No other comedian could milk a pause for a laugh quite the way Jack Benny could on his radio program, which lasted from 1932 to 1955 and turned him into an American institution. (He also did a TV show from 1950 to 1965.) Benny was a comedy minimalist, and his friend George Burns called him the best editor of comedy material in the business. His art is the art of withholding and of simplifying, and certain elements of it were serious in that Benny himself actually did take playing the violin rather seriously but played it for laughs on his program. He was not vain about his age or tight with a dollar as he was on his radio show, but Benny knew that these foibles allowed for an ever-replenishing source of comedy.
Americans listened to The Jack Benny
Program every week on the radio, and so Benny was as known and loved as a
favorite relative. For people of
that generation, just saying the name Jack Benny made them feel better and happier,
as if he were a guarantee of security and consistency, always there, cheerfully
unchanging, like untouched money in the bank. He was not challenging or edgy
and he did not push boundaries. Benny’s character on the radio was a bit of a know-it-all, and Americans usually hate
know-it-alls, but there was something about Benny’s touchy voice and aggrieved
timing that made this character beguiling. The dry comic genius of Benny—and genius is not too strong a word for him—thrives
on his perception of the crassness of the world around him when compared to his
own supposedly and perhaps actually fine feelings.
Benny did not have much luck with feature films, and he even made one of his movies, The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945), into a running gag on his show. (It really isn’t that bad, but just bad enough to let Benny milk it as a comic punch line for decades.) Yet he is the essential male lead in one great film, Ernst Lubitsch’s highly risky To Be or Not to Be (1942), which relies on Benny’s image and timing just as it makes similar demands on Carole Lombard. It concerns a troupe of actors in Poland in 1939 and their reaction to the Nazi occupation, and the boldness of Lubitsch’s alternations between a comic and dramatic tone here really put Benny in particular on the spot.
Audiences seeing To Be or Not to Be at the time of its release would have been saturated in Benny-ness, or very Benny conscious, but even someone who has no conception of who Benny was should be able to feel the incongruous comic charge of this self-absorbed, dainty middle-aged man stepping out on a stage in doublet and hose with a little book that he closes before launching into Hamlet’s soliloquy questioning the value of life.
Benny plays Joseph Tura in To Be or Not to Be, a Polish theater star. If his radio character had sought to portray Hamlet, surely Benny would have gotten most of his laughs by being interrupted and sent up, and so there is a deep laugh here when Benny’s Tura is interrupted by a young soldier (Robert Stack) leaving the audience as he begins his speech. This laugh has been set up because Benny looks out at us when he closes that book in a pricelessly self-satisfied way, as if Tura is signaling, “I’m about to give you a precious gift.” And so when he is deflated by Stack’s exit, this is in keeping with the basis of Benny’s act: lightly absurd pomposity followed by affronted pride.
In his memoirs, Benny told a story about asking Lubitsch why he had been chosen to play the lead in To Be or Not to Be, and Lubitsch said, “You think you are a comedian. You are not a comedian . . . you are fooling the public for thirty years. You are fooling even yourself. A clown, he is a performer what is doing funny things. A comedian, he is a comedian what is saying funny things. But you, Jack, you are an actor, you are an actor playing the part of a comedian and this you are doing very well.” Lubitsch “got” Benny and his act on a very deep level, and he makes full use of that knowledge for To Be or Not to Be.
Tura is part of a stage team with his wife Maria, played by Lombard, and Benny himself worked on the radio with his wife, who used the name Mary Livingstone. Many comedians are extremely unhappy in some way, but Benny seems to have been unusually content and well adjusted in his private life. Off the air, Livingstone could be insecure and difficult to please (Lucille Ball called her a “hard-hearted Hannah”), but her musical laugh on Benny’s show is another constant source of delight in Benny-world. Many of the biggest laughs on the Benny program come when Livingstone or someone else screws up a line and Benny teases them about it, which is the only time when he does display a little edge. On his radio show, Mary would always be there to puncture his superciliousness with a wisecrack, whereas Lombard’s Maria in To Be or Not to Be seems to genuinely worship at the throne of her husband’s ego.
The scenes between Benny and Lombard are set at a very fast pace where she delivers her lines in that special racing, slightly slaphappy way she had and he stays right with her and tops her vocally with an even higher pitch and speed to put a button on their exchanges, and this is purely technical in one sense. (A vocal build-up without restraint is intrinsically funny and liberating, and Benny knows how to make his voice just high enough and loud enough so that his lines are funnier.) Tura is jealous of his wife’s flirtations with men, but his ego is so in need of things to feed on that she is always able to distract him by paying him a compliment. If Benny’s Tura is despairing, watching him is a relief in the same way that Benny’s radio character was a kind of relief to his audience because this despair is scaled just right so that we feel the silliness of all human vanity.
In the crucial scene below, Benny’s Tura has taken on a dangerous mission to rout the Nazis, and he has to stall the very unpleasant Siletsky (Stanley Ridges). Benny repeats, “So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt!” several times, and of course this isn’t a funny line at all. The last time he says it, the line comes out all deflated, but this time the deflation isn’t at all comic. After Siletsky insults his wife, Tura is deadly serious and ready to fight when he replies, “I think I know what you mean.” This serves as a kind of warning, as if to say that even the self-absorbed Tura has his limits, and the same could be said of Benny himself.
Benny sometimes ended his radio programs in the 1940s with very sincere pleas for tolerance, and we could take that easily from him because somehow his goodness or wanting to do good was taken for granted; he was not a show business phony, which is why he is so funny playing that through some of To Be or Not to Be. But Tura’s phoniness is punctured in a key moment in this scene. When he realizes that Siletsky is going to shoot him, Benny says the word, “What?” in a very mild and scared and even cowardly way. Bob Hope often played at being cowardly in his own comedy act, but it is unlikely he would have allowed himself to be as truly afraid as Benny is here.
Yet Tura manages to squeeze out a “Long live Poland!” when he thinks he has been shot, and this is comic (his legs are bent in a goofy position) but also admirable. On his TV show, Benny often put his hand to his face as if to cradle it with self-love, and in To Be or Not to Be that self-love is dramatically and very excitingly put to the test by Lubitsch, who understood that the best comedy has a serious basis and can also be used as a weapon. The dramatic charge in this scene comes from seeing the justly beloved Benny placed in unfamiliar and deadly circumstances so that we can find out for certain what he is made of.