To Be or Not to Be: The Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review
It’s 1939 in Warsaw and Europe is still in a time of peace. Lubinski, Kubinski, Lominski, and Rozanski & Poznanski are in business and flourishing. On a peculiar afternoon, all stops as citizens gather around a man that resembles none other than Adolf Hitler. Working her way through the wave of blank stares and gaping mouths, a girl comes up to the man and asks for his autograph. She isn’t a Nazi sympathizer but rather a fan of Mr. Bronski (Tom Dugan), the actor.
He’s one of many in the theater company, currently working on a play about Nazis and ready to stage a rendition of Hamlet. The troupe also includes the husband and wife team of Joseph (iconic comedian and vaudeville star Jack Benny) and Maria Tura (Carole Lombard, who died in a plane crash as this film was in post-production). It’s not long before Hitler (the real one, mind you) declares war and members of the company, along with a handsome pilot named Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack, in an early role) get involved in a spy plot.
Early on in the film, the company’s producer, Mr. Dobosh (Charles Halton, who would later appear in ENEMY OF WOMEN, the story of Joseph Goebbels), notes that it would be unwise to continue with their satire of the Gestapo. The same probably could have been said of TO BE OR NOT TO BE itself. But that’s the kind of director Ernst Lubitsch was and, perhaps taking a cue from Chaplin’s THE GREAT DICTATOR (1940), decided to tear the Nazis a new one and reduce der Führer to “just a man with a mustache.” One of the keys that make the film a success (despite its fairly warm reception upon release) is that Lubitsch knew how to poke fun at atrocities without simplifying or trivializing them.
TO BE OR NOT TO BE is filled with terrific slices of dark humor. One of the funnier bits comes when a glamorous actress insists on wearing a gorgeous dress even though the scene to be staged takes place in a concentration camp. Some of the gags might seem risqué or off-color, but in the hands of Lubitsch, they’re perfectly tuned and get a laugh every time.
The German-born Lubitsch works from a screenplay by himself and Edwin Justus Mayer (itself from a story by Melchior Lengyel), who would collaborate with Lubitsch on 1945’s A ROYAL SCANDAL. Along with the pre-code romantic comedy TROUBLE IN PARADISE (1932), 1939’s NINOTCHKA (in which Garbo famously laughed) and 1940’s delightful THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER, TO BE OR NOT TO BE is one of the legendary filmmaker’s finest works and a tremendous showcase of slapstick, satire, suspense, and absurdity.
TO BE OR NOT TO BE BLU-RAY REVIEW
Video: 1.37:1 in 1080p with MPEG-4 AVC codec. “This new digital transfer was created I 2K resolution on a Lasergraphics scanner from the original 35 mm nitrate camera negative and a 35 mm nitrate composite fine grain at Metropolis Post in New York. The restoration was performed by the Prasad Group, India, and the Criterion Collection.”
This high-definition transfer offers a very clean picture overall that removes much of the dirt and debris yet still maintains a proper amount of grain that will make film purists happy. The contrast levels are also good and the details bring out texture in the sets and costumes.
Audio: English Mono. “The original monaural soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35 mm optical soundtrack print. Clicks, thumps, hiss, and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD. Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.”
The dialogue is clear while the score by Werner R. Heymann (who also composed the music for Lubitsch’s BLUEBEARD’S EIGHTH WIFE, NINOTCHKA and THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER, to name a few) comes through nicely.
Audio commentary featuring film history David Kalat: In this track, Kalat covers a variety of topics, including director Ernst Lubitsch (and his films), the technical aspects, real-life scenarios of the time, other comedic takes on the Nazis/Hitler, and more.
LUBITSCH LE PATRON (53:10): This 2010 French documentary looks at the life and career of Lubitsch
PINKUS’S SHOE PALACE (44:58) is a 1916 entry in Lubtisch’s SALLY film series, released when the director was 24.
Two episodes of the radio anthology series THE SCREEN GUILD THEATER: 1940’s VARIETY (29:31), with Jack Benny, Claudette Colbert and Lubitsch, and 1942’s TO BE OR NOT TO BE (25:41), an adaptation of the film with William Powell as Joseph, Diana Lewis as Maria and Sig Ruman as Colonel Ehrhardt.
Also included with this Criterion Collection Blu-ray is a 24-page booklet featuring an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien and a 1942 New York Times op-ed by Lubitsch.