Dec 16th’s Shakesfilm: To Be or Not To Be


This year the Hudson Strode Program in Renaissance Studies begins a Shakespeare on Film series at the Bama Theatre in downtown Tuscaloosa. All films are free and open to the public. We’ve scheduled a range of films, some you’ve no doubt seen and loved, others you’ve not. Next up is To Be or Not to Be, a serious comedy starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard, shot during World War II. Please enjoy for the first time or again! And please let your students know about this series!!!

Here is the remaining line-up:

* December 16, 2014: Strode Film Series – To Be Or Not to Be
* January 19, 2015: Strode Film Series – West Side Story
* February 16, 2015: Strode Film Series – Deliver Us From Eva
* March 11, 2015: Strode Film Series – Forbidden Planet
* April 27, 2015: Strode Film Series – Love’s Labour’s Lost

All films start at 7:30pm, and are free and open to the public.

Brett Chatham’s program notes for this film are included below.

Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942)

Any discussion of To Be or Not to Be must consider the comedy within its historical context. The film began production in the fall of 1941, wrapped a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and began showing in theaters in the spring of 1942. The official position of the United States had changed dramatically since the film’s conception, but Lubitsch and his cast and crew defended their work. Contemporary critics, however, were quite offended—and understandably so. The film made light of a most serious threat; in the thick of World War II, American audiences were hardly ready to laugh at any zany Nazis. Even several generations removed, we may still find some of the films famous lines in bad taste. For example, a recurring gag—“So, they call me ‘Concentration Camp’ Ehrhardt?!”—seems especially uneasy in light of what we now know of the Holocaust’s horrors. (At the time, the Allies knew almost nothing of Hitler’s death camps.) Yet we laugh at the speakers’ uneasiness rather than our own; both the real and the fake Colonel Ehrhardts carry on conversations worse than they carry out orders. Similarly, the line that most offended audiences then—“What he did to Shakespeare, we are doing now to Poland”—was only meant to deflate “that great, great Polish actor, Josef Tura.” Lubitsch certainly understood the implications of such provocative jokes but contended he never meant to dismiss or minimize the Nazi invasion of Poland: “What I have satirized in this picture are the Nazis and their ridiculous ideology.” The film encourages us to be ever vigilant against man’s capacity for evil but careful not to give such “ridiculous” ideas too much credibility in themselves. When we retreat from ridiculing our enemies, we empower them. As a Jewish German-American émigré, Lubitsch had a more personal connection than most to the events unfolding in Europe, but he understood the war effort required fighting off the field as well on. And he could give the enemy quite a beating with his vaudevillian shtick.

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (~1600) and The Merchant of Venice (~1597)

To Be or Not to Be takes its title from the best-known soliloquy in Shakespeare. Indeed, that first line is so associated with its author that its very utterance elicits more thought of theatricality than mortality. Here, as he contemplates being and nothingness, Hamlet appears to be thinking aloud to himself, but privy to those thoughts are King Claudius and his counselor Polonius, both hiding onstage. The audience knows this, and perhaps the Prince does as well. Hamlet seems ever aware of his role as an actor—at the Danish court and even, self-referentially, on the English stage. As such, “To be or not to be” explores not only existence but artifice, appearance, acting. Shakespeare wrote several plays about his art, particularly concerned with how the theater both reflects and affects life. (Consider Hamlet’s play-within-a-play, the aptly named The Mousetrap, in which the Prince hopes to catch the King’s conscience by staging the King’s crime.) Hamlet must act to save his own life, avenge his father’s, and end his usurping uncle’s, but he is much better suited to soliloquizing. To Be or Not to Be features actors who transform the European theater of World War II into an improvisational black farce, impersonating Nazis to save the Polish underground. In the film, the titular speech signals romantic rendezvous, arranged by a star actress while her “Hamlet” husband is occupied onstage, but another Shakespearean monologue, delivered on three separate occasions by a mere “spear-carrier,” actually plays a more prominent part in the plot: Shylock’s so-called Rialto speech—“Hath not a Jew eyes?”—from The Merchant of Venice. This more poignant speech signals changes in how the Polish actors view their relationships to one another and to their foreign occupiers. The troupe must identify with the enemy well enough to fool them. Merchant examines similar tensions of identification. Though Merchant is much less about theatricality than Hamlet, the earlier play’s themes still resonate strongly in the film, pointedly so considering the anti-Semitism of both settings, places hostile to their displaced populace. Ultimately, the question becomes whether to belong or not to belong.