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Your March Random Movie Club Results Are In!

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Pizza: Papa John's



Don't ask me why I've never seen the original version of TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942). I have no idea. It was just one of many movies that seemed to slip through the cracks, though I did manage to find time to watch LITTLE WITCHES five times. But tonight, the Random Movie Generator was kind, and it spat out this classic movie. And it was well worth the wait.

'Twas another fun crowd, which was perfect because TBONTB is a fun movie starring Jack Benny (one of my all-time favorite comedians) and Carole Lombard. It begins with two misleads (see for yourself, I'm not telling) featuring a bunch of funny lines and visuals, especially the first exchange between Benny and Lombard. Only five minutes had gone by when I found myself hoping this movie would go on forever.

young-robert-stack by Random Movie Club
Benny stars as thespi-ham Joseph Tula, an actor in a Polish theater troupe caught in the act, literally (though I'm not quite sure if it was Act 1 or Act 2), when war breaks out. His wife, the equally vain Maria Tula (Lombard), has a young admirer, Sobinski (Robert Stack), which irks the hell out of Joseph - not so much that Sobinski is interested in his wife, but that Sobinski leaves the audience every time Joseph begins his HAMLET soliloquy. It's a laugh-out-loud moment and luckily, happens more than once.

Jack Benny as Hamlet
But then...bum-bum-buuuummmm...the movie gets serious. It actually goes from comedy to spy movie then circles back to farce as the movie pits a troupe of actors against troops of Nazis. TO BE OR NOT TO BE is funny and serious, making it a Prius of entertainment. Benny himself is absent from the screen from minutes 21 through 43. That's a lot of time for a comedy to go without any comedy. But when he's on, he's on.

Sobinski makes a move on Maria (Lombard)
Odder than having such a funny/serious movie is the fact that it works so well. I laughed at the funny parts and followed the dramatic ones intently. Suffice to say that there's a spy among the Polish bomber squadron, and Sobinski is rushed back to Warsaw to expose him before the spy demolishes the underground.

Joesph Tula, on the other hand, has both of his problems to deal with - Germany moves in on Poland and Sobinski moves in on Maria. And Sobinski's declaration that he "can drop three tons of dynamite in two minutes" is one helluva aphrodisiac for her.


TO BE OR NOT TO BE isn't the only movie that switches genre gears. It was common back then. Why, even here at RMC we watched a movie called ONCE UPON A HONEYMOON which did the same. Watched now, these movies seem a bit queer by today's standards. Not many hold up. But this one does, and credit goes to everyone, starting with writers Edwin Justus Mayor and Melchior Lengyel, who built a really funny story around such a serious subject...that was still in full swing when the movie was released. Directed under the masterful hand of Wilder/Wyler contemporary Ernst Lubitsch, a man who knew comedy and how to make it. I even loved the score by Werner R. Heymann (with an uncredited assist from the great Miklos Rozsa), which sounded to me like a cross between Max Steiner's KING KONG and any Marx Brothers movie, which makes sense because...Prius, remember?.

Then there's the actors, like the always funny Sig Ruman (I actually recognized him from his voice), a German character actor that you may know from many things, like (speaking of Marx Brothers) A NIGHT IN CASABLANCA. My buddy Sig does an hilarious take as Gestapo agent Ehrhardt. Robert Stack was more like Robert Lack, but that was more because of his role - a young and naive soldier with bravado. All the players were so much fun, like Felix Bressart as Greenburg, relegated to carrying a spear instead of performing the role of Shylock in HAMLET. But fear not, for soon his world would be a stage.

Lombard and Benny
But the real jewel is the team of Benny and Lombard. For amid all the shelling and spying, they have their own problems, and these two pros play it all perfectly. Lombard's Maria Tula is wonderfully crafted, written and acted. She's funny and sharp while often pretending to not know it. And Benny fits perfectly into the shoes of the jealous husband/overdone actor.

Sadly, Benny didn't fare nearly as well in movies as he did on radio and later on TV. Back in December 2003, RMC picked HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929 featuring Benny as the emcee...and aside from the time capsule of it all, it was kind of painful for us to sit through.
TBONTB is probably Benny's most revered movie, but when it was released it was a critic's feeding frenzy, or as they'd say in the movie - "a catastrophe!" Another reason it was a wash at the time (besides, as mentioned earlier, that it was a comedy about the war while the war was on) was because of costar Carole Lombard, who didn't even get to see it open. Her plane crashed into a mountain while she was on a war bonds tour of the states. So the movie had a bad taste for a few reasons.

Benny, a Jew born Benjamin Kubelsky, dons a Nazi uniform in the movie. As odd a choice as this seems to someone who wasn't alive at the time, it wasn't uncommon, as everyone from The Three Stooges to Bugs Bunny riffed on the Fuhrer during the war. And they were all Jewish (well, Mel Blanc was....not sure about the actual rabbit).

Carol Lombard
This movie is so much better than the Mel Brooks unsubtle, uninspired and painfully schtick-laden 1983 remake, with featured jokes a blind man could see coming from a continent away.

TO BE OR NOT TO BE certainly deserves its 'classic' label. It's clever and funny and holds up incredibly well. It's sad that its original release had to suffer the slings and arrows of the concurrent war as well as Lombard's recent death. I suppose in a way the film plays better now than it did then. Not that I would know for sure. I'm not that old.


There's something spectacular going on in a high school in Huntington Beach, California. The music program has its very own Rock School (APA MMET - Academy For the Performing Arts, Music Media and Entertainment Technology), where students perform an evening of entertainment that will make you cry tears of joy. I've seen a few of these live (most recently, they did the a "The Beatles Go to The Movies" show, performing the whole LET IT BE chunk on a rooftop set). Fortunately, they produce and sell DVDs of their shows, and I thought it was high time we watched one without having to schlep down to HB. We chose a Beatles performance from 2007, skipping an assortment of songs in Act One for the SGT. PEPPER show in Act Two. The kids performed exact arrangements of these songs. The Beatles themselves never did that live.

Out of the gate, the title track rocked with lead singer Cameron Cornell fronting drums, bass, three keyboards, guitars and two backing vocalists. Swapping out singers and players throughout the evening, these high schoolers schooled us. They even wore hair and wardrobe of the era, and some gave their songs a Liverpudlian bend ("I have to admit it's getting be-tah").

I thought all the performances were terrific (some more than others, as with any band). When SHE'S LEAVING HOME came on, a violin and upright bass joined in. I can't imagine how incredible it must feel to be a part of this.

Even the DVD itself is professional, letting you download mp3s of the show.

We made it halfway through before the pizza arrived and we had to shut it off and start watching TO BE OR NOT TO BE.

Now, I don't have kids, so I can't really experience those genuine moments of parental pride. But if I'm sitting here watching a DVD teary-eyed, I can't imagine what actual parents go through. I surely would have embarrassed my kid.

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