Ed note: I write the “Talking Pictures” monthly column on movies for The American Scholar. My latest deals with Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 masterpiece, “To Be or Not to Be,” with Carole Lombard and Jack Benny. Here is my opening and a link to the post:
Carole Lombard, Maude Eburne, and Jack Benny in To Be or Not to Be, 1942
A master of the slow burn and the exaggerated double take, Jack Benny may have been the greatest of all persona comedians on radio and television. The persona was preposterously vain. He played the violin, badly. He would never admit to being older than 39. Above all else, he was cheap.
In his most celebrated radio routine, Jack is walking along carrying a borrowed Oscar award. A mugger stops him, asks him for a light, and then demands: “Your money or your life.” There ensues a lengthy silence. Finally the mugger says “Look, bud! I said your money or your life!” And Benny replies: “I’m thinking, I’m thinking!”
Benny plays five roles in Ernst Lubitsch’s comic masterpiece, To Be or Not To Be (1942), and in each of them, he is Jack Benny. We are in Warsaw in August 1939, and Benny is an actor in a troupe—in his own words, “that great, great actor Josef Tura,” whose ambition is to play Hamlet. Behind the scenes, he is the jealous husband of actress Maria Tura (the charming and justly acclaimed Carole Lombard, in her last film appearance), afraid he is being cuckolded. During the course of the film, he also plays a fictional Nazi colonel on stage, impersonates a real Nazi colonel, albeit badly, and impersonates a bewhiskered Professor Siletski (Stanley Ridges), who has passed himself off as a Polish resistance leader but is actually a Nazi spy.
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