Film Review: To Be or Not to Be (1942)

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Hollywood was never as disciplined and unlikely to ruffle any feathers than during its Classic era. And this rigid state of affairs was even more rigid after United States entered Second World War, when film makers had to contend not only with prudishness of Hays Code, but also with official government censorship and needs of wartime propaganda. This, however, didn’t mean that some films made during such period couldn’t cause controversy. One of the first examples was To Be or Not to Be, 1942 spy comedy directed by Ernst Lubitsch, which is now considered one of finest films of its time.

The plot begins in Polish capital city of Warsaw in August 1939, shortly before the beginning of Second World War. Joseph Tura (played by Jack Benny) is a hammy stage actor who leads a small troupe, apparently unaware that his glamorous wife, popular actress Maria Tura (played by Carole Lombard) has many admirers. Those include Lt. Stanislav Sobinski (played by Robert Stack), young and dashing military aviator who visits her room whenever Joseph Tura, while playing Hamlet on stage, delivers line “To be or not to be”. Joseph Tura believes that Sobinski’s sudden disappearance from the audience has something to do with quality of his performance. There are more pressing matters at hand after Germans invade and occupy Poland. Sobinski has managed to escape to Britain and join Polish squadron within Royal Air Force. One day he and other airmen are contacted by Professor Alexander Siletsky (played by Stanley Ridges), top member of Polish resistance who volunteers to send their messages to loved ones when returns to occupied Poland during top secret mission. After he departs, Siletsky is revealed to be Nazi double agent. Sobinski volunteers to fly over Poland and get parachuted in order to try preventing Siletsky from delivering list of top resistance members to Colonel Erhardt (played by Sig Ruman), bumbling commander of Gestapo in Warsaw. Sobinski would get in touch with Maria Tura, but also have to rely on the help of her husband who, like many of his colleagues, would use his acting skills for noble patriotic cause.

Made shortly after USA has entered the war and while Poland will still occupied by Nazi Germany, To Be or Not to Be was greeted by hostility by many critics and commentators who considered inappropriate to use increasingly bloody conflict as a setting for light and, at times, farcical comedy. However, if there was one person who could make it work, it was Ernst Lubitsch, director known for his knack for light comedy and his famous “Lubitsch touch”. Three years earlier in Ninotchka, Lubitsch has shown how he could turn serious and complicated subject of politics into effective satire and entertaining comedy, as well as transform Greta Garbo into prime comedienne. In this particular case, Lubitsch has based almost entire film around Jack Benny, vaudeville entertainer and comedian who was at the time best known for his work on radio, and who would later become great star of television sitcoms. Benny was, by all accounts, terrified when delivering his first (and the only) major film role. Lubistch was very good in guiding him to deliver one of the finest comedic performances of Classic Hollywood. Benny’s work was complemented by Carole Lombard, one of Classic Hollywood’s greatest comediennes, whose tragic death in air crash a month before the premiere has cast great shadow on the film. The rest of the cast is also very good, especially Sig Ruman as buffoonish Nazi officer and Stanley Ridges as much more intelligent and dangerous villain. Young Robert Stack, who got role due to his friendship with Lombard and who would later become famous as Eliott Ness in The Untouchables, is easily overshadowed by his older colleagues. The most memorable of supporting roles belongs to Felix Bressart, an actor who plays obviously Jewish actor named Greenberg and who dreams about playing Shylock in Merchant of Venice, even delivering his monologue in some of the most moving scenes of the film.

Character of Greenberg is as close as To Be or Not to Be came to addressing plight of Jews in Poland and under territories of Nazi rule. At the time information about what really went there is still sketchy and Lubitsch, just like Chaplin in case of The Great Dictator, probably couldn’t imagine or grasp the true horrors of Holocaust. What he shows of Poland is bad enough, with bombed out streets and countless references to Poland’s population being subjected to various deprivations, humiliations, concentration camps and summary executions. Lubitsch carefully threads between some really dark scenes, which could work in straight thrillers (and one of them features killing quite graphic for 1940s Hollywood standards), anti-Nazi propaganda and genuine farce. His brilliance is portraying hammy actors as persons who could use their skills for noble cause and provide what could, under the circumstances, work as happy ending. To Be or Not to Be was solid, but not particularly big hit, but its reputation grew with time and is now considered one of best comedies of its times. In 1983 Mel Brooks produced rather disappointing eponymous remake.

RATING: 8/10 (+++)

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One of the best films ever! Probably should be in a Top 20 "must see" list of films, what do you think?


Putting films into Must See lists is a thankless task, especially if you have seen many great films. But I think it go within Top 1000 or Top 250.