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BCB After Dark: Is the Professor still at the top of his game?

The cool party for night owls, early-risers and Cubs fans abroad asks how concerned you are about Kyle Hendricks

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Welcome back to BCB After Dark: the afterparty for night owls, early-risers, new parents and Cubs fans abroad. Thanks for stopping in again tonight. Please let us take your hat and coat. Serve yourself up something and make yourself at home. You’re probably home anyway.

BCB After Dark is the place for you to talk baseball, music, movies, or anything else you need to get off your chest, as long as it is within the rules of the site. The late-nighters are encouraged to get the party started, but everyone else is invited to join in as you wake up the next morning and into the afternoon.

The Cubs ninth-inning rally fell short tonight as they lost to the Twins, 5-4. Max Kepler went 3 for 4 with two home runs and a double and was basically the difference in this game. Kyle Hendricks struggled again tonight.

Feel free to discuss tonight’s game here if you wish.

Yesterday I asked you to take a fresh look at the Yu Darvish trade, and we had some really good comments about the trade. Thoughts were really polarized but polite, which I liked very much. In the end, 37% of you gave the deal a “C,” but everyone wants to wait to grade the trade again in a couple of seasons. (But where’s the fun in that?) Another 35% of you gave the trade a “B.” In third place was a “D” with 15% and 8% gave it an “A.”

Here’s the part where I talk about jazz and movies. I missed my deadline on Monday for my normal film essay, so I promised you one tonight. You can see by how much I wrote why I had trouble finishing it by Monday.

In any case, you’re free to skip ahead to the baseball question at the end. You won’t hurt my feelings.

I’ve made no secret that I’m a fan of contemporary jazz pianist Robert Glasper. I find the way he incorporates R&B and hip-hop into his music allows him to take jazz into new and exciting directions.

This time, however, the Robert Glasper Trio is playing straight-ahead jazz with the Great American Songbook classic “Stella By Starlight.” Even the most novice jazz fan will be able to recognize Glasper’s virtuosity on the piano in this clip, recorded at Capitol Studios in 2014.

Director Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 dark comedy To Be or Not to Be can be summed up as the Nazi occupation of Poland, with jokes.

OK, who’s still with me? (One, two, three . . .is that hand up in the back?) A lot of people in 1942 had the same reaction as those who just stopped reading. It’s understandable. World War II wasn’t supposed to have humor. But in the decades since, the film, starring Carole Lombard and Jack Benny, has been re-evaluated and is now universally considered a classic. One part spy thriller and one part bedroom farce, what To Be or Not to Be really is a piece of political propaganda—a call for America to get off its ass and start fighting fascism.

The film was made in late-1941 as America was still neutral as the war raged in Europe. The Berlin-born Lubitsch had left Germany for Hollywood a decade before the Nazis came to power, but like every other German exile in the movie industry, felt that what was going on in his homeland was an abomination that had to be stopped. He was going to use whatever he could to convince America that it had to join the fight.

To Be or Not to Be is one of several Hollywood films made during America’s period of neutrality that were basically propaganda pieces. The most famous was Casablanca, which, like To Be or Not to Be, wasn’t released until after Pearl Harbor so its arguments against neutrality were rather moot by that point. However, these films did serve a similar purpose to the “Why We Fight” propaganda films made later by the War Department and directed by the Italian-born Frank Capra.

Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator was another film that, similar to To Be or Not to Be, sought to both stir America to action and make the Nazis look not-so-threatening through humor.

In his time in America, Lubitsch had become one of the most famous and respected directors in Hollywood. Lubitsch was known for high-brow comedies like Ninotchka and The Shop Around the Corner. Lubitsch’s films were said to have “The Lubitsch Touch,” which as far as I can tell meant that they were clever, sophisticated and witty in a way that no other director’s films were.

Lubitsch also had no issues with sticking the light together with the darkness. I have no doubt that he believed that the American public had to have their medicine fed to them with large doses of sugar. But make no mistake. He is trying to get medicine down their throats. When the bombs start to fall on Warsaw early in the film, Maria Tura’s explanation of war is cold and to the point: “People are going to kill each other and be killed.”

Carole Lombard gets top billing in this film as Maria Tura, a Polish actress having an affair with a Polish pilot named Stanislav Sobinski, played by a very young Robert Stack. Lombard was one of the top comedic actresses of the time and after her marriage to Clark Gable in 1939, was one-half of the most famous celebrity couple in the world. Unfortunately, it was to be her final film and Lombard didn’t live to see it. In January of 1942, she returned to her home state of Indiana for a War Bond rally. Flying back home to Los Angeles, the plane crashed into a mountain outside of Las Vegas. The warning beacons on the mountain had been turned off so as not to give potential Japanese bombers any navigational guidance.

