I took a recess from life recently to enjoy the last minutes of the Jack Benny version of To Be Or Not To Be (1942), to be distinguished from Mel Brooks’s 1983 version, which I have not seen in its entirely because the “tirety” I have seen did not come close to equaling the taste, the “touch” or the hilarity of the glorious original.
Jack Benny displays a smoldering dominance. Mel Brooks, by meaningful contrast, is bombastic, but after a while you get exhausted and you can’t wait for him to either lose steam – which he apparently never does – or go home, a literal “non factor” if he is performing at his house. Then you’d have to go home.
I stylistically prefer Mr. Benny, who, from my youngest recollections, was my comedic example.
Also – I am coining a phrase here, perhaps not a great phrase but at least it’s original – which is the following:
“Nobody does ‘Then’ better than ‘Then.’”
Some clarifying context.
To Be Or Not To Be is a comedy/drama in which a troupe of itinerant Polish actors seeks to escape the Nazis during their ravaging occupation of its capital, Warsaw.
To produce such a movie during the height – actually, I think for the “Allies” it was during the depths – of the conflict took monumental courage and…
Forget the nightmarish reality a moment, as it is is beyond my ability to worthily encompass. I shall just stick to the “movie” part.
A movie made when – or at least near – the time it actually depicts is suffused with the spirit, the ambiance and the sensitivity and of its era. That’s what I meant by “Nobody does ‘Then’ better than ‘Then.’” Forty years after the fact – as with the To Be Or Not To Be remake – you are left with only imagination, research and “worshipful homage.”
It’s not the same.
But as insightful as that observation is, that is not why I decided to write about this movie.
Maybe because of commercial marketing reasons – and what isn’t? – today’s movies are classified by “Type” – Comedy, Drama, “Horror” Film, Action-Adventure. Et cetera. Check out your cable TV listings. That is exactly how they are categorized.
Very few movies mix the potatoes with the peas. They instead enforce impenetrable boundaries. From a “Sales” standpoint – and perhaps an audience standpoint, as well – that is apparently what they prefer.
A movie like, say, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, you come out, you go, “They said it was a comedy” and you get angry. You came to laugh and see a guy thrown out of a window.
The post facto corrective – “They said it was a mordantly black comedy’” – is rarely like, “Sorry. My mistake.” You feel ripped off, your unmet expectations sending home full of suppressed “Ha-ha.”
Think: “I drank my soda too fast.” It feels annoyingly burpy.
But – and here’s what you miss, demanding unwavering “genre separation” –
You miss the weight, the depth and the resonance of a comedy set in a world of torturous calamity.
That’s the 1942 version of To Be Or Not To Be.
Every joke and comedic “set-piece” lands like a shattering thunderbolt.
The TV series M*A*S*H?
The quippy one-liners come fast and furious, fully in sync with the perilous situation. Everything’s “short and snappy.” The “casualty” helicopters could arrive at any moment.
Every M*A*S*H joke came sheathed in the (spoken or subliminal) context:
“Hey! There’s a war on!”
As compared to some of the sitcoms I worked on where the subtextural message was:
“Hey! We are trying to get big laughs and make money!”
Not that there is anything wrong with that. But do you see how one show’s comic offerings would hit home more stunningly powerfully than the other’s?
I used to be jealous of M*A*S*H. It almost felt like they were cheating, imagining, when they couldn’t think of a joke, they went to their rescuing mantra:
“There’s a war on!”
Now, watching the reruns, I see the ingenious “blend”, the impeccable recipe of laughter and lament.
The Big Sick recently tried that approach. But its portrayed peril was familial rather than international – the bacteria threatened her body, not the entirely of western civilization. The ultimate effect, therefore, becomes “smaller.”
There is Mom on network TV – still my “go-to” destination, as it requires only one remote rather than three – but the jokes feel like substandard retreads of the sharper originals, unworthy of Mom’s significant underpinnings.
It is easier confecting a recipe out of a single ingredient. But, if you go for the more challenging “hybrid”, risking missing the mark in both arenas, the rewards for its successful execution are…
Or at least my undying respect.
Which, you will agree, is virtually the same thing.