And so there is little question that Ben and I, having wallowed in the delights of Ernst Lubitch's Trouble in Paradise, give outselves a dose of To Be or Not to Be (USA, 1942)
I am pround to report that going into this I was smart enough to refrain from expectation. More precisely, I just knew that 2Bor-2B could never be as wonderful as TinP and with this knowledge I was not disappointed.
You know I always watch a film before I consult whatever accompanying materials there may be. Fine. So, we are a mere five, ten minutes into the picture when I feel compelled to announce to all - the whole family watched this one - "Mel Brooks is a footnote to this movie." Then, halfway through, Monica points out that Brooks, in fact, did a remake of the darn thing. Ding! Of course he did, Ben you schmuck, you saw it! I remember being not too impressed at the time. My feeling was that Brooks was treading water with the Nazi schtick - who knew the man would eventually turn this bit into the toast of broadway? - and I also had the feeling that he was out to provide his wife with a vehicle. Would I have liked it better or worse had I known it was a cover version of and tribute to Lubitsch's schtick? I suppose I'll have to rent it and see how I feel about it now. Meanwhile, that Lubitsch went for this schtick in 1942 is pretty heavy, second I suppose only to Chaplin doing The Great Dictator.
I don't think this is such a great movie but it's pretty damn good. A few times it threatens to fall off of its comedic rails. Interestingly enough, this is not due to the setting, which is retrospectively for us in 2006 actually much more sinister than it initially was in 1942, at least before the full court propaganda press in the culture industries. No, the problem is that sometimes the thriller-suspense features of the plot dominate and the laughs drop by the wayside. This is hardly chronic, however, just occasional, but significant enough to mention. As for the seriousness of the situation intruding on things, I found that this was handled with great tact and I found the repeated reference to The Merchant of Venice acceptably poignant.
The other weakness of the film - and this did surprise me - Jack Benny. The box mentions that his performance is "understated.'' Yes, it's too understated. And I would like to take a second look at Brooks in this regard because he is broad broad broad and I think Benny should have exaggerated his performance. In some scenes, he functions as the straight man, especially against the Nazis and the other hammy actors in his troup, and this works. But up against Lombard - who is stellar; sexy, sarcastic and sincere at the same time - Benny should have been a bigger clown.
These two considerably significant reservations aside, the film is bloody clever on a bunch of levels, throughly engaging and serves up a bunch of hilarious bits from the supporting players. Definitely a good dose of big laughs. Lubitsch lampoons the Nazis, the theatre and - one more time folks - romantic relationships all at once. And with pretty much a perfect balance. I guess this is part of what they call "the Lubitsch touch.''
And Dan sez:
Like you, I saw this film after Trouble in Paradise (in fact, despite being familiar with the film's stellar reputation, I only sought it out after TIP pretty much insisted that I get off my ass and SEE THIS SUCKER), but unlike you I have not seen Mel Brook's remake thereof. Regardless, I share your sense that TBONTB suffers by comparison. These things are relative of course, in that Godfather II also suffers by comparison to Godfather I, and yet it's still one helluva film.
And so I come not to bury this film (through false compare), but to praise it for what it does well. As with TIP, Lubitsch is a master of witty banter and double entendre, and he has plenty of oportunities, given the scenario of the beautiful, philandering wife (Lombard is a marvel) and ineffectual hubby (I like Benny more than you, but this is tempered perhaps by the knowledge that until I saw this film, I was never much of a fan), to ply his trade. I was also impressed that Lubitsch was able to find a way to use both the theatre and the Nazis to ramp up the humour (this must have inspired Brooks to go the distance in The Producers. I hope that royalties from Springtime for Hitler in Germany were sent to Lubitsch's family); this struck me as simultaneously the film's greatest risk, and its greatest coup. I can see your point, though, that the film is only really working when it is funny, and it is not as consistently funny as it might have been, had it stayed the course and muted the thriller elements, perhaps just enough to remind us of the menace around these characters without taking us too long away from the cracker jack dialogue and zany hijinks of our married couple.
Loves my Lubitsch. Gotsta get me some more.