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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 <email@example.com>
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 »
When Tura is disguised as Colonel Ehrhardt in his meeting with Siletsky he is wearing the uniform of a Major General (actually an SS-Gruppenfuehrer). See more »
[disguised as Colonel Ehrhardt]
I can't tell you how delighted we are to have you here.
Professor Alexander Siletsky:
May I say, my dear Colonel, that it's good to breathe the air of the Gestapo again. You know, you're quite famous in London, Colonel. They call you Concentration Camp Ehrhardt.
Ha ha. Yes, yes... we do the concentrating and the Poles do the camping.
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This is one of the great movie farces of all time. I would rank it very close to my all time favorite "Dr. Strangelove." There are several tiers of interpretation as is true of any noteworthy satire. It is not only poking fun at the stupidity and vanity of Nazism, but at aggressive war in general. Referring to Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) playing Hamlet on stage, Colonel Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman) states, "What he did to Shakespeare we are doing to Poland." Only someone with the comic genius of Ernst Lubitsch could compare the Thespian rape of Shakespeare with the physical rape of a country and make it work.
Jack Benny, although one of the most popular entertainers of all time, never got his just deserts for his acting abilities. Though he utilizes many of his physical mannerisms that worked so well for his comedy routines on radio, in the movies, and later on TV, he also does some very fine acting in "To Be Or Not To Be." He is teamed with the multi-talented Carole Lombard yet keeps up with her all the way. The two work well together. Had Carole Lombard not been tragically killed in a plane crash while serving her country just before the release of this film, she would possibly have been teamed with Benny again. The rest of the cast, including newcomer Robert Stack, keep up the pace and give all the support needed to make Lubitsch's film a winner, in particular the histrionics of Sig Ruman, the definitive Nazi stooge, later parodied in the popular TV series "Hogan's Heroes."
The script which Lubitsch himself helped put together blossoms with hilarious one-liners such as "So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt?" To read a few of the most famous ones, see IMDb quotes for the film. Better still, rent or buy a copy of this classic and watch it a few times to hear them for yourself. IMDb only lists some, not all, for that would take several pages.
The story sounds like one for a typical romantic or screwball type comedy. A troupe of Shakespearean actors in Warsaw, Poland, appear to be on the road to success due to the fame of the leading lady, Maria Tura (Carole Lombard). Her husband, Joseph (Benny), seems to be in her shadow, though he does his best as the Prince of Denmark, Hamlet. Yet each time he does the famous soliloquy that begins, "To be or not to be," the same man gets up and walks out. This leads Joseph to think he is a failure as Hamlet until later in the film he learns that the young man, Lt. Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack), is leaving each time for a rendezvous with Joseph's wife, Maria. At this point Hitler invades Poland and the theater is closed as the Nazi's come to town. A Nazi professor, Prof. Alexander Siletsky (Stanley Ridges), flies in with a list of names of traitors (Polish patriots) who are to be taken care of by the local Gestapo headed by Col. Ehrhardt (Ruman). It is up to the Shakespearean troupe to keep these names out of the hands of the Gestapo and then to escape with their lives. So they use their acting talents to impersonate Gestapo officers and even Hitler himself. Joseph becomes Ehrhardt but botches it when the professor brings up the relationship between Maria and Lt. Sobinski who is now in Warsaw also. The rest of the film involves several funny mix-ups and mistaken identities filled with satirical buffoonery.
Though this was somewhat controversial when first released because some, including Jack Benny's own father, misunderstood the satire, the film is possibly even more funny and relevant today than during World War II when the Nazi menace was for real. Because Lubitsch made the spoof universal in nature, "To Be Or Not To Be" transcends time and space.
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