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the otto files

where the classics never go out of style

Words like “classic” and “genius” are often overused. I get frustrated when I listen to sports commentators talk about a current player in superlatives that would make Hercules blush. That said, there’s a reason that words like “classic” are created and one of the best reasons is a film called To Be or Not To Be (1942) starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard. It was directed by a man often considered a genius of the cinema, Ernst Lubitsch. In this case, the label of genius for a man like Lubitsch seems perfectly justified as well.

Lubitsch’s films came to be known for what was called “The Lubitsch Touch,” a certain sophisticated sense of comedy with subtle and witty sexual connotations. He was admired and idolized by some of the greatest directors in Hollywood’s history like Billy Wilder and William Wyler.  At Lubitch’s funeral in 1947 Wilder, saddened by his idol’s death, said to Wyler, “No more Lubitsch.”

“Worse than that,” Wyler replied, “no more Lubitsch films.”

My two favorite Lubitsch films, of the ones I’ve been lucky enough to see,  are Ninotchka (1939) and To Be or Not To Be (1942). Ninotchka stars Greta “I Vant To Be Alone” Garbo and Melvyn Douglas in a terrifically funny script by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. To illustrate what a magician Lubitsch was, Ninotchka makes even Garbo seem likeable. It was, after all, the film that was promoted with the promise “Garbo laughs!” That single act of laughing for the camera made Garbo more human than she’d ever seemed before on screen. But enough of Ninotchka, on to To Be or Not To Be.

Jack Benny was always teased about his miserable film career. The truth is Benny used his films as fodder for his self-deprecating material on his long-running radio show. As a result, just as people assumed Jack Benny was really cheap or really drove a 1916 Maxwell, fans came to believe the jokes about his awful movies. The film that he joked about most was The Horn Blow at Midnight (1945). While it’s certainly not a great film like To Be or Not To Be, it is in no way the unmitigated disaster that one would be led to believe from all of Benny’s radio routines about it. The truth is Jack Benny made some fine films including Charley’s Aunt, George Washington Slept Here and Love Thy Neighbor but even he would have told you that none were better than To Be or Not To Be. Like so many in the film business, he, too, had tremendous respect for Lubitsch.  Irving Fein, Benny’s long-time manager and friend tells a story in his biography of Jack Benny about a party held at the Lubitsch home not long after the completion of the film.

 Billy Wilder, a friend of Lubitsch’s, was standing with a group that included Jack, the host, and another Hollywood director.

“This director kept talking about himself and all his pictures,” reported Wilder, “and poor Lubitsch couldn’t get a word in. After a few minutes of this, I noticed that Jack Benny had quietly walked out of the room for a few minutes and then returned to our group and was listening while this director continued the monologue of his accomplishments. About a half hour later a telegram arrived for the talkative director, and it was handed to him in the middle of a verbose sentence. It read: ‘Why don’t you shut up and let Lubitsch get a word in?’ Jack never said a word, but there was a twinkle in his eye as the director excused himself and left the party.” “Jack Benny: An Intimate Biography” by Irving Fein, 1976.

It seems like an apocryphal story but true or not, Benny never denied it and enjoyed the telling of it which, if nothing else, shows his high regard for Lubitsch.

The other major star of the film is the luminescent Carole Lombard. There may have been other female stars who have been as beautiful as Miss Lombard but none more so. The only thing as memorable as Lombard’s beauty was her incredible talent for comedy. She is just brilliant in this film which makes the fact that it was her last all the more tragic. Shortly before the film was released, Carole Lombard was killed in a plane crash while on a tour selling war bonds. Understandably, her death cast a pall on the film and doomed it to financial failure at the time. It wasn’t until many years later that the film came to be recognized for the classic that it is.

The film also boasts appearances by some wonderful character actors such as Tom Dugan (“Hitler”/Bronski), Felix Bressart (Greenberg), Charles Halton (Dobish the director) and Sig Ruman (Col. Ehrhardt).

I love when Dugan, playing the part of Adolph Hitler, walks on stage and says “Heil myself.” Priceless. I feel like I’ve grown up with Dugan through his appearances in so many of my favorite films – On the Town, Road to Rio, Take Me Out to the Ballgame and a couple Thin Man pictures.

Charles Halton may be recognized as the impatient bank examiner from It’s A Wonderful Life. He had a great character actor’s face – not another one like it.

The two standouts among the supporting actors are Felix Bressart and Sig Ruman. Both actors worked in multiple Lubitsch films. All you need to do is watch them perform in this story and you’ll know why Lubitsch, one of the greatest of all comedy directors, kept coming back to these two gifted players. Their personalities and their delivery are so unique that they instantly energize any scene they’re in. Bressart breaks your heart as Greenberg, the bit player longing to play the role of Shylock and Ruman is absolutely hilarious, nearly stealing the film as “Concentration Camp” Ehrhardt.

I just watched this film this week on DVD and this morning I noticed it’s being played on TCM today. You know how good it is? I’ll probably watch it all over again – THAT’S how good it is!

Here’s the very opening of the film. Jack Benny’s father walked out of the screening when he saw his son dressed in a Nazi uniform. It took Jack a little while before he could convince his father that he hadn’t disgraced his family by playing the part of a Nazi.

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