Two of the most brilliant American film comedies are Twentieth Century (1934) and To Be or Not to Be (1942). These movies share Carole Lombard, the only great actress ever born in Fort Wayne, Indiana. They also share a theme, that the world is a stage. It was for Lombard, who made forty-two films during her short career. Twentieth Century began her stardom. To Be or Not to Be ended it: she died in a plane crash soon after its filming. Her professional life is thus framed by the world-as-stage topos, a coincidence I find suggestive. Life is short, art is long. My subject is not just Lombard but the thriving of an ancient idea in an age of chaos.
If we've read some Shakespeare, we are likely to remember that the world can be imagined a stage. Ernst Robert Curtius's magisterial European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (1948) reveals how venerable that commonplace is. It can be traced back to Plato and St. Paul among others. It is handed down through the Middle Ages to the great figures of the Renaissance. It achieves a kind of apotheosis in the seventeenth-century dramas of Calderon, "the first poet to make the God-directed theatrum mundi the subject of a sacred drama." After Calderon, the world-as-stage topos seems pretty well used up—until Hofmannsthal gets hold of it in the early twentieth century. It then begins an extraordinary revival. Curtius's interpretation of this point is crucial. He notes that while Calderon wrote in a time when God and the state apparently stood firm, "Hofmannsthal's historical situation is the very reverse." Hofmannsthal lived through the dissolution of an aging society. His many plays and poems comparing the world and the stage attempt (alas, with only partial success) to recover a lost tradition. Works like The Great Salzburg Theater of the World (1921) express Hofmannsthal's willed faith in the idea of a Providential universe, where God is a puppet master of sorts.
Enter Carole Lombard. She would have looked out of place in The Great Salzburg Theater of the World. In Twentieth Century (filmed some five years after Hofmannsthal died) she was right at home. Written by Ben Hecht and directed by Howard Hawks, the film casts John Barrymore as Oscar Jaffe, a grandiloquent stage director. He discovers the Lombard character, makes her into a great actress (stage name Lily Garland), makes her his mistress too, then loses her on both counts because he is insanely possessive of her. All this happens in the first reel: by the second Jaffe is down the tubes. He has acquired some perverse notions about culture and insists on staging one absurd historical drama after another. None of them have Garland, all of them fail. The final disaster is Joan of Arc—a horrendous spectacle play, of the sort Shaw had avoided writing a few years before. Joan closes in Chicago and leaves its backers ruined.1 Jaffe's only chance for solvency is to reacquire Lily Garland's services.
Immediately he has his opportunity, for they both end up on the Twentieth Century Limited. Lily Garland is now a movie star; she will have to be won back to the theater by the most deviously theatrical means. During the course of their train journey together, Jaffe stages one absurd scene after another. Garland is alternatively mad and amused. Nothing, she asserts, could possibly convince her to work again under Jaffe. Each of them strikes magnificently theatrical poses; each is consumed by a self-indulgent passion for role-playing. Towards the end of the film there is a great scene in which he almost breaks down her resistance. He conceives the idea that Lily Garland will play Mary Magdalene in a multi-million dollar staging of the New Testament. This cannot help but be Lily's greatest role ever. The Crucifixion—during which she will weep at the foot of the cross—will be staged with incredible historical authenticity, including real camels. When he mentions the camels, Barrymore is so enthusiastic that he virtually becomes one, snorting and swaying his way across Lily's room. The absurdity of the whole proposition dawns on her, for after briefly taking him seriously she bursts into laughter.
Jaffe's last attempt on her is played in a different mood. He has been wounded in the shoulder by a gunshot, for reasons too complex to explain. With the help of his cohorts, he sets up a little death scene. Garland is called to the bedside by what she takes to be a dying man. He has . . . one last request, purely sentimental. Will she sign a contract with him, so that for a moment things will be just as they were in the old days? Garland has evidently read too many scripts like this one. She has come to believe the clichés of the theatrical death scene. Confusing melodrama and life she signs, whereupon Jaffe cries out triumphantly. Once again she is working for him. The show must go on.
