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To Be Or Not To Be

31 Dec

To Be Or Not To Be — directed by Ernst Lubitsch — a Polish acting company in wartime Warsaw comes up against the Nazis. Black and white. [1942]

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Hold onto your seats. I won’t call it the funniest farce ever filmed, for that would spoil it for you, with your supposing its laughs were all broad. From the beginning the notion of Jack Benny as Hamlet is enough to plaster one to the wall in cartoon amusement. But in fact his soliloquy is as endearing as it is unlikely. What is equally endearing is Carole Lombard, fabulously and almost unwittingly flirtatious in her gowns and Benny as her husband as vainglorious heads of a theatrical troupe trying to perform Hamlet in blithe disregard and merry dismissal of the Nazi occupiers in their midst. Benny and Lombard have never been better on film. Ernst Lubitsch was the champagne emperor of comedy directors. The impersonations he provides them with swallow the Reich whole. And they scarcely know they’ve done it. From Lubitsch all blessings flow. He has no equals, only followers. Wilder and the others sip at his goblet. If you want to know how to make a comedy stay in the belly of its audience, watch Lubitsch.

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