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Kenneth Turan's film pick of the week: Ernst Lubitsch's 'To Be or Not to Be'

July 22, 2010 |  7:59 am
To Be

One of the funniest comedies ever to come out of Hollywood also turns out to be one of the nerviest and most controversial. Rather than something spanking new, it's Ernst Lubitsch's 1942 "To Be or Not to Be," a comedy about Nazis that came out right in the middle of World War II, when no one was in a mood to laugh at the enemy.

The film costars the unlikely duo of Jack Benny and Carole Lombard as Joseph and Maria Tura, a pair of Polish Shakespearean actors who have to impersonate Nazis in order to save lives. Benny used to joke about the quality of his film work, but he is impeccable here, and Lombard, in her last released film, displays the touch that made her loss in a plane crash all the more tragic.

Lubitsch's daring attempt to merge comedy with an anti-Nazi thriller was far from popular at the time. One reason was savage lines like this to the Turas from a Nazi officer: "What you did to Shakespeare, we are now doing to Poland."

"To Be or Not to Be" plays on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Bing Theater, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles.

— Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times film critic

Photo: Carole Lombard and Jack Benny, right,  in a scene from Ernst Lubitch's "To Be or Not to Be." Photo courtesy of LACMA.