The film would work if we didn't know a thing about the actors, the director, and the circumstances of production. All the same, this extrinsic knowledge proves relevant. Lombard the actress was in the position of the character she played: both were young women on the verge of stardom, both capable (at first) of stiffening up during rehearsal. In the film this point is made by Jaffe's inimitable directorial technique: to loosen up Lily for her first stage scream, he jabs a pin in her rear. Sure enough, she screams convincingly. There is, it turns out, an equivalent story about Lombard and Hawks. He took her aside "and asked what she would do if a monomaniac like the Barrymore character tried to push her around in the manner outlined in the script. Lombard told Hawks she'd never put up with such treatment. Hawks told her to return to the set and play the character as Carole Lombard. The rest, as they say, is history."2 Maybe this happened, maybe it didn't. The fact remains that films like Twentieth Century generate stories of this sort. Having accepted the interdependency of stage and world, we want it to hold on every level possible. Like Lily Garland, we accept performance as truth. Like Oscar Jaffe, we crave real camels. Not only does the world become a stage, the stage expands to encompass the world.
Twentieth Century is a film disconnected from history and society by the very self-absorption of its principals, so that the connection between world and stage is perceived primarily as a joke—a joke by which we are both amused and seduced. The same is true of To Be or Not to Be, except that here the joke has taken on serious consequences. How could it not, when the subject is Hitler's invasion of Poland? The director Ernst Lubitsch had come to Hollywood in 1923. For two decades afterwards he was the premier maker of sophisticated comedies, specializing in the elusive "Lubitsch touch." World War II was not the most hospitable moment for this artist. It was then, nonetheless, that Lubitsch—with his assistant Melchior Lengyel—put together To Be or Not to Be, the film often considered his finest.
Here, as in Twentieth Century, Carole Lombard is at the center of a comedy about world and stage—but what a difference those eight years have made! This time the Lombard character is actually married to a ham: Jack Benny, playing Josef Tura, the greatest actor in Poland. Their troupe plans to mount a production attacking Hitler, when all of a sudden the Nazis invade. The theater shuts down. About the same time, a Nazi spy, posing as one Professor Siletsky, acquires information that will cost many lives unless it can be immediately retrieved. This is the dilemma which faces the Turas. Using such actorly skills as they can, they must somehow keep Siletsky from delivering his fatal message.
So described, To Be sounds like a World War II melodrama. It is nothing of the sort. This is evident in the first scenes, when the camera focuses on Nazi officials interrogating a little boy about his parents' political beliefs. Hitler's imminent arrival is announced. He enters the room and declares "Heil myself!" The camera pulls back to reveal a frustrated director bawling out the actor who perpetrated this line. We are witnessing the Benny/Lombard troupe's rehearsals for their play.
This motif of the comically-disrupted performance will recur throughout the film. At first, it is primarily associated with a sexual battle between Tura and his wife. She has an ungovernable affection for young Polish pilots, the most irresistible of whom is played by a boyish Robert Stack. Mrs. T arranges for a dressing-room rendezvous with Stack on the following terms: he is to leave the audience when her husband—who is playing Hamlet— begins the "To be or not to be" soliloquy. Stack gets up to move out; Benny/Tura simply stares at him, words frozen in his mouth. His expression is that of a man who cannot comprehend what he sees. No less than Barrymore in Twentieth Century, this character has a fragile but persisting ego. Theatrical and sexual mastery are often interchangeable for him. It is a typical joke of the film that his public humiliation as an actor should be matched by a private infidelity he does not as yet suspect.
