My goodness, was she beautiful.
And smart, and funny.
On the 16th of January 1942, the plane carrying home Carole Lombard – who had been on a fund-raiser drive for the war effort – crashed southwest of Las Vegas. No one survived.
That was 75 years today, and this is the CAROLE LOMBARD: THE PROFANE ANGEL BLOGATHON, devised by In the Good Old Days of Hollywood and by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. Check out the link for a complete list of the blogs participating, and for a wide selection of pieces on Carole Lombard and her short but breath-taking career.
Then get back here, because you know I am desperately in love with Lombard, and I’ll write a bit about her last movie, Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be.
There was a time, while the world was sinking into war and horror, in which politics was still discussing whether Hitler was actually that bad after all, and it looked like only at the movies they had got him sussed all right: Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock, Carol Reed and yes, obviously Ernst Lubitsch.
I will not summarize the intricate plot of To Be or Not To Be – suffice it to say that in Nazi-occupied Warsaw, the troupe led by egomaniac thespian Josef Tura (Jack Benny) and his much admired (maybe too much admired) wife Maria (Lombard) is caught in a game of espionage and murder, the lives of many at stake.
Will the bickering, self-centered and somewhat odd members of the troupe be up to the challenge?
The movie works like clockwork. Each plot element connects neatly to the rest, action and dialogue flow, and the black and white photography is beautiful.
There is the constant bickering of Benny and Lombard, there is a cast of extraordinary actors in a supporting roles.
The Nazi are in equal part ridiculous and scary in their ridiculousness.
And here’s the rub – can anybody do comedy with such a tragedy as the bombing of Warsaw and the occupation of Poland?
The critics did not think so.
Some took exception at one of the best lines in the movie…
Colonel Erhardt: “Oh, yes I saw him [Tura] in ‘Hamlet’ once. What he did to Shakespeare we are doing now to Poland.”
It was now 1942. The war now at hand, laughing at the Nazis was no longer an option.
And yet it is in its odd, to some tasteless mix of comedy and drama, espionage caper and real-life tragedy that To Be or Not To Be finds its strength.
Because the Nazi were a ridiculous bunch of self-important nonentities obsessed with regulations and hero-worshipping a twat1. And they were a bunch of homicidal madmen, which made them absolutely scary. And this is what Lubitsch shows us, the two faces of the monster.
Josef Tura: [disguised as Colonel Ehrhardt] I can’t tell you how delighted we are to have you here.
Professor Alexander Siletsky: May I say, my dear Colonel, that it’s good to breathe the air of the Gestapo again. You know, you’re quite famous in London, Colonel. They call you Concentration Camp Ehrhardt.
Josef Tura: Ha ha. Yes, yes… we do the concentrating and the Poles do the camping.
In his service, the director has two great actors: Jack Benny, that plays the ham with gusto and a certain lightness (and much uncertainty, as he was afraid of not being good enough for the role), and Carole Lombard, who got the part when she found out Lubitsch had lost his intended female lead (Miriam Hopkins) and the production was stalled.
Maria Tura: It’s becoming ridiculous the way you grab attention. Whenever I start to tell a story, you finish it. If I go on a diet, you lose the weight. If I have a cold, you cough. And if we should ever have a baby, I’m not so sure I’d be the mother.
Josef Tura: I’m satisfied to be the father.
Because if something emerges from Lombard’s biography is that the outspoken, mischievous, potty-mouthed star was also a good political thinker, and one that clearly saw the power that To Be or Not to Be packed.
And yes, she also wanted to work with Lubitsch.
And this is interesting because the movie is really Jack Benny’s film, and Lombard does very little comedy – indeed, apparently Miriam Hopkins had left the production because she did not want to be the “straight guy” at Benny’s comedic antics.
But in her measured, light but focused interpretation, Lombard made the most of her straight role, leaving us with a wonderful testimony not only of her beauty, but also of her skills as an actress.
Maria Tura, courted by bold airmen (Robert Stack inPoland, a mysterious RAF flyer in London), in constant competition with her husband (who will upstage who?) is only apparently a classic screwball comedy airhead. She has a conscience, she has courage enough to face a dangerous man in his own lair.
But being a woman, she probably knows she will come out unscathed from this confrontation.
And Lubitsch uses the meeting between Maria Tura and the sinister Professor Alexander Siletsky like a confrontation between intelligence and opportunism, between sensuality and a form of egotism that masks itself with ideology.
Stanley Ridges’ self-serving Nazi spy is probably the one absolutely scary character in the movie, because he does not have anything funny to defuse his murderous choices. His ideology is a facade, his motives are selfish. He tries to seduce Matria Tura to use her, not because she is beautiful – and his lack of human feelings is also what makes him incapable of really embracing any form of belief.
He is a dispassionate man. He is a Nazi, and he isn’t even funny.
Siletsky is funny only after he dies.
Today, To Be or Not to Be is considered one of the 50 best comedies of all time, one of the 100 movies you must see before you die, but back in 1942 it was a disappointment: war had reached America, the Germans seemed to be winning in Europe, Lombard was dead… nobody felt like laughing.
United Artists even thought the title was too highbrow – you know, Shakesperean reference and all that.
Lubitsch then suggested The Censor Forbids – and in a flash of comedy genius, instantly both Benny and Lombard protested because such a title would be too risqué.
United Artists backed off.
On a personal note.
I think I saw To be or Not to Be in the eighties, on the TV, resurrected from some TV station vault because the remake – featuiring Mel Brooks and Anne Bankroft – was hitting the cinemas.
It was, I am sure, the first time I was exposed at the beuty and bravura of Lombard.
I remembered something about her being the wife of Gable, but I never cared much about Gable anyway.
But she was breathtaking.
As it usually happened back then, I know I saw this movie in the afternoon, with my mother.
We laughed a lot, both at the plot unfolding, and at the way in which Lombard had been dubbed.
The movie in Italian is called Vogliamo Vivere – We want to live.
I do not love this movie just because of Lombard (or vice-versa). I am still convinced that, were we really capable of seeing the ridicule of such monsters, we’d be braver in facing them. That’s the reason why satire exists: not to make us laugh, but to make us braver.
Oh, and here’s a little extra:
And now go and check the other posts in this blogathon, while I sit down and watch To Be or Not to Be once again.
- if you don’t believe it, read the list of rules for Czech nightclub owners I posted a few days back. ↩