Day Two: To Be or Not to Be (Ernst Lubitsch, USA, 1942)
Day 2: To Be or Not to Be. On another day it might have been another Lubitsch, which I love just as much — Trouble in Paradise, The Shop Around the Corner, Heaven Can Wait. Today I’m in a ‘let’s sneer at Nazis’-mood, thus the choice. And does anyone, Chaplin included, satirise them better? ‘Jump!’ ‘Heil Hitler’ as the Nazi throws himself off the plane. I know some of the lines by heart: ‘Hitler was a vegetarian but he was known to swallow whole countries’: ‘I wouldn’t sneeze at a laugh’, ‘that artists could be so inartistic!’ etc; then there’s Lombard beautifully dressed by Travis Banton: ‘what do you think of this for the concentration camp scene? Imagine me being flayed and whipped in this *lovely* dress’. She’s beautiful and her line readings are most extraordinarily inventive. ‘They call me concentration camp Erdhardt!’, ‘Schulz!’, so many funny moments. Sig Ruman’s playing of Erdhart is a comic masterpiece on its own. Plus there’s Jack Benny; and of course Lubitsch, finding humour and humanity in the darkest, most stranglingly bureaucratic of worlds, attempting to delight with the bleakest of material….and succeeding.
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.
Everyone is so happy to have a comedy that isn’t ugly, gross, adolescent, and stupid that they’re falling all over themselves to praise The Heat. Except The Heatis pretty ugly: do even comedies have to look like the side of a warship now? It’s also ugly in spirit: If Melissa McCarthy’s family in the film were Black or Hispanic instead of Irish, activists would rightly be up in arms; it’s one nasty stereotype of Boston Irish after another; and all put there to get you to laugh at their expense: aren’t they stupid, uneducated, vulgar, etc. etc. The film’s also pretty gross; it’s all body humour — small nuts, things falling out of vaginas, etc. – except we’re supposed to praise Allah because it’s women being gross. As to adolescent, the film’s emotional moment is that Sandra Bullock was so unpopular in high school that only a teacher wrote on her year-book, so by the end, warm, ebullient, ‘down’ Melissa McCarthy writes something nice in it and claims her as a ‘sister’. But, you know, Sandra Bullock is old enough to be a grandmother several times over and she looks every year of it, face lifts or no. Isn’t she a bit old to still be worrying about, well the film says 1982, but there are doubters; and really, if at her time of life the only relationship in her life is her neighbour’s kitty…well I won’t go on. We can and do suspend disbelief. The Heat is another of Bullock’s transformation narratives: she goes from being the kind of snarky, friendless, controlling person who’s always right to being soul-sister to Melissa McCarthy, ‘earthy’ and ‘real’ but without having to get fat — neither the film nor Bullock is stupid. It’s a high-concept female buddy film that works; it does have plenty of belly laughs; and it does pass the Bedschel test with flying colours. Moreover, Bullock’s timing continues to be ace, Paul Feig times knows how to direct the gags, and Melissa McCarthy is the most joyous presence in American cinema today. It’s not a great comedy but as a wise man once said, perhaps in Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be, ‘oh, I wouldn’t sneeze at a laugh’. The Heat offers plenty of reasons not to sneeze.