Once the Nazis arrive in Warsaw, these problems of Tura's are further magnified. His wife plays Mata Hari to Professor Siletsky, meeting the professor at his hotel for drinks, dinner, and who knows what else in an effort to locate the incriminating documents. Their Idyll is interrupted when Siletsky is called away to what looks like Nazi headquarters. He is actually in the hands of fake Nazis, real actors. Assuming his responsibilities as the greatest actor in Poland, Tura pretends to be the Nazi commander Colonel Ehrhardt. He must stall Siletsky until his wife can search the professor's belongings. There ensues an amazing dialogue. It cannot be very well described; one can only single out moments. Siletsky tells Tura that he is known back in Berlin as "Concentration Camp Ehrhardt," a piece of news which inspires them both with merriment. "So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt?" Tura repeats, ever more irrelevantly. Siletsky becomes suspicious. Realizing that he has been duped, he pulls a gun on Tura and rushes out a convenient door—into the darkened theater. There follows a complicated chase, which culminates in a beautifully-choreographed bit where Siletsky is shot on stage, in a spotlight. This crossing of theater and world proves fatal to its dupe.
Having unintentionally dispatched Siletsky, Tura must assume his identity. Appropriately disguised, he proceeds to Siletsky's hotel, which his wife will not be able to leave until the professor returns. Here Tura meets the real Colonel Ehrhardt (who has never seen the real Siletsky). Tura is forced to reenact the dialogue he just had with Siletsky, only this time, of course, he is playing the professor's part. From this point on, the viewer is drawn into an intrigue which is crazy because it is also logical. The culmination of the madness comes in a scene about corpses and false mustaches which I would hesitate to unravel. Let it only be said that Benny, Lombard, and the whole troupe eventually end up in England. The last we see of them, he is again playing Hamlet and she once more sets a meeting with an aspiring lover during "To be or not to be." The more things change in this marriage, the more they stay the same.
In a generally excellent book on film comedy, Gerald Mast complains that the later Lubitsch became less cynical, more sentimental than before, so reducing his style to mush.3 I disagree. In To Be or Not to Be, at any rate, Lubitsch retained his flair for farcical love intrigues and delicate parables about life versus art. He also gave his work a new scope. Comedy is moralized, history theatricalized. The film benefits from both transformations. Imagining the world as a stage means imagining its coherence and perhaps its controllability. If not Providential, then at least human intelligence is celebrated. The film recalls something of the brilliant cynicism displayed by Hawks and Hecht in Twentieth Century. The two hammy leads are still rivals in an absurd struggle for primacy. Now, however, there is something important to fight about and to win through. The world becomes a stage from a genuinely collective need.
Twentieth Century, of course, is not the only possible reference point by which we can judge the extent of Lubitsch's success. We can return, finally, to Curtius and Hofmannsthal. The former writes of the 1940s, "When the German catastrophe came, I decided to serve the idea of a medievalistic Humanism by studying the Latin literature of the Middle Ages." It is doubtful that he got to many movies while doing this, but how fascinated he might have been with To Be or Not to Be. To some extent Lubitsch and Curtius's revered Hofmannsthal emerge from the same central European dramatic tradition, for both worked with the great Max Reinhardt and both cultivated a certain stylish decadence. Far more than Hofmannsthal's rather precious pastiches, To Be or Not to Be affirms the power of an ancient topos in a modern context. It bears out, in fact, precisely that faith which Curtius affirmed by writing his book: that ideas are worth remembering, that they can help us keep our heads. The world-as-stage defines more than Carole Lombard's career.
In the Preface to Saint Joan (1924), Shaw writes of certain "proposals" for improving his play: "The experienced knights of the blue pencil . . . would at once proceed to waste two hours in building elaborate scenery, having real water in the river Loire and a real bridge across it, and staging an obviously sham fight for possession of it, with the victorious French led by Joan on a real horse. Joan would be burnt on stage ... on the principle that it does not matter in the least why a woman is burnt provided she is burnt, and people can pay to see it done." Exactly the kind of thinking that Hecht satirized in the figure of Jaffe.
1 Louis Giannetti, Masters of the American Cinema (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1981), p. 190, with a wonderful publicity still from Twentieth Century.
2 The Comic Mind: Comedy and the Movies (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1979), p. 224, a classic example of an excellent writer pushing a thesis too far.