Figure 1.--Hitler Youth boys appear in the film. This would have been unlikely in Warsaw because it was in the Government General, not the areas of western Poland annexed to the Reich. .
This was one of the first films released after America entered World War II (December 1941). It is notable by the extent to which Americans at the time were unaware of the true dimensions of the NAZI horror. It is set in NAZI occupied Poland. The title of course comes from a Hamlet soliloquy. The film is about a a troupe of ham stage actors. The troupe is headed Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) and his wife Maria (Carol Lombard). Tragically Lombard died in an airplane crash while she was selling war bonds before the film was released. Jack Benny at the time was one of America's premier commedians. He turns the film into a commedy as he attemps to out maneuver the NAZI Gestapo. The problem the troupe encounters is that a spy has uncovered information which could harm the Polish. The troupe tries to prevent the Gestapo from getting its hands on the information. Hitler Youth boys appear in the film.
This was one of the first films released after America entered World War II (December 1941). It is notable by the extent to which Americans at the time were unaware of the true dimensions of the NAZI horror. The title of course comes from a Hamlet solilioquy. The troupe was performing Shakespere plays. This in itself is a gross misunderstanding of what the NAZIs were doing in Poland. They were attempting to wipe out Polish national culture. This included among oter actions, destroying books published on Poland, supressing performances of music by Polish composers, closing universities and secondary schools, and shooting or confining Polish intelectuals, the carriers of Polish culture, to forced labor camps where many died. We think it very unlikely that the NAZIs permitted Shakespeare to be performed in Warsaw theaters. In fact we are not at all sure to what extent Warsaw theaters functioned during the War. The film was directed by Ernst Lubitsch, notable for his coomedies. He inserted some measured criticism of the NAZIs in previous films, but this was a full frontal attack.
The film is set in NAZI occupied Poland. The NAZIs by 1942 had overun all of Poland, includng eastern Poland which the Soviet Union had occupied when they and the NAZIs carved up Poland in 1939. The film takes place in Warsaw, not the areas of western Poland annexed by the NAZIs.
Jack Benny and Carol Lombard were major stars when the movie was made. Jack Benny at the time was one of America's premier commedians, widely known because of his radio program. Lombard was a major movie actress. Lombard played opposite many of Hollywoods leading men (John Barrymore, Ralph Bellamy, Clark Gable, Cary Grant, Fred MacMurray, Fredric MarchRobert Montgomery, and William Powell). Playing opposite Benny was a bit of an unusual combination. Some believes that this was his best film performance. But movies were not the best medium for Benny and he would soon focus on his radio and televisdion career. Tragically Lombard was killed in an airplane crash while she was selling war bonds before the film was released.
Making a commedy about the NAZIs is interesting. It must be remembered that the Holocaust was just beginning and not widely understood in America. The first NAZI commedy was Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator" (1940). It was a lampoon of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Hollywood before America entered the War was reluctant to take on the Fascists. There were a few films ("Blockade", "Confessions of a NAZI Spy", and "Esczpe"). Hollywood was a little more willing to tke on the Japanese militarists. Hoolywood was unsure the still largely isolationist American public would treat films attacking the NAZIs. In 1940 when Chaplin's film came out, America was still at peace, but Americans were watching the horrifying images of the NAZI blitzkrieg in France and then the Blitz on London. The public liked the Chaplin film and it was a box office success. Even at this early stage, many Americans thought a comedy about the NAZIs was in bad taste. Chaplin believed that the commedy undercut NAZI propaganda and if the Germans had laughed at him, he would never have become a serious threat. Of course in Germany before the NAZI take over, NAZI Stromtroopers would attack people who made fun of Hitler. The film here was the second commedy aimed at the NAZIs. As Americas learned more about the NAZIs, coommedy just seemed inappropriate. There would not be another until Bob Cranes TV show "Hogan's Heros" in the 1970s.
Figure 1.--The Gestapo chief is Col. "Concentration Camp" Ehrhardt (Sig Rumanthe) who strangely keeps having trouble with Siletsky. Here we see him with a Hitler Youth boy.
The film is about a a troupe of ham stage actors. The troupe is headed Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) and his wife Maria (Carol Lombard). He turns the film into a commedy as he attemps to out maneuver the NAZI Gestapo. The play begins before the NAZI invasion. The troupe puts on a play which lampoons the NAZIs who Tura and his players hate. A Polish official (Frank Reicher) says that because of the tense situatin with Germany the troupe's play can't be produced as it would offend the NAZIs. Tura chooses to put on "Hamlet". Tura (Benny) plays Hamlet and of course delivers gives the expected sililoquy. A Polish air force officer Lt. Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack) had an affair with Tura's wife Maria (Lombard). When war comes the Polish air force is destroyed, but a few pilots manage to reach England, including Sobinski. With the German occupation there are some scenes suggesting destruction and disorder, but they are mild in comparison to what actually occurred. Presumably
Lubitsch decided to tone this down in keeping with the comedic approach.
Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges) is a NAZI agent who tricks the Allies into returning to Warsaw. (A bit of a misnomer as the Allies did nothing substantive to aid Poland.) He obtains the names of families of the Polish pilots. Sobinski is sent back to Warsaw to prevent him from giving this information to the NAZIs. He contacs Maria Tura to help him and the whole Troupe is soon involved.
The troupe tries to prevent the Gestapo from getting its hands on the information. The Gestapo chief is Col. "Concentration Camp" Ehrhardt (Sig Rumanthe) who strangely keeps having trouble with Siletsky. He does a lot of yelling, especially at his adjutant, Schultz (Henry Victor).
A Hitler Youth (HJ) boy appears at the beginning of the film. In the opening scene of "To Be" we are actually watching a play rehearsal. The HJ boy reports to the NAZI official that Jack Benny is playing. Not long after the HJ boy exits, the director, I believe, interrupts the performance, and that's how we learn that Jack Benny is playing an actor in a troupe in this film. Actually this would have been unlikely in Warsaw because it was in the Government General, not the areas of western Poland annexed to the Reich.
Navigate the Boys' Historical Clothing Web Site:
[Return to the Main "Tm-Tq" movie page]
[Return to the Main Hitler Youth film page]
[Return to the Main alphabetical movie page]
[Introduction] [Activities] [Biographies] [Chronology] [Clothing styles] [Countries] [Literature] [Theatricals]
[Bibliographies] [Contributions] [Essays] [FAQs] [Glossaries] [Satellites] [Tools]
[Boys' Clothing Home]