Playing Maria’s actor husband, Joseph Tura, was radio superstar Jack Benny. The part of Joseph Tura was written specifically for Benny and it intentionally played into his strengths. If you are unfamiliar with “The Jack Benny Show,” the basic premise is that Jack was an egocentric, vain and cheap celebrity who was constantly getting taken down a rung by his friends and neighbors. But the character of Jack always let the put-downs wash right off his back and he just kept on being Jack.

In Joseph Tura, Benny plays an egocentric and vain actor who is torn between heroism and getting his hands on the pilot who was fooling around with his wife. It wasn’t much of a stretch from what he was doing on his radio show.*

The film starts with the company of a Warsaw theater, still in peacetime, working on a serious play about the threat of Nazi Germany. Except Bronski (Tom Dugan) the “ham” actor playing Hitler, can’t stop ad-libbing jokes like “Heil Myself!” Greenberg, the Jewish actor, tells Bronski “What you are, I wouldn’t eat.”

In the end it doesn’t matter, because the Polish government shuts down the play, worried about offending Germany at a time of rising tensions. So the players go back to doing Hamlet, starring Joseph Tura in the title role. When he gets to the famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy, Lt. Sobinski leaves to audience to go backstage and have a little illicit rendezvous with Joseph’s wife Maria. Joseph is offended and wounded by anyone walking out on his performance even without knowing the reason.

The war breaks out and the theater is closed. Sobinski escapes to England, where he joins an all-Polish bomber squadron. A Professor Siletsky meets with the squadron and lets slip that he’s heading back to Warsaw. Every man in the squad gives Siletsky a message to take back to their loved ones back home, but Sobinski only has a message for his lover, Maria Tura, that just says “To be or not to be.”

Sobinski gets immediately suspicious of Siletsky because he’s never heard of the very famous Maria Tura. He reports his suspicions to British intelligence and they send Sobinski back to Warsaw to stop the traitor before he can get the names of the loved ones of the Polish pilots into the hands of the Gestapo.

I’ll try to summarize the rest of the plot with as few spoilers as possible. Sobinski connects with Maria, not because she was his lover but because he trusts her and she has connections with the Polish underground. Joseph discovers Sobinski but his outrage at being cuckolded is pushed aside by Maria because of the urgency of his mission. The theater troupe breaks out their unused Nazi costumes and sets in an effort to foil Professor Siletsky’s mission to give the names of the pilots’ families to the Gestapo. Joseph is forced to impersonate a Gestapo colonel to Siletsky, but blows his cover when Siletsky mentions his wife’s infidelity. That forces the theater company to kill Siletsky and then Joseph is forced to impersonate Siletsky twice in order to fool the Gestapo and save the families of the pilots.

While impersonating the Nazis, Joseph is too vain not to ask them about the “great Polish actor Joseph Tura.” In moments that could have come right out of “The Jack Benny Show,” they tell him repeatedly that they’ve never heard of him and Benny does one of those faces that he was famous for. Finally, the Gestapo colonel has heard of him and Joseph brightens up at that until one of the most controversial lines of the film puts him back in his place: “What he did to Shakespeare, we are doing now to Poland.” Many, many critics at the time thought that line was in poor taste.

The one thing that Lubitsch tries to do is to balance the horror of the war with the light farce of the rest of the film. It’s up to you to decide whether he succeeded, but in no way was Lubitsch trying to mock the seriousness of the war. He portrays the Nazi occupation as brutal and horrible. Not nearly as awful as it was in real life—no one in California really knew the depth of the atrocities going on in Poland in 1941. But he’s definitely trying to make the Nazis out to be an existential threat that needed to be stopped, while at the same time trying to make them less fearsome so that the audience would believe that they could be stopped.

Mel Brooks remade this film in 1983 with his wife Anne Bancroft, and that’s where the remake falls short of the original. For one, Brooks loves to make fun of Nazis and Brooks can’t help but to be silly. Two, the horrors of the Second World War were almost 40 years in the past when Brooks was making his film. He wasn’t trying to convince America to end their neutrality. While Brooks’ film has its moments, it also veers close to Hogan’s Heroes territory at times. He sticks in a few poignant moments, but he failed to portray the Nazis with anything close to the menace that they deserved.

