By the 1942 release of To Be or Not To Be, audiences knew Lubitsch, and the “Lubitsch touch” so heralded by critics and even filmmakers who strove to emulate his elegant blend of sophisticated farce and resonant drama. It’s no secret that Billy Wilder kept an inspirational slogan above his office door which read “How Would Lubitsch Do It?”
If anything, Wilder’s own Double Indemnity provides a short study in how unique — and delicate — the balance of conflicting elements Lubitsch prepared in his comic serum really was. There’s a certain pleasure to the rat-a-tat innuendos reeled off by MacMurray and Stanwyck upon their first meeting, but it lacks the touch — the sense that a tangible, coherent adult world of passion has been bottled in sparkling, crystalline dialogue, and the pop of a trembling cork will send all these desires rushing out.
That’s the appeal, anyway, of films like Trouble in Paradise, but The Shop Around the Corner showed a mass audience just what this brand of comedy could accomplish when infused with Lubitsch’s knack for creating characters with a full range of human emotion. The film accomplishes an almost Renoirian slide between trifle and tragedy, yet its strength, as in To Be or Not To Be, lies not in the moments when tones change so much as when they overlap. Lubitsch created a world where all genres — comedy, melodrama, thriller, tragedy, and even musical — exist at once, and that’s what has never been duplicated by Wilder, his peers, or any American screenwriter or director.
David Kalat’s excellent commentary track on Criterion’s new DVD release of To Be or Not To Be points out that the opening shots of Warsaw storefronts deliberately invokes the familiar setting of The Shop Around the Corner, making the aftereffects Lubitsch shows of its inevitable wreckage all the more personal for American audiences. It’s here, though, at barely 20 minutes into the film, that the film best visualizes its daring ballet of styles and tones, as the ornate signage hangs loose from jagged rafters in a series of chaotic, oblique compositions that disrupt the conventional shot setups of the opening passages. A later scene, once the espionage plot has fully erupted into the genuine tension of a wartime thriller, depicts Warsaw as the site of a noir worthy of Fritz Lang, as Gestapo officers flit in silhouette between strikingly arranged doorways and openings in the fallen city.
But the ballet almost doesn’t compare to the delight of Jack Benny’s stammering two-step in his first scene of espionage, a ham suddenly realizing he’s never tried to improvise before, and fumbling desperately. His repetition of the same phrases gleaned from the traitorous Professor Siletsky turns gradually from a chilling realization that he’s in over his head — and a reminder of the real horrors taking place off-camera — to one of the film’s most rewarding running gags, as he seizes on the line and decides to simply sell it as best he can.
Siletsky, the bearded pragmatist, plays both unwitting straight man to the fumbling plot designed to ensnare him, as well as an actualization of Nazi evil that should have waylaid American critics determined to shame Lubitsch for his treatment of the portentous historical moment. Having dealt with the sobering Siletsky, the third act introduces the real “Concentration Camp” Col. Ehrhardt, an obsequious bully whose toadying to the threat of the Fuhrer provides another satisfying comedic illustration of the Lubitsch triumph: that evil can be humanized through making both its poles — the impartial schemer and the utter boor — vessels of parody, as Benny does when donning the guise of either, and supporting players in life’s grand comedy.
Though Lubitsch has nothing but love for his supporting cast; Tom Dugan as the put-upon actor Bronski, playing Hitler in the play-within-a-film and bearer of the film’s first uncompromised laugh; Felix Bressart as Greenberg, who triumphantly delivers Shylock’s most famous soliloquy in a moment perhaps irrelevant to the plot (like a character in one of Tarantino’s historical correctives, perhaps he simply couldn’t resist); and top-billed Carole Lombard, who’s relegated to the background about halfway through, yet gets an unforgettable showcase for her marquee-worthy talents. That Lombard was capable of seducing you with the phonebook seems certain given her delivery of a handwriting analysis here, though she never got the opportunity to tackle the Yellow Pages – she died in an airplane crash weeks before the film’s premiere, making the role her last.
So much has been written about this merry masterpiece (and it might not even be Lubitsch’s best) that a contemporary note seems only appropriate for the conclusion of this review: the film which springs to mind most readily upon a 2013 viewing is Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, which similarly concludes with a plot surrounding Hitler in the balcony box of a theatre. Yet Tarantino’s version of the dictator has already been subject to visible mocking before his appearance in the cinema, which inevitably results in a hailfire of artillery and an explosion. Lubitsch has no less moral certainty, but in 1942 he had less certainty overall, and though the heroes get away, the image of the Fuhrer, glimpsed briefly from behind, looms like a spectre over the final sequence only to dissipate once the troupe gets airborne.
The final scene, a neat callback to one of the film’s earlier running gags, takes place once again with curtain raised, Benny beneath the lights, mugging away. Not knowing whether Europe will rise once more or fall forever, Lubitsch concludes with what his film has ably proven: art, like life, will endure, though it takes the touch of a master to show that absolute evil can exist on the same stage as laughter. You just have to pull on the beard.
Criterion’s release is typically stacked with extras, this time with a clear emphasis on providing the film with the proper context. The booklet includes a defensive NYT op-ed by Lubitsch published in response to critics like Bosley Crowther who savaged its treatment of grave global circumstances, and the supplementary features largely consist of prior works such as a silent short starring Lubitsch himself, a radio adaptation of the screenplay with William Powell, and an episode of The Screen Guild Theater showcasing Benny alongside Lubitsch and Claudette Colbert. It bears repeating that Kalat’s commentary is truly excellent, an audio essay that runs in tandem with the film and only occasionally becomes difficult to focus on — when Benny makes an ass of himself onscreen.