Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be makes its Blu-ray debut through The Criterion Collection, who present the film in its original aspect ratio of about 1.37:1 on this dual-layer disc. The new high-definition transfer is presented in 1080p/24hz.
We certainly get a splendid looking image, only limited somewhat by its age, but having said that the print is still in rather remarkable condition and the restoration work done is appears to have been extensive. Damage is limited primarily to a few minor blemishes like specs of dirt and debris with the occasional tram line. The print generally delivers a sharp, very clear image, though on occasion the quality noticeably depreciates from scene to scene or shot to shot, becoming grainier and a hint fuzzier. After checking the notes these mild leaps in quality can probably be explained by the fact that two sources were used for this transfer: the original 35mm nitrate camera negative and then a 35mm nitrate composite fine grain. The shifts are noticeable but in no way do they impede one’s viewing and are again very minor in most cases.
The digital transfer itself is, as expected, wonderful. The picture retains a filmic look, rendering all details without a hitch (where the source allows at least) and also renders film grain naturally. Contrast may have been boosted a bit but gray levels and shadow delineation are strong.
In the end it’s a rather gorgeous presentation and easily the best the film has looked on home video. 8/10
All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.
Criterion tops Warner’s previous DVD edition (that included a Benny short and wartime promo about buying US war bonds, neither of which appear here I should add) with their selection of supplements, starting with the terrific audio commentary provided by David Kalat. As usual Kalat constructs an absolutely engaging track on the film and its production with a primary focus on some of the poor critical reception the film received. He points out what critics and some audiences found to be of particularly poor taste (“jokes about mass murder,” the unorthodox mix of genres, a break of the unspoken contract between film and audience by going in unexpected routes, seemingly humanizing the enemy or at least presenting them in far too light of a manner, the line “what he did to Shakespeare, we are now doing to Poland”, etc.) while also explaining why these apparently “offensive” items are what make the film work. He also offers a great history of the studio system of the time, talks about the remake (which I think he incorrectly attributes to be a Mel Brooks film, though I’m sure Brooks still had a heavy hand in it,) the influence of Chaplin, the film’s score (which was apparently a touchy issue,) Lubitsch’s The Man I Killed (aka Broken Lullaby) where the director also humanizes the enemy, and then even points out how the film is an obvious influence on Inglourious Basterds, which I admittedly never connected before.
It’s a fantastic track and I have to attribute this to Kalat’s usual organization and form of presentation. His tracks always have some sort of narrative that naturally unwinds, with him teasing certain subject early on and then focusing more on them later. This allows him to cover a wide variety of topics, veering from one to the other, while injecting his own comments and theories without anything feeling unnatural and forced, keeping you glued to your seat because you simply need to “find out what happens next!” as all good narratives do. He can bring all of these points, some of which are not related in an obvious way, together into a cohesive whole to support whatever central subject about the film he’s covering, in this case the accusations of “bad taste” put against it. It also doesn’t hurt that his tracks are always thoroughly researched and that he obviously just knows his stuff. If only all scholarly tracks were like this.
In all honesty I could have just had that track and I probably would have been happy but Criterion includes a few other items. The next feature, a 53-minute French television documentary entitled Lubitsch le Patron, made in 2010, presents a number of French scholars and French filmmakers talking about Lubitsch and his “touch,” offering a look at his work and covering a variety of subjects, like how he was able to get so much past the censors. It also of course offers a fairly basic bio of the man. It covers To Be or Not to Be a little bit, but everyone seems far more enamored with The Shop Around the Corner. It’s fine enough, but Kalat covers a lot of these subjects better (like how Lubitsch got so much past censors) and the documentary can be rather obnoxious thanks to overly eager scholar Marc Cerisuelo who pops up a bit too much for my tastes throughout.
Criterion next includes Lubitsch’s 1916 silent film Pinkus’ Shoe Palace, a comedy about a lowly shoe store employee’s trials and tribulations leading up to him becoming a sort of “shoe baron” one could say. Lubitsch also plays the title character, Sally Pinkus, who I guess is supposed to represent the views of a Jewish businessman at the time in Germany. I’m not overly familiar with this character but understand the he appears in a series of films. Though it has some amusing moments I was actually a bit stunned at the Jewish stereotypes on display here, played for laughs (though maybe ultimately I shouldn’t be surprised by them considering the time period.) I can’t say I was particularly fond of it but it’s an interesting piece of history. It has been restored and is presented in 1080p. It is also served with a score by Donald Sosin.
The disc then ends with two radio episodes of The Screen Guild Theater. The first is a 1940 episode called Variety and it has a storyline featuring an annoyed Jack Benny (as himself) trying to work his way onto an episode of The Screen Guild Theater that is to be directed by Lubitsch. The issue at hand is that this episode is supposed to be a dramatic piece starring Claudette Colbert and Basil Rathbone and everyone thinks Benny is too funny to play drama (at one point he says to Lubitsch that “if [Lubitsch] could make Garbo laugh he could make [Benny] cry.”) He calls up each participant only to be told to call someone else and if he can convince them he can do the part he could be in the play. Eventually he faces off with Rathbone, with both in competition in reading for the part in question. It’s fairly amusing, showing off Benny’s usual self-deprecating humour. The program runs shy of 30-minutes.
We then get a (very truncated) radio version of To Be or Not to Be, which premiered on The Screen Guild Theater in 1943, and features William Powell and Diana Lewis as the married actors. Sig Ruman reprises his role as Earhardt. It actually starts halfway through the film, where Tura finds Sobinski in his apartment. It then rushes through the last half of the story. Surprisingly it keeps a lot of things deemed questionable at the time by critics (including the “what he did with Shakespeare line”) and stays mostly true to the story. It runs about 26-minutes.
The included 25-page booklet then includes an essay by Geoffrey O’Brien and then includes a reprint of Lubitsch’s written response to his critics, where he takes on the accusations thrown against him head on.
Sadly the Warner features didn’t make it, though I assume it’s because they (at least in the case of the short film) are owned by Warner Bros. and may not have been easy for Criterion to get a hold of. Still, the supplements are all very decent, with Kalat’s incredible commentary being the star. 9/10