According to Kathy Fuller-Seeley, “To Be or Not to Be,” a comedy that openly ridiculed Nazis at the beginning of America’s entrance into World War II, is the strangest movie that radio star Jack Benny starred in, but it was also his best.
Fuller-Seeley, a radio-television-film professor at UT, will be screening the film, directed by Ernst Lubitsch in 1942. The film is about an acting troupe in Nazi-occupied Poland who attempt to help a Polish resistance soldier find a German spy that has plans that could destroy the resistance movement.
Fuller-Seeley first wanted to present the film because of its humor, as well as the critical recognition the film received from magazines such as TIME and Variety.
Additionally, Fuller-Seeley wanted to show the film because of Jack Benny’s uncharacteristic performance. Prior to the film’s release, Benny was famous for his radio show, “The Jack Benny Program,” which ran for three decades. Fuller-Seeley is currently writing a book about Benny and his radio career.
“This is his best performance,” said Fuller-Seeley. “It’s his most unusual performance because he’s playing a character who’s not Jack Benny.”
She also wanted to show the film because of its legacy. Both Fuller-Seeley and Tom Schatz, a radio-television-film professor, said that the film was significant because it satirized the Nazis.
“It was one of the few Hollywood movies, especially this early in the war, that dealt with Nazi Germany and dealt with the Nazis in a comedy,” Schatz said. “The fact that this was made at all was interesting.”
As a result, the film has been noted as one of the first “black comedies.” Schatz said the film helped expand the role of comedy by making controversial subjects, such as Nazism, fair game to ridicule.
Fuller-Seeley hopes that the screening will allow the audience to see how talented a performer Benny was, even in a film that was not typical of his normal work.
“Not a lot of people have seen [the film], so I want them to enjoy a very smart comedy — a very well made film,” Fuller-Seeley said.
Next month, Fuller-Seeley will present another talk about Benny’s work as a radio and television personality.