It’s been 75 years since the world tragically lost Carole Lombard, one of Hollywood’s most vibrant actresses. Though she died at the young age of 33, she left behind some wonderful films that are still beloved today. Lombard is best remembered for being one of the premier stars of the screwball comedy genre, appearing in such classics as Twentieth Century, My Man Godfrey (for which she received her only Oscar nomination for Best Actress), and To Be or Not to Be, the latter of which I’ll be focusing on to honor the actress.
The film follows husband-and-wife thespians Joseph (Jack Benny) and Maria Tura (Carole Lombard), who are managing a theatrical troupe in Warsaw. Maria has many admirers, including Lieutenant Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack), whom she soon has an affair with, unbeknownst to her husband. When the Nazis invade Poland, Sobinski and his colleagues leave the country to join the fight, while the Turas and their troupe find themselves having to operate under severe restrictions. While in England, Sobinski gives Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges) messages to send to the resistance on his trip to Poland, only to find out later that the professor is actually a Nazi spy. Sobinski then travels back to Poland and enlists the aid of the Turas and their fellow actors to retrieve the messages before the Nazis get a hold of them.
After starring in 1941’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith under her friend Alfred Hitchcock’s direction, Carole Lombard took some time off to focus on her home and marriage to Clark Gable. Nearly a year had passed before she made To Be or Not to Be, as she was careful in selecting her new project, determined her next film needs to be a big success.
Frequent Ernst Lubitsch collaborator Miriam Hopkins was the original choice for Maria Tura, but she turned down the role when she realized Jack Benny got all the laughs and she would be working as his straight man. Hearing of Lubitsch’s predicament, Lombard asked to be considered for the part, seeing the overall quality of the material, despite the controversial subject matter. It also gave her a chance to work with the acclaimed director, whom she long admired. It also gave her the opportunity to work alongside her friend Robert Stack, whom she had known since he was a teenager. And though Benny played the lead character, Lombard received top billing for To Be or Not to Be.
Filming took place in the fall of 1941, and it was shot at United Artists, which allowed Lombard to say that she had worked at every major studio in Hollywood. The set of To Be or Not to Be had a very friendly atmosphere, and the cast and crew often had a good time together. Lombard would even visit the set on her off days just to see Lubitsch work with other actors. When filming wrapped, she told many people that it was the happiest experience of her career.
To Be or Not to Be was in post-production when Lombard was tragically killed in an airplane crash after returning from a tour selling war bonds in January 1942, so she sadly didn’t live to see the film’s release. Upon its release the month following her untimely death, the film received mixed reviews for its controversial subject matter, but Lombard was hailed across the board for her final screen performance.
Today, To Be or Not to Be is arguably Carole Lombard’s most praised film, as well as being considered one of the best of Ernst Lubitsch’s and Jack Benny’s respective careers. It’s truly a timeless political satire, filled with bold humor and witty dialogue, and there’s never a dull moment in the film’s running time. Though Lombard still had plenty of great performances ahead of her, To Be or Not to Be works as a perfect send-off to one of the most spirited actresses Hollywood was lucky to have.
I wrote this entry as a part of the Carole Lombard: The Profane Angel Blogathon, where bloggers are honoring the great star. Click the banner below to read more posts!