THE DVD SHELF: Lubitsch's "To Be Or Not To Be," Ophuls' "Earrings of Madame de...," "The Good Wife" and "Elementary"

By Steven Suskin
August 25, 2013

This month's column looks at newly-restored releases of Ernst Lubitsch's comic masterpiece "To Be or Not To Be" and Max Ophuls' evocative "The Earrings of Madame de..." We also screen multi-disc sets from two current television series: "The Good Wife" and "Elementary."

*



I've got a list of favorite, funniest films — haven't we all? — and I'm always glad when one of them is restored and rereleased. This time it's Ernst Lubitsch's immortal "To Be or Not To Be," which the Criterion Collection has now upgraded to Blu-Ray. This satiric comedy takes aim squarely at Hitler; it was made before the U.S. entered the War in December 1941 and released in early 1942, when the enormity of what the Nazis were doing was as yet unclear. Even so, it was controversial in its day and I don't suppose Lubitsch — or anyone — would have made it in 1943, 1944 or thereafter. In any event, it is blisteringly funny.

The conceit is that Jack Benny — of all people, and he is very good in the role — is Josef Tura, Poland's greatest actor and biggest ham. His actress-wife, Maria, is very supportive, but prone to entertain young airmen in her dressing room. Hence, "To Be or Not To Be;" when Tura is onstage giving Hamlet's soliloquy, the coast is clear. After Poland is invaded, the acting troupe — which had been preparing an anti-Nazi play, and thus is fully outfitted with Nazi scenery, costumes, and fake mustaches — is somehow drawn into the Polish underground. Virtue, and the Polish actors, are, of course, triumphant.

Benny is more than matched by Carole Lombard as Maria; she is at the top of her skill here, in her final film. (Following the declaration of war in Dec. 1941, Lombard embarked on a war bond rally. The 33-year-old comedienne was killed when her flight back to Hollywood crashed into a Nevada mountaintop.)

A young Robert Stack plays the Polish airman in question, and the film is filled with wonderful character performances from Sig Ruman as the bumbling Colonel Ehrhardt, Stanley Ridges as the dangerous Professor Siletsky, Lionel Atwill as a pompous actor who's an even bigger ham than Tura and Tom Dugan as an unsuspecting stand-in for the Führer. Best of all, and perhaps the heart of this Lubitsch classic, is Felix Bressart as an unassuming spear carrier who always wanted to play Shylock — and at a moment of extreme peril gets to do so.

(This film is not to be confused with the 1983 Mel Brooks remake, a vulgar affair missing the nuance and power of the original. There was also a misguided 2008 stage adaptation from the Manhattan Theatre Club, which somehow also failed to amuse.)

Criterion, as is its habit, packs the new digital transfer with bonus features. Most fascinating of these is the oddest: Pinkus's "Shoe Palace" (also known as "Shoe Palace Pinkus"), a 1916 silent film starring and directed by Lubitsch. This was part of the Sally comedies series, the popularity of which gave Lubitsch the opportunity to start directing. That said, these films about a haggling Jewish businessman named Sally Meyer are so stereotypical as to be objectionable by present-day standards. It is also somewhat astounding that the worldly, sophisticated director — purveyor of the legendary "Lubitsch Touch" — started in this manner, but it was the success of the Sally films which enabled him to get to Hollywood in 1922.

More to the point is the reason Criterion has unearthed this 60-minute silent. From the time of his arrival in the United States, we are told, Lubitsch put aside the use of any stereotypical Jewish characters —  until, apparently, "To Be or Not to Be," where the character of Greenberg, the Shylock-spouting supernumerary, is as "Jewish" as Lubitsch in Pinkus's "Shoe Palace." This is not used for laughter in the later case, mind you, but for enhancing the gravity of the situation and sweetening the victory of the Polish actors over the Reich. In any event, this early film presents an unknown, and thoroughly unexpected, side of Lubitsch.

Meanwhile, be prepared for Criterion's October release of "I Married a Witch." This 1942 comedy from René Clair, starring Fredric March and Veronica Lake, has nothing to do with "To Be or Not To Be" other than its shared comic flair.

*

Also from Criterion is Max Ophuls' stunning 1953 film "The Earrings of Madame de..." The movie positively swirls with passion, or perhaps you could say it waltzes with passion. (The waltzes are courtesy of Oscar Straus [1870-1954], the Viennese composer of The Chocolate Soldier and other operettas.) Said earrings are central to the story. The bored wife of a general in 19th-century France sells some expensive earrings (a wedding present from her husband) back to the jeweler to pay her debts. The diamond earrings make their way through several hands, with the general purchasing them three separate times, eventually leading to tragedy and death.

This is accompanied by a visual feast from Ophuls and his designers. The camera is always moving and the period details leap out at you. There is one especially bravura sequence: the aforementioned waltz, a collage-like ballroom scene which spans months (and multiple costumes), as the affair develops, while appearing to be filmed in one continuous stretch. Ophuls has three excellent actors at his disposal: Danielle Darrieux as the wife, screen legend Charles Boyer as the husband, and the Italian Vittorio De Sica — already an Academy Award-winning film director — as the third point in the triangle.

*

August always seems to be a good month to catch up on TV. CBS — which is presently not appearing in many of our households here in Manhattan — sent box sets of two of their series, both of which I find to be highly watchable. "The Good Wife" has many things going for it, including the canny intelligence of the writing, the general excellence of the acting and a knack for enhancing it all with a parade of guest actors — many of them from the stage — who are given the chance to showcase their talents.

