carole Lombard by upending conventional sex roles around a story of bumbling spycraft, theatrical excess, and the incompetent arrogance of Nazi authoritarianism. Watch for Felix Bressart’s rendition of Shylock’s soliloquy from The Merchant of Venice near the end of the film.
A product of the Berlin stage and film scene, Lubitsch had already spent ten years in Hollywood when Adolph Hitler came to power in 1933. By 1942 he had been joined in Tinsel Town by hundreds of German and Austrian refugees, former stars, directors and technicians of the Central European stage and screen who would transform American cinema, such as directors Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder, actors Bressart, Marlene Dietrich, Peter Lorre, Hedy Lamar, and Paul Heinreid, and composers Max Steiner, Kurt Eisler and Franz Waxman. With Americans and other European exiles they also ushered in a belated period of anti-fascist filmmaking supporting the Allied war effort and exposing Nazi brutalities to the American public.
To Be or Not to Be has the further distinction of being Lombard’s last film. It was released two months after she died in a plane crash as she returned home from a war-bond rally in Las Vegas.
(notes by Andrew Feffer, History)