The opening scene of To Be or Not to Be has to be one of the best in all of classic cinema. The very first line, ‘Lubinski, Kubinski, Lominski, Razanski and Poznanski’ already set a tone for the film. The names are almost inherently funny in themselves. Perhaps a bit of a cheap joke but note the spacing, the intonation, and the variation between the first three and the last two. From the first five words we know we’re in a comedy, a high one, satirical and elegant but not afraid to go low-down and below the belt.
These are jokes being designed by masters. And they keep coming: Hitler is a vegetarian but ‘he doesn’t always stick to his diet. Sometimes he swallows whole countries.’ The film’s setting and all of the film’s themes are set-up in this elegant, polished, harmonious opening, beautifully calibrated so that each each bit shines on its own whilst also providing a sparkling setting and springboard for all the film will have to offer later.
We’re introduced to the theme of performance, the love of theatre, how drama can save lives. Indeed from the very beginning what we see is not what we think it is. What we thought was ‘life’ in the movie was really theatre whilst later the theatre will be a setting in which performing will save lives. Thus the title of the film is not just that of the famous soliloquy in Hamlet, or a joke making it the cue for an assignation. It is the essence of the film itself: what is the relationship between being and performing? Is performing not being? What are the connections between appearances and being. How and when do we perform and is that which we perform ourselves? And how is that performance tied to appearances. To what extent can that which merely appears to be real pass for reality?
The scene has many lovely elements that will recur and be riffed on by the rest of the film: the recurrent repetition of ‘Heil Hitler’ three times as a standard which then, by accentuating pauses, accents or irregular repetition, can transform something banal into something funny; the joke about Hitler being named after a piece of cheese will also recur in various guises; the ‘Heil myself joke’ rhymes nicely with the command to ‘Jump!’ near the end; the mechanics of how one is brought from the theatrical piece which we think is the film to the film proper through the director slamming his fist and yelling ‘that’s not in the script!’ is marvellously self-reflexive, as Lubitsch’s opening scenes so often are; and of course the great ‘I wound’t sneeze at a laugh’ line in a film in which the getting of laughs is simultaneously that most essential and that most desired so that all its perfect flourishes seem absolutely necessary.
The opening scene is so delightful one firstly enjoys it as if comedy is always this easy and fine. But the more one thinks about it, the more one is awed by the mere mechanics of the piece, how beautifully it’s designed not only as an opening scene but as the seeds from which everything else in the film unfurls, not to speak of the beauty of its realisation and the genius of its performances.
There is really too much to say about it and here I want to focus your attention in the clip below, on only on the four shots in the sequence, where we are introduced to Lombard and Benny as Maria and Joseph Toura: She the great star, he the great actor. Note how in just over a minute we’re told that this is a serious drama about atrocity, that it will have terrific laughs, that real film artists will clown around. We’re also given the whole dynamic of the couple’s relationship –the love, the art, the jealousy, the competitiveness, the grounds for infidelity — whilst also making a great joke out of a dress that will prove so important to a later encounter with Nazis if not concentration camps.
Note how in the first shot, Lombard heads towards the camera through a swastika, surrounded by Nazis as the director, says ‘this is a serious play, a realistic drama’ , then the interruption about the dress before ‘it is a document of Nazi Ger..’ Note the wonderful double take and that line, which must have been so shocking once: ‘is that what you’re going to wear in the concentration camp?’ Then a cut to a medium shot in which the dress Toura dreams of for her scene — ‘Imagine me being flogged in the darkness, the audience screams, suddenly the lights go on and the audience discovers me in this beautiful dress’ highlights every curve of Lombard’s body. There’s a sense in which so accentuating a dress and so feverish reading of lines complement each other. But that they contradict anything to do with concentration camps is part of why it’s so daringly funny.
The staging is undramatically inventive as well. See how Dobash gets between star and director with the line about getting a terrific laugh, only to be replaced then by the husband when the director says ‘that an artist like you can be so inartistic’. It’s beatifully staged, including the moment where she begins to walk and the camera moves with her leaving him out of the shot. Then when the camera inserts his reply, he joins her in a travelling shot through we get to see all the dynamics of the relationship played out: him accusing, her fracturing, him chasing, both talking through each variation and all in one brief movement. iIt’s brilliant and brilliantly economical on practically every level.
This is a film where characters have names like Mae, Gert, Lil and Toots O’Neill. The women are all hookers and waitresses; the men cab drivers and pimps. The film’s world is the New York of the Great Depression, a place where women have to do what they can to get by but once they do…. ‘You’d think there’d be some men you could tell that kind of thing to and they’d understand,’ says Mae (Carole Lombard), referring to her street-walking past. ‘There were some but they all died in the Civil War,’ says Lil.
The film begins with Mae being run out of town by the cops, placed on a bus and told to go home. She immediately gets off at the first stop, hails a cab and then stiffs the driver for the money. When she sees him later and tries to return the money she catches him in the middle of telling the story but with him getting the money back as no woman is going to get the best of him. It’s a meet cute where they end up arguing: ‘I don’t like your face’ My face is ok’, ‘Yeah it’s ok for you, you’re behind it’. The driver’s name is Jimmy (Pat O’Brien) and of course he helps get her a ‘decent’ job as a waitress, they fall in love, and he does what he’s said he’d never do, marry before he’s got enough money to set up his own business. Needless to say, the past comes back to haunt them. They overcome that but once he knows of her past, trust becomes an issue. It all gets resolved at the end but not without a bit of murder and lot of melodrama.
Poverty-row Columbia was where Carole Lombard went to in the early 30s for the meaty parts she wasn’t getting at Paramount, her home studio. On the evidence of Virtue, she was smart to. Robert Riskin, already contributing depth and crackle to Capra’s films (The Miracle Woman, Platinum Blonde, American Madness) and soon to be even more famous as the screenwriter of Capra’s most celebrated and successful films of the 1930s (It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take it With You) also wrote the screenplay for Virtue. It has a hackneyed plot but it’s hard-boiled, tries hard to be unsentimental, and has crackling dialogue: ‘Ya ever been married’, ‘So many times I got rice marks all over me’.
Perhaps even more important than the film’s themes of acceptance and forgiveness are the ways the film first articulates misogyny (everything Pat O’Brien’s Jimmy thinks about women and spouts to the character of Frank played by Ward Bond) and then condemns it (all the plot points prove Jimmy wrong). The film also intelligently dramatises the importance of friendships between women (Mae’s relationship with Lil) without being blind about them (what Gert ends up doing). One gets a real sense of the precariousness of good people’s existence in a harsh economic climate, how humour ennobles, and the priggishness of people yet to understand that there are many types of virtue.
At the heart of the film is Carole Lombard who is the main reason for seeing it. How someone so beautiful can seem believable as a down-and-out streetwalker and so emotionally transparent whilst evoking a wide range of sometimes contradictory feeling and simultaneously cracking wise is one of the miracles of 1930s movies.
According to Michelle Morgan in Carole Lombard: Twentieth-Century Star, the film was well-reviewed with the Motion Picture Herald addressing a serious issue: ‘Possessed of a certain dramatic effectiveness and succeeding in becoming reasonably entertaining, this picture nevertheless presents the exhibitor with something in the nature of a problem in selling. The reasons is that the theme is concerned primarily with the attempted and finally successful return to respectability of a girl of extremely easy virtue.