My recent review of as the #70 movie "Hail the Conquering Hero" on the 100 Greatest War Movies list got me thinking about what is the best WWII comedy. Besides “Hail”, other contenders would be:
“The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek”
“The Great Dictator”
“At War with the Army”
“What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?”
“Two Men Went to War”
“On the Double”
In this post I am going to make the case for “To Be or Not to Be” as the greatest WWII comedy. TBONTB was released in 1942. It was directed by the acclaimed Ernst Lubitsch and stars Jack Benny and Carol Lombard (in her last film before her death in a plane crash on a war bond tour). It is set in Warsaw in 1939. Josef Tura (Benny) and his wife Maria (Lombard) are members of an acting troupe performing “Hamlet”. They have a typically dysfunctional acting-spouses relationship. Maria is having an affair with a dashing Polish pilot named Sobinski (Robert Stack) who comes to her dressing room each performance when Josef begins his “to be or not to be” soliloquy. Josef is very upset with this insulting distraction, resulting in the following exchange with Maria:
Josef: Someone walked out on me. Tell me, Maria, am I losing my grip?
Maria: Oh, of course not, darling. I'm so sorry.
Josef: But he walked out on me.
Maria: Maybe he didn't feel well. Maybe he had to leave. Maybe he had a sudden heart attack.
Josef: I hope so.
Maria: If he stayed he might have died.
Josef: Maybe he's dead already! Oh, darling, you're so comforting.
Poland is invaded and months pass via a montage of Polish resistance. Sobinski is flying for the Royal Air Force. He meets a Professor Siletsky who is supposedly connected to the Polish underground, yet does not know who Maria Tula is. Sobinski goes to his superiors with his suspicion and is parachuted into Poland to alert the resistance. In turns out that Maria is working with the underground. She goes to Siletski’s hotel and pretends to be attracted to him. One of the acting troupe arrives disguised as a German soldier and takes Siletsky to Gestapo headquarters (the theater in disguise) to meet “Concentration Camp” Ehrhart (Josef in disguise). They have a hilarious exchange, but when Siletsky figures out he is being played he flees but is killed by Sobinski.
Josef, disguised as Siletsky, goes to the spy’s room to get some papers from his trunk, but is intercepted and brought to meet the real Ehrhart. He finds out Hitler is coming to Poland the next day. Meanwhile, Siletsky’s body is found, so Ehrhart invites Josef back and shows him into a room with the dead Siletsky and closes the door. Ehrhart thinks being in the room with the corpse will cause him to crack and talk. Instead, Josef shaves off Siletsky’s beard and puts a spare fake beard on his chin. He then gets Ehrhart to pull on the beard and scolds him for not doing it earlier!
A play is to be performed for der Fuhrer and the troupe plots a way to escape from Poland on Hitler’s plane. One of the actors (Bronski) does an excellent Hitler so they play like Hitler and his entourage are leaving the play early and thus commandeer his car. They have to pick up Maria, but when Bronski walks into her room he finds Ehrhart seducing her. Bronski immediately leaves, but Ehrhart is horrified to realize he is messing with Hitler’s girl. Maria adds to this by running after Bronski yelling “Mein Fuhrer!” They escape in Hitler’s plane. Bronski orders the two pilots to jump out without parachutes, which they do robotically.
“To Be or Not to Be” is a true classic, but that fact was not recognized at the time of its release. The timing had something to do with this. The public and critics were in no mood for a comedy about the Nazis. The tragic death of Lombard also dampened enthusiasm for the film. Now that time has passed, the movie has taken its rightful place among the greatest comedies. AFI ranked it #49 on its list of greatest comedies. The only WWII comedy rated higher is “The Great Dictator” at #37. In my opinion, it is a much better film than Chaplin’s. It is certainly more laugh out loud funny. It is also less dated. The cast is great. Lombard is at her best and she definitely goes out at top of her game, sadly. Benny was never better. The dialogue is crisp and funny. There is taut suspense rare for a war comedy.