Thursday, March 25, 2010

Ernst Lubitsch, "To Be or Not To Be," and Lombard's last impression

Coming to America
Director Ernst Lubitsch left his native Germany in 1922 at the invitation of silent-screen legend Mary Pickford. He directed Pickford in two popular films, Rosita (1923) and The Marriage Circle (1924). Right from the start, his American films had a quality, polish, and sophistication that seemed fresh and new. Audiences loved the "Lubitsch touch" and his career in Hollywood prospered. When talking pictures took hold, Lubitsch adapted immediately without missing a beat.

Hollywood fights back
In 1935, Lubitsch's German citizenship was erased by the Nazis. Like many Europeans living in America, Lubitsch was horrified by the rise of Adolf Hitler and his ever-increasing stranglehold on his home continent. During the late 1930s the war in Europe was heating up and Lubitsch thought the time was right for a satire about Hitler and the Nazis. After all, The Great Dictator (1940), written and directed by Charles Chaplin was a huge hit. Surely Lubitsch with his talent for comedy would be able to be equally successful with To Be or Not To Be (1942).

Show me the money
At this point in his career, Lubitsch was working independently, without the backing of a major studio. As an independent, he had to obtain funding to make To Be or Not To Be, as well as work out a distribution agreement. From the beginning, the movie was meant to be a star vehicle for Jack Benny. Benny was a superstar on the radio, but his movie career never matched his radio success. To help secure financing, Benny actively courted Lombard to star opposite him. Lubitsch, anxious to work with Lombard didn't think the part was large enough to interest her. Surprisingly, Lombard loved the script. The fact that she would be part of an ensemble cast rather than being the "star" didn't seem to matter. Additionally, Lombard thought that with the rumors of a World War on everyone's mind, a satire like To Be or Not To Be would help in the fight against the Axis powers.

Together again: Lubitsch and Lombard
With Lombard onboard, the financing was guaranteed and production started in October 1941. From all accounts, the filming was a pleasant experience for Lombard and all of the cast. Benny loved working with Lombard and she helped him get past his anxiety about working with a director of Lubitsch's stature. Once again, Lubitsch allowed Lombard to act as uncredited producer, just like he did during the filming of Hands Across the Table, when he was in charge of production at Paramount six years earlier.

Remember Pearl Harbor
During the filming of To Be or Not To Be, Pearl Harbor was attacked and the United States entered World War II. The mood of the country was somber with American casualties mounting on a daily basis. Americans feared invasion from Japan, especially those on the west coast, which included Hollywood. Ever the patriot, Lombard wrote President Roosevelt to ask what she and her husband, Clark Gable, could do? His response: keep making movies to keep people's spirits up.

War bond tour
Not one to sit by the sidelines, Lombard went on a war bond rally on January 12, including a huge drive in her native state, Indiana. The goal was to sell $500,000 worth of bonds, but Lombard's enthusiasm and star power brought that total above $2 million! After a hectic bond-selling schedule (so hectic in fact that a January 14, 1942 stop in Chicago generated an article in the Chicago Tribune entitled "A Whirlwind! It Was Carole on Chicago Visit"), Lombard wanted to fly back to California, instead of taking the train as originally planned. She was anxious to see her husband and didn't want to waste the time on the train. Traveling with her mother, Elizabeth Peters and MGM press agent Otto Winkler, Lombard tried to convince her traveling companions that flying home was their best option. Peters and Winkler were against flying, but Lombard prevailed.

California bound
After a brief refueling stop in Las Vegas, the DC-3 plane that Lombard and 21 others occupied, took off for the west coast on January 16. They never made it home. The plane, flying too low, slammed into a mountain not far from the Las Vegas airport. Everyone on board was killed instantly.

Farewell to the screwball girl
On January 21 at 4 p.m., funeral services were held for Lombard and her mother at the Hilltop Church of the Recessional in Forest Lawn cemetery, Glendale, CA. According to Lombard's wishes, her funeral was simple with mostly family and friends in attendance. As reported in the January 22 edition of the Chicago Tribune, those present included "...Mr.and Mrs. Spencer Tracy, Jack Benny, Mr. and Mrs. Ernst Lubitsch, ... the William Powells, Louis B. Mayer, ...and the Fred MacMurrays."

To Be or Not To Be released
Lombard's last movie was met with generally good reviews, but audiences weren't flocking to see it. It's hard to know why, since today, To Be or Not To Be is considered a classic. More than sixty years after its release, the American Film Institute in it's list of the one hundred funniest films of all time, ranked it at forty-nine. Some people thought the black humor was too much for wartime audiences. New York Times critic, Bosley Crowther wrote in his March 7, 1942 review, "To say it is callous and macabre is understating the case." Other period reviews were positive: "It's an acting triumph for Lombard, who delivers an effortless and highly effective performance..." (Variety).

Lasting legacy
It's sad that a talent like Carole Lombard was taken from us at the height of her career. The plans to make another movie with Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, and Billy Wilder would never be realized. But fortunately for us, she left a body of work that still brings us joy, laughter, and tears.

"A loud cheer for the screwball girl!"
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