Tuesday, May 03, 2005

To Be or Not to Be (Lubitsch, 1942)

A good game to play with a good movie is how many movies would not exist if that movie had never been made. One great example is Joseph H. Lewis' "Gun Crazy" (1949). That movie is never made you don't have Badlands, Bonnie & Clyde, Thieves Like Us, True Romance...those are just the completely blatant rip-offs (and don't give me the doodoo that Tarantino and Altman were commenting on the genre) the list could go on and on. But you get the point.

"To Be or Not to Be" is the kind of movie that gave birth to another classic: Mel Brooks' "The Producers." If not as blatant a rip-off as the "Gun Crazy" movies, "To Be..." clearly gave Brooks the chutzpah to make a comedy about the Holocaust (which when it was released 26 years later was considered iconoclastic).

In terms of influence it is even more important: this film, from 1942, dares to turn the Nazi dash through Europe into comedy, and includes the funniest concentration camp joke ever put on film. It is the progentior of every "dark war comedy"--"Mash," "Three Kings," etc...but surpasses those easily. Perhaps that's because it so easily transcends comedy, at once becoming an espionage thriller, a tender story about the redemption of love, and a moving paen to the power of drama. I dare you not to well up when Felix Bressart (perhaps my favorite of the Lubitsch troupe) delivers his speech to a gang of gestapo; I can't say I've ever seen a more beautiful and moving argument against war, hate, genocide, etc. than that. It says more about more things than hours of overly production designed du jour Holocause movies could ever dream.

It is also perhaps the most Wilder-esque. For all the times you've heard of the sign on ol' Billy's door that read "What Would Lubitsch Do," this is the Lubitsch film that perhaps most resembles a Wilder; at the time of production, Billy was making his first U.S. feature, "The Major and the Minor," perhaps the second best comedy ever made about pedophilia (I'll place it behind both Kubrick and Lynne's "Lolita.")


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