Oct 24, 2013

Trains of Thought Redux, or The Collective Subconscious At Work (Part Two)

Lubitsch decided to make a film about a philandering Polish actress, her ham husband actor, and the little Warsaw theatre troupe that "lead" the Polish Resistance in the battle against the Nazis. It is called To Be or Not to Be.

It was Carole Lombard's last film.  She died in a plane crash, returning from a World War II War Bond Tour.  She was thirty-three.  She died before the premiere.

Suddenly, the knives came out for Lubitsch.  Although the film was not a flop exactly, there were sluggish rentals, and the critics had a field day with the picture.  Critics were furious that Lubitsch dared set a comedy in Poland during wartime.  The most famous of those critics was the NYT critic, Bosley Crowther, who had this to say.

But, what I did not discover until recently, when I bought the Criterion bluray edition of this bonafide Lubitsch masterpiece, To Be or Not to Be, was that Lubitsch responded to Crowther in the NYT.

And Lubitsch's argument is so well written, is so simple, matter-of-fact, and elegant, that it just makes me love and admire the man all the more.

Here is a great portion of Lubitsch's majestic rebuttal:

The picture plays -- and that is the only important thing in this issue.  It answers the question whether this unusual blend of moods is successful or not.  It reminds me of the patient who took the wrong pill and got well.  His doctors are still convinced that, according to medical science, the man has no right being in good health again.  
And how about my taste -- or rather my lack of taste? Fortunately, I am not the only one accused of that crime.  My codefendant is the American motion-picture audience.  Not only the thief is guilty but also he who knowingly buys stolen goods.  If I have shown bad taste in playing comedy against a Warsaw background, the audiences who are enjoying that kind of humor are just as guilty.
That leads to a basic question:  Have audiences bad taste? My answer is definitely no.  They are not always willing to accept sophistication, or on the other hand, they might laugh at things which the sophisticate considers too naive.  But their instinct and intuition always guide them in the right direction when it comes to matters of good taste.  I have never yet seen vulgarity or an off-color joke getting a chance with a motion-picture audience.  All of us know that embarrassing single laughter against the protesting silence of the rest of the audience.
Why then do audiences feel at liberty to laugh during To Be or Not to Be, and at times very heartily? Aren't they aware of what happened to Poland? Did I try to make them look at the Polish background through rose-colored glasses? Nothing of the kind.  I went out of my way to remind them of the destruction of the Nazi conquest, of the terror regime of the Gestapo.  Should American audiences be so callous that those burning ruins of Warsaw make no impression on them? I don't think that any one of us believes that.  On the contrary, the many audiences I observed were deeply moved whenever the picture touched the tragedy of Warsaw.  Never once have they laughed at the expense of Poland or the Polish people.  They laugh at actors, they are amused by the antics of "hams," they laugh at something that is in no way typically Polish but universal.
Do I really picture the Nazis so harmless that it might be a dangerous misleading of the American people by making them underestimate the enemy? I admit that I have not resorted to methods usually employed in pictures, novels, and plays to signify Nazi terror.  No actual torture chamber is photographed, no flogging is shown, no close-up of excited Nazis using their whip and rolling their eyes in lust.  My Nazis are different; they passed that stage long ago.  Brutality, flogging, and torturing have become their daily routine.  They talk about it with the same ease as a salesman referring to the sale of a handbag.  Their humor is built around concentration camps, around the sufferings of their victims.
Are those people really so harmless? Do I minimize their danger because I refrained from the most obvious methods in their characterization? Is whipping and flogging the only way of expressing terrorism? No -- the American audiences don't laugh at those Nazis because they underestimate their menace but because they are happy to see this new order and its ideology being ridiculed.  They have no sympathy with men who jump out of a plane without parachutes because a man with a little mustache says, "Jump!" They have contempt for people who get a perverted pleasure out of such serfdom.
I am positive that that scene wouldn't draw a chuckle in Nazi Germany.  It gets a big laugh in the United States of America.  Let's be grateful that it does, and let's hope that it always will.


That has got to be the most lucid, elegant, and eloquent artist's response I have ever come across in my many trains of thought travels.  Lubitsch is the finest.

And, so ends my train journey, which began this early morning.

All my love,

This sign hung in Billy Wilder's office, a constant reminder to him as he worked.  Lubitsch was his mentor.

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