Carole Lombard’s last picture, To Be or Not to Be, aired on the Saturday night prime time edition of The Essentials on Turner Classic Movies the other night. I only learned this the day after. Damn! I missed it, which is a shame because I enjoy the perspectives of Robert Osborne and Drew Barrymore as they dissect the classics.
To Be or Not to Be shares with Saratoga, Rebel Without a Cause, the upcoming Paul Walker picture, Furious 7, and many others, the distinction of being released after the death of a major star. Saratoga was in mid-production when Jean Harlow took sick and passed away, causing a problem for MGM that became a publicity gimmick: spot the scenes featuring a body double for Harlow. As recounted in John McElwee’s fantastic book, Showmen, Sell It Hot! producers and distributors sometimes face this macabre fork in the road, having to complete or market a motion picture featuring a leading player who’s suddenly deceased. McElwee discusses at length the problems facing MGM when another Walker, this one Robert, died during production of My Son John. Following the death of super-hot cult icon James Dean in a car crash, Warner Bros. cashed in with a teenaged population that camped out in theaters to watch their “crossed-over” hero over and over and over again. As described by McElwee, the stellar box office of Rebel led to a fast reissue of Dean’s two other pictures, East of Eden and Giant, as well as production of an odd little documentary, The James Dean Story. Cash registers really do jingle when a big star dies.
I had always read that Carole Lombard’s last picture didn’t do well, which made no sense given the very public, very heroic, way she died. Then I did the research and learned what boffo business To Be or Not to Be did upon its release in February 1942, a discreet one month after Lombard’s passing on TWA Flight 3. To Be was a smash hit for United Artists, which it probably would not have been otherwise due to the three strikes against it.
For those few of you who haven’t seen To Be or Not to Be, do yourselves a favor and rent or buy it at once. The plot concerns a troupe of actors in a Warsaw that experiences Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939. The harmless group of performers is enjoying a run of Hamlet but had also been rehearsing a comedy about Hitler that is now shut down by the invaders—the censor forbids such satire of the Fuhrer.
Who in an America plunged into war was going to buy a comedy about Hitler? That was strike one. The title, a line from Hamlet, itself spelled trouble in rural areas, and UA sought to change it prior to the picture’s release. Strike two. In fact, Carole Lombard spent the first leg of her bond tour in a tizzy because To Be or Not to Be was about to become The Censor Forbids. As covered in Fireball, telegrams shot back and forth between the train and New York, with Carole asserting that a change to this new title “in no way conveys the spirit of the picture and is unbecoming to an organization as important as United Artists.” She found the new title “suggestive” and distasteful, and in general raised such a stink that UA quickly backed down.
Strike three was Lombard herself. She wasn’t scoring at the box office, and her pictures of late had been unsuccessful. Only two of her past seven pictures had done well, and neither was a smash. The two pictures she had lined up after To Be were practically B-level and both at second-tier studios, one at Columbia and the other at Universal.
All these factors conspired with the outbreak of war to make United Artists executives in New York nervous, and the combination of them indicated that the picture was about to premiere to middling business.
No wonder Lombard was in a pissy mood on the train. Well, it didn’t help that she had just brawled with her husband, Clark Gable, about his eyes wandering in the direction of a hot little number at MGM named Lana Turner. Stakes were high for Carole all around on this bond trip, and she was plenty shrewd enough to understand that headlines of big bond sales in Indianapolis would help restore her name at the box office.
Carole and co-star Jack Benny knew they had something special in To Be or Not to Be. They had fun and shooting went fast—two positive signs for the picture that was supposed to be sneak previewed on the evening of Monday, January 19. Theoretically Carole could have completed the bond tour as scheduled by train and still made the preview, but of course she died on January 16 and the preview never happened. She did not live to see her last picture, which most fans call her best.
I urge you to watch To Be or Not to Be because it’s such a smart picture. The humor is sly throughout, with Lombard portraying a famous Polish actress who contemplates infidelity with a young air force pilot 10 years her junior. Laugh at Nazis? The audience couldn’t help but laugh because the premise worked. This joke really was on Hitler.
Carole Lombard turned 33 as production commenced, and she never looked better. To Be or Not to Be is a swan song that needed no tricks and no ballyhoo, and UA was careful not to say or do anything untoward—anything that could upset a grieving Mr. Gable or his studio, powerful MGM. Metro itself had gone to questionable extremes in pitching Saratoga, like urging theater operators to set up shrines to the dead blonde bombshell, complete with saintly photos, crucifixes, and floral displays. No such showmanship seeped out of UA—To Be or Not to Be sold itself as the masses sought one more date in the dark with the late queen of screwball and American war hero, Carole Lombard.