World War II propaganda films tend to be looked at as charming relics these days, full of rah-rah patriotism and big skosh of acceptable racism. Some of the more famous examples include Hemp for Victory, in which the government encourages farmers to grow hemp to aid the war effort, Disney's short Donald Duck cartoon Der Führer's Face as well as their full-length Victory Through Air Power, and especially the Superman cartoon entitled (ahem) "Japoteurs." There were plenty of narrative movies about the wartime effort as well, like John Wayne's Flying Tigers, or even Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator, which was particularly controversial for the way it addressed Hitler directly (admittedly in a roundabout way).
And then there's Ernst Lubitsch's 1942 To Be or Not to Be, newly available on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.
When I tell someone that I'm very excited about To Be or Not to Be coming out, they're usually confused as to why I'm so interested in a little-loved Mel Brooks film, one of the few that Brooks himself didn't even direct. I explain that I'm actually referring not to the Brooks remake, but rather the original, which seems largely forgotten in recent years -- perhaps because it's one the most daring.
But first, let me enter into the record that To Be or Not to Be is really, really funny. Starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard, it concerns a theater troupe in Poland dealing with the Nazi invasion, and using their theatrical skills to turn the tables on a spy. It was Lombard's last film; she died in an airplane crash before the movie was even released. Though extremely popular on radio and television, Benny never made much of a mark in movies. On the Criterion disc's commentary, film historian David Kalat makes a strong case for Benny being the Jerry Seinfeld of his day -- huge in every medium, except film.
Something that might be a sticking point for modern viewers is apparent ethnicity. Quintessentially American, neither Benny nor Lombard ever read as Polish nationals, and a hunky young Robert Stack as the third corner of their love triangle really doesn't, but that was also kind of the point: Lubitsch wanted characters that contemporary American audiences would be able to completely identify and sympathize with, and that meant Benny in full-on curmudgeon mode and Lombard slinking around in shiny gowns.
What really stands out about the movie now, and what gained it a lot of backlash at the time, is the fact that it made jokes about things you weren't supposed to make jokes about. Hitler gets lampooned in the first several minutes, there are jokes about the mass murder of the Polish people, and the comic possibilities of the words "Heil Hitler" are thoroughly explored. Even worse, the Nazis are portrayed as humans -- deeply flawed humans doing monstrous things, to be sure, but not monsters. That was not really okay during wartime.
Criterion's own promo video "Three Reasons: To Be or Not to Be" gives a good summation of why the film is so terrific:
The running gag of "So, they call me 'Concentration Camp Erhardt'!" is one of the most tasteless jokes to be found in a film released during World War II, or any other time, but that's also what makes it the funniest. And that Hitler cheese never really did take off, oddly enough.
To Be or Not to Be is now available on Blu-ray and DVD by the Criterion Collection. Check it out.