to be 11 Turner Classics the other night broadcast a fascinating relic of World War II, a dark comedy entitled To Be or Not to Be, starring Carole Lombard and Jack Benny. This 1942 film, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, is set in Warsaw during the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany. The plot concerns a troupe of Polish actors who use the tools of their art to upend a plan by the Nazis to identify and track down families of Polish airmen fighting against the Third Reich.

Benny and Lombard play a married couple, Josef and Maria Tura, who are popular Shakespearean actors in the city. A young Polish airman, Stanislav Sobinski, played by 23-year-old Robert Stack, has become enamored of Maria and she, appreciating the attention, begins a clandestine romance with him. Josef deduces that the two are having an affair  after Sobinski repeatedly leaves the theater to meet Maria just as Josef is beginning to recite the “to be or not to be” speech in Hamlet.

Sobinski, however, is sent off to England where he meets Alexander Siletsky, a Nazi spy who pretends to be a member of the Polish resistance in order to gather information about anti-German activists. In a conversation with Siletsky, Sobinski mentions Maria Tura and is suspicious when the supposed denizen of Warsaw doesn’t recognize her name.

JACK BENNY and CAROLE LOMBARD

JACK BENNY and CAROLE LOMBARD

Based on Sobinski’s description of Maria, Siletsky, who travels to Poland to deliver to the Nazis a list of the families of Polish airmen, determines to enlist the actress as an informant. When he meets her, he also takes a more personal interest in her. But Sobinski has informed his superiors of his suspicions about Siletsky and is sent back to Warsaw to warn the resistance. When the acting company learns of this, they determine that the only solution is to murder Siletsky before he can turn over the names.

The plot proceeds as a classic farce in which one of the actors poses as Adolf Hitler in order to hoodwink the German authorities.

This film (which Mel Brooks remade in 1983) is regarded as a comedy classic, but it was controversial in its time. Some folks were uncomfortable with the humorous approach to the situation in Europe, which was anything but funny. Lubitsch began this project with Jack Benny in mind for the lead. Benny, whose birth name was Benjamin Kubelsky, met some resistance first-hand when his father, Meyer, walked out of the theater, scandalized by the sight of his son in  Nazi uniform. Meyer reputedly changed his mind under Benny’s influence and eventually saw the movie more than forty times. Despite its humor, the film is very dark, though, and emphasizes the level of destruction the Germans rained on Warsaw.

To Be or Not to Be was the last film for Carole Lombard, who was the highest-paid Hollywood star at the time. Before this movie was released, she was killed in a plane crash while returning from a U.S. Bond tour.

CAROLE LOMBARD as Maria Tura and STANLEY RIDGES as Siletsky.

CAROLE LOMBARD as Maria Tura and STANLEY RIDGES as Siletsky.

The first American film to attack Hitler and Nazism through ridicule was You Natzy Spy! a short subject by The Three Stooges. That was followed a few months later by Charles Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, Chaplin’s first true sound film and his first commercial success. In that movie, which appeared in 1940, before the United States and Germany were at war, Chaplin mercilessly pillories Hitler, fascism, anti-Semitism, and Benito Mussolini.

Walt Disney got into the act on January 1, 1943, by releasing In Der Fuhrer’s Face, a propaganda cartoon in which Donald Duck has a nightmare in which he is forced to work on the assembly line of a munitions factory in “Nutziland.” This film included some broad German, Japanese, and Italian caricatures, including send-ups of Hitler and Mussolini. The cartoon featured a song that had been recorded and already released by Spike Jones: “When the Fuhrer says, ‘We are the master race,’ we heil, we hiel, right in der Fuhrer’s face”

You can watch a high-quality video of this cartoon at THIS LINK.

to be 10

Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn in "Love in the Afternoon"

“Love in the Afternoon,” a 1957 movie directed and co-written by Billy Wilder, is entertaining in several ways, but it is also seriously flawed. The principal flaw was in the casting, no matter how good the names Gary Cooper, Audrey Hepburn, and Maurice Chevalier, may sound when listed in the same credits.

