Ernst Lubitsch’s dark comedy To Be or Not To Be is one of a number of curious films whose reputations have grown with each passing decade. Originally thought by some to be in poor taste with its satirical swipes at the Nazi regime played for laughs, the film now is admired not only as a top-notch comedy with career-best work from a host of actors but as a deft mixture of comic and adventure elements that continually surprise and delight the viewer. In every way superior to its 1983 remake, To Be or Not To Be is one of the true landmarks of Ernst Lubitsch’s storied career.
Distributed By: N/A
Video Resolution and Encode:
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Audio: English PCM 1.0 (Mono)
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 1 Hr. 39 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-raykeep case
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Release Date: 08/27/2013
When the Nazis invade Warsaw in 1939, a troupe of Polish actors who had been rehearsing a Nazi-themed comedy called Gestapo must put their production on hold. The company’s leading actor Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) and his wife Maria (Carole Lombard) are none too happy about these circumstances, but Maria compensates by entertaining a worshipful Polish pilot Lieutenant Sobinski (Robert Stack) who’s on his way to London on a secret mission. While there he meets Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges) who’s soon returning to Warsaw, and he and a bunch of his fellow flyers send messages home to loved ones through him not realizing that Siletsky is actually a Nazi spy looking for the names of Nazi underground enemies. Once they realize their mistake, Sobinski flies back to warn Maria that her identity has been compromised. In order to head off the spy before he reports to Nazi Colonel Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman), the little acting company begins a series of crosses and double-crosses as they use their Gestapo costumes to impersonate German officials in order to outwit the enemy.
The Production Rating: 5/5
Ernst Lubitsch begins the film with a simply breathtaking masquerade that the first-time viewer is unaware of thus enlightening the audience about the many masquerades to come. It’s a brilliant way to begin a film based on play acting for a purpose other than entertainment (though it’s hugely entertaining for the viewer), and the title, which of course refers to Hamlet’s great monologue that’s referenced three times in the film to hilarious effect, does double duty just as the actors do suggesting that these players will be or won’t be who they are appearing to be. (Tura, in fact, must play both Siletsky and Ehrhardt before the company can get to safety). The famed “Lubitsch Touch” is everywhere in the film: in the naughty-though-innocent sex talk between the flyer and the object of his obsession, in the delicate handling of farcical elements which could have become tasteless but aren’t, and with the smart way serious material (invasions without a declaration of war, talk of concentration camps, a suspenseful scouring of a theater looking for the spy, suicides) is ladled into the story without arousing the ire of the Production Code.
Jack Benny always gave the lion’s share of his success in the movie to the director saying that Lubitsch showed him exactly how to play the role, and the result is his funniest and truest film performance as the ham actor with a modicum of talent and a monumental ego. Carole Lomband’s swan song to films (she died in a plane crash weeks after completing filming) is a wonderfully effervescent performance with real movie star glamour and supreme confidence in handling both the comedic and dramatic moments with ease. Felix Bressart who plays a crucial role in the final plan of escape recites the Shylock speech from The Merchant of Venice with aching sincerity that is worthy of his high billing in such a small part. Robert Stack is the very conventional matinee juvenile but fits comfortably into his role despite being less important as the film runs. Sig Ruman is joyously daft as the befuddled Nazi, and Stanley Ridges as the sneaky spy is conversely quietly effective.
The film is presented in its theatrical 1.37:1 aspect ratio in 1080p resolution using the AVC codec. Taken mostly from the camera negative, the transfer is sharp and very film-like apart from a couple of shots lacking in the same kind of sharpness and obviously the bits not taken from the same source. The grayscale is pleasingly conveyed through consistent contrast which offers handsome black levels and whites which are superbly under control. The film has been divided into 12 chapters.
Video Rating: 4.5/5 3D Rating: NA
The PCM 1.0 (1.1 Mbps) sound mix has been wonderfully cleaned up for this high definition offering with next to no hiss or other aural artifacts to intrude on the listening experience. Dialogue is always easily discernible and never obliterated by the Oscar-nominated score of Werner Heymann or the sound effects.
Audio Rating: 4.5/5
Audio Commentary: a superb effort by film historian David Kalat who offers plenty of historical background on the principals of the production team as well as comparisons to other Nazi-based films of the era, and then and current opinions on the film’s quality.
Special Features Rating: 4/5
Lubitsch le patron (53:10, HD): a 2010 French documentary on the life and career of the producer-director Ernst Lubitsch featuring clips of films from both his silent and sound periods.
Pinkus’s Shoe Palace (44:58, HD): a 1916 German silent directed by and starring Ernst Lubitsch as a happy-go-lucky lad whose misadventures lead him to making a great business success.
Screen Guild Theater: two radio broadcasts. Variety (29:31) from 1940 features Jack Benny, Claudette Colbert, and Ernst Lubitsch. To Be or Not to Be (25:41) from 1943 features William Powell, his wife Diana Lewis, and Sig Ruman from the film.
25-Page Booklet: features a cast and crew list, stills from the movie, film historian Geoffrey O’Brien’s analysis of the work as a prime example of Ernst Lubitsch’s style, and Ernst Lubitsch’s own defense of his film after several notable critics attacked it in its initial release.
Timeline: can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentary that goes along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.
Highly Recommended! One of the great Ernst Lubitsch comedy-dramas, To Be or Not To Be comes to Blu-ray with a very film-like transfer sporting some excellent bonus material that makes it one of the year’s best home video releases.
Overall Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewed By: Matt Hough
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