There’s a radio show outta LA called Bookworm, an enchanting half-hour program that I think is coming up on its thirtieth anniversary, wherein the soft-spoken, funny, brilliant and tear-smeared and hyper-passionate host, Michael Silverblatt, interviews authors about their work. What’s unique about Silverblatt’s approach is that he has this crazy stamina as a reader. Doesn’t read quickly, and he’s cross-eyed so he’s gotta hold the book right up to his face, but he can sit comfortably in bed for eight or nine hours and get through a book that way. He uses the six days leading up to an interview for preparation. Reads everything the author has ever published (or everything he can get his hands on). So he tends to dazzle them. Say you’re a big fan of Don DeLillo, and you’ve read just about every interview he’s given in print and listened to a good sample of the stuff he’s done for radio. None of it compares to his conversations with Silverblatt – a friendly guy who makes writers feel comfortable because he’s not there with (as Sarah Palin so pithily put it) “gotcha” questions. He just wants to better understand the work and the person behind it. Wants to have conversations with them. It seems to’ve taken him quite a while, but he even read the entirety of William T. Vollmann’s 3,500-page history of violence, Rising Up and Rising Down, for the sake of having a conversation on air about it.
I think it’s one of the great treasures in American literary culture and it deserves all the attention it gets. Here, too, is a profile of Silverblatt himself. Even if you’re not much of a reader, the man himself is a delightful, charming, heart-twisting anomaly of a reader and person, and the Story of Him is enough to steal you.
But yeah. Anyway. So a couple weeks ago Silverblatt had on the show a biographer of Ernst Lubtisch, Joseph McBride, whose new book is called How Did Lubitsch Do It and sitting next to the biographer was Nicola Lubitsch, the filmmaker’s only daughter, who – now in her 70s – was only seven years old when he died but around whom, the consensus suggests, his world orbited in those few years. She seems to remember him well.
And so they’re talking about Lubitsch, about the ebbs and flows of his popularity, and but when they actually get down to discussing his films I found that the one they touched upon most often was Trouble in Paradise, almost dissecting it. So I figure that’s the one hailed as his masterpiece. Weirdly, for all that I’ve heard about him in my research of people like Preston Sturges and the Marx Bros. and various comedy titans or writer/directors of the era, Lubitsch hasn’t appeared on the List very much at all. He was fairly prolific but, for some reason, To Be or Not to Be is only his second movie on the List.
It certainly deserves its place, though. I guess it has added significance because of the chutzpah behind its production: it’s a comedy about the Nazis. Filmed in 1941 and released in 1942, it uses the Nazi invasion and occupation of Poland as the basis for a satire that involves Jack Benny, as a self-obsessed Shakespearean actor named Turin, imitating a Nazi figurehead and, later, Tom Dugan (as a Jewish actor named Bronski) passing as Hitler and changing the course of the war by ordering an exit from Poland.
It’s a complicated plot, I don’t think I can summarize it all that well, and as a comedy of errors I think part of the fun is watching it and getting swept up in how horribly wrong everything goes. What’s also interesting, from the perspective of a Traveler through the List, is that this is the first appearance of Jack Benny – an actor who’d been around for a while at this point but somehow evaded the List – and while I was thinking for a while that it was the first appearance of Carole Lombard as well, who plays Turin’s seductive and dissatisfied lover Maria, I checked her IMDb page and was surprised to be reminded that she played the young, entitled, obnoxious millionaire in My Man Godfrey.
Lombard died in a plane crash in 1942, before To Be or Not to Be was released. According to her Wikipedia page, Lombard was flying after she had just raised $2 million for the war effort. Her mom and fifteen servicemen were on the plane with her, all of them dying immediately in the crash – and even though Orson Welles, in conversation, could be a total crackpot, a hilariously roguish raconteur who was almost incapable of telling the truth, I was intrigued by his insistence, in a transcript from My Lunches with Orson, that Lombard’s plane didn’t simply crash but was actually shot down by Nazis. Insists that there were bulletholes in the wreckage, which I guess the government (?) covered up. Like it woulda been unduly terrifying for Americans to know that there were heavily-armed Nazis in the country and they’d just taken out fifteen soldiers and a spectacularly famous actor.
Anyway. Although not very similar to Charlie Chaplin’s Nazi satire from a couple years earlier, The Great Dictator, both films feature a comedic actor imitating Hitler and both of them end with something like revisionist history, wherein the heroes succeeding in re-directing the Nazi efforts toward peace or, at least, self-harm.
The absence of Great Dictator from the List seemed like a big gap, so I rented it from the library about a year ago, and I watched a documentary in the special features that applies to this movie as well. I think I’ve even brought it up in a couple other essays. There were a bunch of talking heads in this documentary, talking about what Chaplin had achieved with Great Dictator, and while some of them said that he’d done something great and empowering by taking a terrifying figure like Adolf Hitler and turning him into a joke, thereby stripping him of some power, there were others who argued the opposite. They said that what he’d done was actually dangerous. He’d taken the face of a major brutal threat and turned it into a joke. Something people wouldn’t take seriously, sure – but just because we aren’t taking Hitler seriously doesn’t mean he stops being Hitler. All it does is lower our guard.
Seems like To Be or Not to Be faced similar criticism. Maybe not so much that it was prompting people to lower their guard by making a mockery of Hitler – moreso that it was just in bad taste. Poland was being invaded, America was involved in a war with Nazis, people were actually dying because of all this. Just seemed too fresh to be satirized.
To Be or Not to Be is available in a lovely and comprehensive reprint from the Criterion Collection but, being on a budget, I instead ordered a cheaper iteration from South Korea, a plain and perfectly watchable disk, and had no choice but to contend with the Korean subtitles that ran throughout. But that was fine. What I actually found on eBay, after buying it, is that there are a lot of old movies that are more readily available from the Korean DVD market than they are through the American. More so, even, than through streaming.
But anyway. To Be or Not to Be is a really good time – especially if you’re interested in absurdist humor, and comedies of errors. I’d say it’s like Death at a Funeral meets The Birdcage.