There are several other little parts of the 1942 film that work nicely. One that stands out is a Jewish actor named Greenberg (played by the German-born Jew Felix Bressart, who did flee Germany when the Nazis came to power), who plays only bit parts in the company but dreams of playing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. In a heroic moment, Greenberg puts his life in jeopardy by pretending to try to assassinate Hitler in order to serve as a diversion for the activities of the rest of the troupe. In order to keep the bit going long enough to accomplish the mission, Greenberg delivers Shylock’s famous “Hath not a Jew eyes?” monologue. Joseph later swears that when this is all over, Greenberg will play Shylock on the London stage.

The timing of the film was off when it came out. Shot in late-1941 but released in March of 1942, a lot had changed in those few months. America had only been in the war for three months. Audiences weren’t in a particular mood to laugh about it. The fact that it starred a woman who had died serving her country didn’t lighten the mood. But future generations would elevate it to a place among the best of Lubitsch’s films.

There is a lot going on in To Be or Not to Be. I have barely mentioned that it’s also a sendup of theater culture and the behavior of actors. But the overriding message of the film is in the title. Is America going to Be or Not Be? That is, are they going to take action and do something to stop this threat to all of humanity, or are they going to sit back and let the enemies of freedom do whatever they want? This was not a theoretical question at the time and it’s fair to say it’s not a theoretical one today.

In case you don’t believe me, here’s the Criterion Collection making the argument that you should watch To Be or Not to Be.

Welcome back to everyone who skipped the jazz and movies.

Kyle Hendricks took the loss tonight after he gave four runs, three earned, in just 5.2 innings. He allowed two home runs to Max Kepler.

Here are Kyle Hendricks’ ERA over the past six seasons:

2016: 2.13 (lead the league)

2017: 3.03

2018: 3.44

2019: 3.46

2020: 2.88

2021: 4.81 (so far)

Hendricks started out the 2021 season very poorly, posting a 7.54 ERA at the end of April. But for the next three months, Hendricks has been the same old pitcher that we’ve been used to since his 2014 rookie season. Maybe not quite as dominating, but very good.

But since the calendar turned to September, Hendricks has looked a lot like what he looked like in April. The biggest issue seems to be home runs. His career average of home runs per nine innings is 1.0, but this season it’s up to 1.6. His strikeouts, never a big part of his game, are down as well.

So how worried are you about Kyle Hendricks for 2022? The Cubs have Hendricks under contract for two more season and they were clearly hoping that he would continue to be the strong #2/#3 pitcher that he has been in years past. And for three months, he was. But in first and last months, he has looked like a struggling #5 starter.

Is this just a fluke of a bad season? Hendricks’ velocity is steady, although he’s always been one of the softest tossers in the league.

Are you confident that Hendricks will bounce back next season? Or do you think that he’s another pitcher that the Cubs are going to have to replace before they return to contention?


How worried are you about Kyle Hendricks over the next two seasons?

This poll is closed

  • 7%
    1 (least concern)
    (11 votes)
  • 25%
    (37 votes)
  • 27%
    (40 votes)
  • 33%
    (49 votes)
  • 7%
    5 (most concern)
    (11 votes)
148 votes total Vote Now

Thank you again for stopping by. We’ll see you again next week with another edition of BCB After Dark. Don’t forget to pick up your hat and coat. Tip the girl who gets it for you.

*I’m going to offer my praise for Benny and “The Jack Benny Show.” One of the ways I’ve gotten through the past 18 months is by listening to old radio programs, which distract me from the problems of the current world. The dramas hold up pretty well—they’re a little melodramatic and campy at times, but the basic stories are mostly solid. Many of the comedies, on the other hand, are quite dated. One exception is “The Jack Benny Show,” which is mostly a skewering of a vain celebrity, which holds true today.

“The Jack Benny Show” deserves praise in another area as well. Black people are mostly absent from these radio programs and when they do show up, they’re played by white people doing “Black” voices, like in Amos ’n’ Andy. Fibber McGee and Molly went so far as to have a Black maid played by a white man. But when the writers for “The Jack Benny Show” decided to have a Pullman train porter get the best of Jack, they went out and found a Black comedian out of the nightclubs in Los Angeles to play the part. Eddie Anderson was such a hit with the audience, as well as with the cast and crew, that they created the role of Rochester, Jack’s butler, for him. The gag was that Rochester didn’t do any work and Jack didn’t pay him. And yes, there were some racial stereotypes to Rochester, but Anderson was the first Black man that was invited into millions of white Americans’ homes week after week through a mass medium. More importantly, Benny and the rest of the cast treated Anderson as an equal to all the other regular cast members. Representation can make a difference.