To Be or Not to Be (1942)

"Excellent"

To Be or Not to Be (1942) Review


Decades before Roberto Benigni was romanticizing the Holocaust and Mel Brooks was supposedly courting Nazi controversy on Broadway, Ernst Lubitsch made To Be or Not to Be, a tart little comedy about the Nazi invasion of Poland which, a few glitches aside, was all the more daring for having been made during the war itself, when its outcome was hardly certain. Unfortunately, Brooks remade the film in his own manner some 40 years afterward, substituting most of Lubitsch's wit with his brand of shtick - not as awful as it could have been, but definitely not a patch on the original.

To Be or Not to Be opens in 1939 on the eve of war, with a Warsaw theater troupe rehearsing a satire called Gestapo, which has been ordered shut down by the government, for fear of offending Hitler. The troupe's stars are Maria and Joseph Tura - a self-absorbed flirt and a preening ham who wouldn't know acting if it smacked him in the face - who couldn't be less interested in the outside world, until it comes crashing in. Maria (Carole Lombard, all smoky elegance) is carrying on an affair with handsome pilot Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack, shockingly fresh-faced and clear-voiced), while Joseph (a nimbly verbal Jack Benny) seems almost more perturbed by the fact that Sobinski walks out on his Hamlet soliloquy every night than the fact that he's doing so to meet backstage with Maria.

This Warsaw love triangle actually has enough spark to it that Lubitsch could have made a whole film out of it, but he had bigger things in mind, and so comes the Nazi invasion. After a quick montage, Warsaw is occupied, with the underground fighting hard, and pilots who escaped to England (including Sobinski) manning planes in the RAF's Polish Squadron. Then a quick plot twist later, we're in an espionage film in which the Turas have to work together with Sobinski (parachuted back into Poland by the Allies) to stop a traitor from delivering to the Gestapo a list naming people in the underground. To do so, an elaborate scheme is concocted (fortunately they had that theater full of Nazi uniforms from the shuttered play), packed with mistaken identities, duplicity and bad acting (as the director puts it, watching Joseph head out to impersonate a Gestapo officer, "I hate to leave my country in the hands of a ham"). Not surprisingly, these actors have to put on the performance of a lifetime, most memorably the moment when Greenberg (Felix Bressart), previously relegated to minor roles in their Shakespeare productions, gets to do his long-rehearsed Shylock speech, only it's in front of Hitler's personal guard.

Such fast transitions from backstage farce to wartime drama and cloak-and-dagger mechanics should have resulted in an unholy mess of a film. But, while there are some tonal inconsistencies (as well as some factual ones, like how all these Germans, Brits, and Poles all seem to speak the same, mostly-accent-free, language), this is for the most part a gracefully handled and extremely funny comedy. Lubitsch somehow manages to lampoon the Nazis (who are always breaking into "Heil Hitler!" whenever there's a lull in conversation) without ever lessening the depths of their evil - when a Gestapo officer says about seeing Joseph Tura on stage, "What he did to Shakespeare, we are now doing to Poland," it's simultaneously hilarious and chilling, like the film as a whole.

The Warner Bros. DVD of To Be or Not to Be is a spare package, with only a Jack Benny short and a wartime promo for savings bonds. The picture transfer is only passable, with a fair number of flickers and scratches.

To be.



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