The fourth season finds Alicia (Julianna Margulies) — a corporate lawyer whose husband Peter (Chris Noth), a bribery-prone, prostitute-patronizing state's attorney got out of prison in the first season — up for partnership at the powerhouse Chicago firm headed by Diane (Christine Baranski) and Will (Josh Charles), while Peter runs for governor of Illinois under the direction of campaign manager Eli (Alan Cumming).

Margulies is the center of "The Good Wife," naturally enough, and she is very good. The two time Emmy winner — in 1995 for "E.R." and in 2011 for "The Good Wife" — has appeared on local stages along the way, most notably in Jon Robin Baitz's 2001 Ten Unknowns at the Newhouse (with Donald Sutherland and Denis O'Hare) and in the shortlived 2006 Festen at the Music Box.

Margulies needs to be good, as she is up against two of Broadway's top scene-stealers. Baranski is, I suppose, more or less playing Baranski here, but how delicious she is! One of those masters of the half-raised eyebrow and the sidelong glance, she is difficult to look away from. If Baranski is doing what Baranski does so well, the equally adept Cumming is giving a performance very much unlike what we've seen from him on stage. There's something exceedingly droll and Clifton Webbish about this canny political handler. The character is well-written, yes, but Cumming adds a lot to the proceedings.

The other stars are very good, especially Matt Czuchry as a young lawyer and Archie Panjabi as an in-house investigator who is the diametrical opposite of Perry Mason's Paul Drake. Both are always watchable, and Panjabi has earned an Emmy for her efforts. The fourth season, though, was all but overrun by Nathan Lane playing a bankruptcy trustee for nine episodes. Lane, like Cumming, is startlingly good.

Otherwise, "The Good Wife" — created by Robert King and Michelle King — is overrun with fine actors given the opportunity, and the lines, to act up their own storms. The recurring cast includes Stockard Channing as Alicia's trouble-making mother; Mary Beth Peil as Peter's mother; Dylan Baker as a problematic client; and Carrie Preston and Kristin Chenoweth as outside lawyers. Michael J. Fox is an opposing lawyer, too, and does some powerful acting in two episodes. A hidden weapon is Zach Grenier, as a slimy partner at the law firm. Grenier is one of those familiar character men who always do a good job; his top-notch stage work includes a Tony-nominated turn opposite Jane Fonda in 33 Variations.

Drifting through the 22-episode season are Ed Herrmann, Maura Tierney, Rita Wilson, Brooks Ashmanskas, Brian Dennehy, Denis O'Hare, Christina Ricci, F. Murray Abraham, John Shea, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Karen Olivo, Seth Numrich, Judd Hirsch, Lorenzo Pisoni, Bebe Neuwirth, Yul Vazquez, Malcolm Gets, Reed Birney, Becky Ann Baker, Jane Alexander, Anika Noni Rose, Tamara Tunie, John Benjamin Hickey, Larry Pine, David Garrison, Hamish Linklater, Jerry Adler, Carol Woods, Jeff Blumenkrantz, Lily Rabe, S. Epatha Merkerson, Wallace Shawn, Walter Bobbie, Audra McDonald, Rene Auberjonois, John Cullum, John Glover, Mamie Gummer, Estelle Parsons and Martha Plimpton (who won an Emmy for her "Good Wife" appearance in 2012). Is it any surprise that "The Good Wife" makes compelling viewing?

*

Also from CBS comes the first season of "Elementary". This is, in a nutshell, Sherlock Holmes in New York circa today. (Fittingly for the subject, the scripts are intelligent, literate and packed with knowledge. None of the characters, though, seem ever to have heard of the original Sherlock.) It is not difficult to imagine the format: a case a week, like good old Perry Mason, only with all sorts of post-modern twists.

Creator/writer Robert Doherty, though, takes his Sherlock seriously. What we get is a brilliant criminalist and ex-addict starting out clean, as it were, consulting with the N.Y.P.D. from his quirky Brooklyn brownstone. The best twist of many, perhaps, is this Holmes' Dr. Watson. Joan Watson she is, Sherlock's "sober companion" but formerly a surgeon who quit her career after losing a patient in a botched surgery. This Holmes and Watson, in the hands of Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu, make a couple that we would gladly watch through any adventures.

The casting is canny. Miller came to Sherlock from Frankenstein — the highly-acclaimed 2011 Royal National Theatre production, that is, with Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch alternating in the roles of Frankenstein and his Creature. He has only appeared on Broadway once, but in a memorable — and graphic — performance opposite Sienna Miller in After Miss Julie at the Roundabout in 2009. Liu, who started her career in TV's "Ally McBeal," visited town that same season, in the replacement cast of God of Carnage.

The producers take care to fill the guest roles with strong performers. The first season included the likes of Bill Heck, Craig Bierko, Anika Noni Rose, Roger Rees, Stephen McKinley Henderson, John Pankow, Reg Rogers, Linda Emond, Terry Kinney, Jessica Hecht, Christopher Sieber, Becky Ann Baker, Howard McGillin, Byron Jennings and F. Murray Abraham. "The Good Wife" and "Elementary," it turns out, share the same casting director, Mark Saks.

(Steven Suskin is author of "Show Tunes", “The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations,” “Second Act Trouble,” the "Broadway Yearbook" series and the “Opening Night on Broadway” books. He also writes the Aisle View blog at The Huffington Post. He can be reached at ssuskin@aol.com.)