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TO BE OR NOT TO BE (director: Ernst Lubitsch; screenwriter: Edwin Justus Mayer/from the story by Melchior Lengyel; cinematographer: Rudolph Maté; editor: Dorothy Spencer; music: Werner R. Heymann; cast: Carole Lombard (Maria Tura), Jack Benny (Joseph Tura), Robert Stack (Lt. Stanislav Sobinski), Felix Bressart (Greenberg), Lionel Atwill (Rawitch), Stanley Ridges (Prof. Alexander Siletsky), Sig Ruman (Col. Ehrhardt), Henry Victor (Capt. Schultz), Charles Halton (Dobosh, Theatrical Producer), George Lynn (Actor Playing Hitler’s Adjutant),; Runtime: 99; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Ernst Lubitsch; Warner Home Video; 1942)
“One of film’s great farces.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Ernst Lubitsch’s (“Ninotchka”) anti-Nazi satire To Be or Not to Be, derived from an idea by Melchior Lengyel, was criticized for being in bad taste when first released, but today has overcome that early derision to be considered by most as one of film’s great farces. It’s about a troupe of Polish theater actors in the Nazi-occupied Warsaw of 1939 at the onset of WWII who resist the Nazi invaders. Most of the gags are built around role playing and mistaken identities, as the ham theatrics of the egotistical husband-and-wife team of Joseph and Maria Tura (Jack Benny & Carole Lombard) try to upstage each other. The hilarious script was penned by Edwin Justus Mayer. Benny offers his trademark comedy requiring drawn out stares, grand entrances and exits, perfect timing, and leaving himself open to comments about his vainness. It’s also eerie that this marks the final screen appearance of the fine comedienne/romantic actress Lombard, who died in a plane crash a month before the film’s theater release while on a mission to sell U.S. war bonds. It was remade in 1983 with Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft, but not as successfully.

Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges) poses as an anti-Nazi Pole living in London and gets a group of Pole RAF flyers to give away their underground Resistance contacts as he travels to Warsaw. In Warsaw he delivers a message to the suitor of Maria Tura, a smitten flyboy named Lt. Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack), who asks the prof to tell Maria “To Be or Not to Be.” That personal message only refers to the time Sobinski leaves his theater seat as Joseph begins Hamlet’s famous soliloquy and goes to meet Maria in her dressing room. It irks Joseph just as much that someone walked out on his scene as it does that he’s being cuckolded. When Sobinski realizes that Siletsky never heard of the most famous actress in Poland he becomes suspicious and notifies the underground leaders in London. They choose to send Sobinski to Poland, where he parachutes in, and his mission is to stop Siletsky before he passes this info onto Col. Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman), the brutal Nazi official running Warsaw, and the Gestapo. Sobinski makes contact with the Turas and even though Joseph is jealous that his wife might be unfaithful agrees to help for patriotic reasons. It leads to a number of farcical situations, involving the entire theater troupe, as the Nazis are pictured as uptight bogeymen with more of a case of bad manners than being real nasties. The Colonel finds it a hoot that he’s infamously known as Concentration Camp Ehrhardt.

The film works for its keen political and social observations, its sharp black comedy, and for its unique filming style fondly known as the “Lubitsch Touch.” Those who criticized it for its alleged bad taste missed by a mile its satire, which was right on the money in nailing the Nazis as not only buffoons by destroyers of civilization (How could anyone have thought otherwise?). Reviewing it today the film appears to be an excellent example of a riotous Hollywood format that ably mixes melodrama, romance and comedy. It’s the kind of film Lubitsch was able to maintain as his trademark throughout his career and something Hollywood once in a while gets right as it does here. The talented cast seem to be having fun dressing up as Hitler and delivering the film’s sly humor. It does what Chaplin did in The Great Dictator, only it’s an even better directed venture.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”