Thursday, July 24, 2008

Jack Benny and the Sympathetic Shylock

To Be or Not to Be. Dir. Ernst Lubitsch. Perf. Jack Benny, Carole Lombard, Robert Stack, and Felix Bressart. 1942. DVD. Warner Home Video, 2005.

Jack Benny is the greatest radio comedian the world has ever seen. As a movie or television actor—if you get the right movie—he's not terrible. Not great. But also not terrible.

In terms of Shakespeare and film, I very much enjoy his 1942 To Be or Not to Be (later remade by Mel Brooks in 1983). In the scene below, Benny and his friends (all actors in a Polish theatre—good guys, in other words) have donned Nazi uniforms to create a diversion to help their friends escape from the real Nazis while the real Hitler (the actor playing Hitler here is actually an actor playing an actor playing Hitler) watches a performance from a box on the other side of that wall.

One point to be made from the speech from Merchant of Venice here is that it's given the utmost sympathy. Whatever you may feel about Shylock, it's almost impossible for the "Hath not a Jew eyes?" speech to be delivered without sympathy.

Another point is that the word "Jew is excerpted from the speech. It seems to be a speech about Poles and not about Jews. But the Jewish resonance is still there. Though the characters speaks of Poland, earlier in the film, we learn that he is Jewish. [When he wants to accuse a fellow actor of hamming it up, he says, "What you are I wouldn't eat." Lovely economy of form, that.]

That, itself, may serve as an emblem of WWII in 1942. What the world sees is the plight of the Poles; under that is the plight of the Jews.

Take a look at the clip; then try the whole film out at your local (or, if you use Netflix, not-so-local) video rental store or library.

Links: The film in question.  Click below to purchase the film from (and to support Bardfilm as you do so).


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Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare's works are from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
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