Tuesday, February 19, 2013

On TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942)

"What a Shylock you would have been."  ~A compliment in TO BE OR NOT TO BE.

"All the world's a stage."  A troupe of Polish actors knows this is a famous quote from William Shakespeare's As You Like It.  This troupe will be thrust into a deeper, darker realization of Shakespeare's line when it winds up in a theatre of war.  This 1942 comedy, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, makes me laugh out loud and there's one scene so beautifully acted in a tense situation so cleverly written that it puts tears in my eyes.  We meet this troupe in Warsaw in the summer of 1939.  Warsaw is still at peace.
The stars of the company are The Turas.  There's Joseph...probably making The Bard spin in his grave like a pinwheel with his portrayal of Hamlet...and his glamorous wife, Maria.  She has a special place in her heart for the fans.  Especially the young male fans.
Lubitsch guided Jack Benny and Carole Lombard through performances that rank among their best film work.  This film obviously had a great impact on young Mel Brooks when he saw it.  Watch Mel's The Producers.  The "Heil myself" line that he gave to the actor playing Hitler in the "Springtime for Hitler" number?  He didn't borrow that business from To Be or Not To Be.  He stole it from the opening scenes of this Lubitsch classic.
Carole Lombard and Jack Benny shine as flirty Maria and the jealous Joseph.  The company is in rehearsals for "Gestapo," a satirical play about the Nazis.
When the political climate changes, the government is threatened by the arts.  The company is ordered not to do the new play because "...it might offend Hitler."  That means insecure Joseph puts on tights again to take to the stage as Hamlet.
His "To be or not to be" soliloquy is the cue for a handsome young pilot to visit Mrs. Tura in her dressing room.  Robert Stack played the brave, courtly and damn cute pilot.
Joseph wants to become famous for his wooden Hamlet.  Maria wants to be wooed by a handsome pilot.  The pilot wants to romance Poland's famous stage actress.  The company wants to lampoon Hitler onstage.  And Greenberg wants to play Shylock in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice.

I love Greenberg.  He's a stock actor, a regular guy who is in the profession for the love of the art.  He's not obsessed with becoming a star.  He loves acting.  He loves fellow actors.  He loves the classics.  He loves comedy.  As Greenberg says, "A laugh is nothing to be sneezed at."  To a company member who's always too theatrical and over the top in his performances, Greenberg says "What you are, I wouldn't eat."  His best friend in the company, Bronski, has been cast as Hitler in the satirical "Gestapo."
Bronski knows of his friend's desire to play Shylock.  When Greenberg first recites some of the famous "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" speech, he and Bronski are backstage in period costumes and carrying spears.  When he does it a second time, they're both outside shoveling snow.  The climate is very different in Poland then.  Twenty minutes into the comedy, war is declared.  That's the inciting incident.  It changes the actors lives and sets them, as a company, on a different course.  It's the Arts vs Bigotry.  The actors risk their lives -- and still get laughs -- as they hurl themselves into the war effort utilizing their skills as actors to fight the Nazis.  An escape is needed.  All their lives are in danger.  They are trapped in their theater.  A plan is hatched.  Greenberg is the only one who can make the plan work.  Without hesitation, he accepts the challenge.  The challenge is -- to make a dream come true in a nightmare situation.  He will do Shylock's speech again.  The third time is a charm.

Greenberg is "cast" to do Shylock for the worst audience imaginable.  The theater is packed with critics who could kill his performance.  Literally.  Greenberg and company are in a theater full of Nazis.  Also attending that particular performance is The Füehrer.
In the corridor, company members in costumes from "Gestapo" blend in with clueless Nazis.  Greenberg causes a ruckus as a Jewish dissident.  Totally in the moment and with absolute fearlessness, he delivers a most passionate performance of Shylock's "If you prick us, do we need bleed?" speech to Bronski as Hitler.  There's Greenberg -- in modern dress, in a theater, using his real life to inform his most important performance ever -- and he's brilliant.  He gives urgency, fire and life to Shakespeare.  He makes the old dialogue sound new.  Greenberg shows why Shakespeare's work lives on.
His commitment to his craft, his love for the arts and his fellow actors are at their peak here.  His performance is so good that it saves lives.  Today, so many young acting hopefuls seem mainly concerned with getting on a Red Carpet, making a fashion statement and going to the party afterwards.  They're not concerned with craft.  They don't have a touch of Greenberg.  He was about doing the work.  Taking a risk.  Greenberg's bravery and passion in that scene always put tears in my eyes.  There's so much richness in that inspired scene.  It works on more than one level.  There's the bravery of Greenberg, the brilliance of the actor's being "in the moment" while putting Shakespeare in a contemporary setting, the cleverness of that acting troupe and the proof that the arts can save lives.  Theater is a great, sharp weapon against ignorance and hate.  So is film.
Felix Bressart played Greenberg.  He graced a couple of other Lubitsch classics.  In Ninotchka, he played one of the Russian comrades to Greta Garbo's lead charcter.
The movie musical remake of that was Silk Stockings with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse.  Bressart and James Stewart were co-workers in The Shop Around the Corner.
The musical remake of that was In the Good Old Summertime with Judy Garland and Van Johnson.  Then it was remade in the 1990s as You've Got Mail with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.  To Be or Not To Be was also remade.  Mel Brooks starred with his wife, Anne Bancroft, in the Mr. and Mrs. Tura roles for the 1983 remake of the same name.
The remake brought Charles Durning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.

Shakespeare is referenced at least three times in the Lubitsch original with his Hamlet, Julius Caesar and The Merchant of Venice.  A mint print of To Be or Not To Be is now available thanks to the Criterion Collection.  Check this one out.  The first 20 minutes alone have more laughs, wit, originality and energy than some 2-hour modern comedies I've paid money to see.  Today, young actresses who want to do screen comedy should study Carole Lombard.  She was a master at it.  I love Lubitsch's To Be or Not To Be.

I bet Shakespeare would've loved it too.  Thank you, Criterion.

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