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In occupied Poland during WWII, a troupe of ham stage actors (led by Joseph Tura and his wife Maria) match wits with the Nazis. A spy has information which would be very damaging to the Polish resistance and they must prevent it's being delivered to the Germans. Written by
Ken Yousten <firstname.lastname@example.org>
When Jack Benny's father went to see this movie, he was outraged at the sight of his son in a Nazi uniform in the first scene and even stormed out of the theater. Jack convinced his father that it was satire, and he agreed to sit through all of it. See more »
During the flight to Warsaw, the wire holding the obviously model airplane is visible. See more »
In 1940 the American public was shocked when Charlie Chaplin released his first all talkie movie THE GREAT DICTATOR, in which he lampooned Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Despite the new European war, we were yet still at peace with both Axis states. Hollywood, with rare exceptions (BLOCKADE, CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY, ESCAPE) had been gingerly tackling the Nazis and Fascists. Yet public reaction to THE GREAT DICTATOR was odd. It had a big box office success, and yet many were appalled because it chose to say Hitler could be laughed at. Chaplin's response was that if he had been laughed at to begin with he would never have become such a threat.
Actually other voices were beginning to stir in Hollywood. One was the great comedy director Ernst Lubitsch, who poked an occasional jab at the Nazis. Lubitsch had to wait until 1941 for a full assault on the Nazis - TO BE OR NOT TO BE, a film that looked at the German invasion of Poland, and it's occupation of Warsaw. It had an interesting cast. The lead went to Carole Lombard, who had many comedy performances under her belt. She played Maria Tura, the leading lady (and wife) of "that great actor" (as he always prefaces his remarks) Joseph Tura. Joseph is Jack Benny.
Of all the leading men in her career, Lombard never played opposite one who was really more of a star in a different medium. Typical co-stars for Lombard were John Barrymore, Fred MacMurray, Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy, William Powell, Robert Montgomery, Clark Gable, and Fredric March. Here it was Benny, who while he had a string of movie credits was basically a radio comedy star (and later would be a television star). His best films (GEORGE WASHINGTON SLEPT HERE, ARTISTS AND MODELS, CHARLIE'S AUNT) were not record breakers at the box office. In fact, while his performances were good in these, he did not necessarily shine in them (Laird Cregar, in one simple moment in CHARLIE'S AUNT, got the biggest laugh of the film). Nobody realized that his performance as Joseph Tura would be his best one, and that within two years he'd make his final starring fiasco in THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT.
Benny and Lombard proved to work well together as the egotistical, but oddly loving couple of theater hams. In fact the actors making up the Tura company are all good, including Lionel Atwill (who briefly is seen playing Claudius to Benny's Hamlet), Felix Bressart as Greenberg (who dreams of doing the Shylock speech from THE MERCHANT OF VENICE), Tom Dugan as Bronski (who hopes to play Hitler on the stage), Charles Halton as Dubosch (the stage manager, and the head of the Warsaw underground), and Maude Eburne as Lombard's cynical maid Anna. The screenplay did give plenty of time showing the difficulties and tensions of a stage company working together, and of handling temperamental stars and their egos.
While putting on a play lampooning the Nazis (whom Benny and the others dislike), the government of Poland (Frank Reicher) says that due to the growing problems with Germany the play can't be produced. So the troop put on Tura's production of HAMLET. Benny as the Prince of Denmark (giving the great soliloquy) goes through the proper steps, although knowing the comedian from Radio one expects him to start it with "WELL!". But he finds that a man in uniform (young Robert Stack) leaves his seat in the middle of the third aisles just as he begins, "To be or not to be...." He does not know (until later in the film) that Stack had arranged to do this to keep a rendezvous with Lombard in her dressing room. Subsequently he treats her to a plane flight (he is a Polish Air Force pilot). When war comes he and his fellows fight, but the survivors make it to England.
The grimmest section of the film is the occupation scenes. Like the comedy in THE GREAT DICTATOR, because we know what actually happened these scenes seem slightly unreal. But in 1941/42 they still get the fears and difficulties of the occupation across. Signs of stores and streets we saw hanging normally earlier are in ruins (including a delicatessen). The theater is boarded up. Had Lubitsch wished to do a tragic film he could easily have done so. But he allows the situation to blossom into a black comedy.
Stanley Ridges plays Professor Siletsky, a secret German Agent who has fooled the Allies into going back to Warsaw. He has the names of families of the pilots. Stack is sent back to Warsaw to stop him, and contacts Lombard who helps. Soon the entire theater group gets involved. But will their theatrical egos blow their anti-Nazi plans? That is the running theme of the concluding portion of the film.
Also along for the ride is Sig Ruman as Col. Ehrhardt, the Gestapo Chief who relishes the name "Concentration Camp Ehrhardt", but who keeps running afoul of Professor Siletsky (it is the Professor, isn't it?), when he makes seemingly harmless comments about Hitler. His reaction is usually to yell for his adjutant, Schultz (Henry Victor), whose whole purpose is apparently to be there to be yelled at.
The film was a great success, but the death of Carole Lombard in a plane crash a month after it was shot cast a shadow over it. Yet it was a fitting swan song for that divine comedienne's career.
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