Audrey Hepburn

The film, which is said to have been Wilder’s paean to director Ernst Lubitsch, is a subtle, witty, lightly slapstick romantic comedy concerning a Parisian private detective, his cellist daughter, and an international playboy with whom they both become involved. Detective Claude Chavasse (Chevalier) is engaged by Monsieur X, a cuckolded husband played by John McGiver — later the accommodating jewelry salesman in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” — who wants to know who his wife has been seeing. Chavasse determines that the guilty party is millionaire Frank Flannagan (Cooper) a globe-hopping businessman with at least a girl in every port. Chavasse’s daughter, Ariane (Hepburn), who studies cello at a Paris conservatory, is fascinated by her father’s profession and questions him incessantly about his clients and, in the face of his reticence, snoops in his files. After she overhears Chavasse’s client declare that he will go to the Hotel Ritz and shoot Flannagan, she feels compelled to warn the target — whose photos in the files have beguiled her.

John McGiver

Ariane, after getting no satisfaction from the police, goes to the hotel herself and makes her way into Flannagan’s room just in time to allow the paramour to escape so that the husband discovers Flannagan with Ariane instead. This encounter, of course, is the beginning of a series of meetings between Flannagan and Ariane, but she refuses to give him any information about her identity, and he takes to calling her “thin girl.” As is his habit, Flannagan eventually leaves Paris for other resorts, and it appears that the “affair” — to all appearances a chaste one — is over. But about a year later, he is back in Paris and the two accidentally meet at an opera house and the liaison, such as it is, continues, with Ariane filling Flannagan with fibs about the many men in her life — many of them based on things she has read in her father’s case files. Flannagan doesn’t know whether to believe these stories or not; that, plus the lack of any information about the girl, increasingly agitates him.

Maurice Chevalier and Audrey Hepburn

This being a movie, Flannagan and Monsieur X happen to meet in a Turkish bath and Monsieur X — still clueless about his wife’s dalliance — discerns the broad outlines of what is troubling Flannagan and recommends that  he engage Chavasse to find out the truth about the “thin girl.” Flannagan does so, and Chavasse quickly figures out that the girl Flannagan is talking about is Ariane. Since Chavasse, through his investigations,  is intimately acquainted with Flannagan’s track record with women — kiss them and run — he reveals the truth to Flannagan and urges the tycoon to leave Ariane in peace. Flannagan sets out to do that, but at the last moment, as his train is already beginning to roll out of the Paris station, he lifts the tearful Ariane on board and the two ride off in each other’s arms.

There are a couple of leaps in logic in this plot. One is that Chavasse had reported that Monsieur X’s wife was having an affair with Flannagan, but Ariane’s intervention made it appear that Chavasse had been wrong. That raises the question of why Monsieur X would recommend Chavasse as an outstanding detective. Another is that at the end of the film, after Chavasse has tried so hard to convince Flannagan to leave Ariane alone, the old man stands on the train platform with a satisfied smile on his face as his daughter rides off with the playboy.

Billy Wilder

Hepburn, Chevalier, and McGiver are delightful in this film. The big flaw — which was pointed out by critics at the time — was that Gary Cooper, who was 55, was much too old to be a credible partner for Hepburn, who was 28. Cary Grant, 53 at the time, had turned down the role because of the age difference. To complicate matters, Cooper — a friend of Wilder’s — was not in good health. He looked older than he was, and he looked drawn and tired, and that was exacerbated by the fact that the film was in black and white.

Audrey Hepburn and Gary Cooper in the closing scene.

An interesting sidelight is that this film had two endings — one for American theaters and one for European. In the European version, which was released under the title “Ariane,” the audience was left to use its imagination about what took place between Flannagan and Ariane after the train left the station and closing titles started rolling.

In the American version, however, because extramarital sex was at least publicly frowned upon in the mid-1950s, the film closed with a voice-over in which Chevalier explains that Flannagan and Ariane got married and were “serving a life sentence in Manhattan.” The film was a failure in the U.S., but it was a hit in Europe.