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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>
Before he was cast, Jack Benny was in a predicament as, strangely enough, his success in Charley's Aunt (1941) was not interesting anyone in hiring the actor for their films. See more »
In the scene early in the movie when Carole Lombard is arguing with the play director about her dress, they begin onstage, in the Gestapo office set. At one point the director switches to a closer shot and they are suddenly backstage, facing in entirely different directions than they were onstage. See more »
One of the very few people who would think to remake an Ernst Lubitsch picture would be Mel Brooks who satirized just about every genre there was in Hollywood. But I doubt that Jack Benny, Carole Lombard and Robert Stack would have lent themselves to the slapstick type film that Brooks turned To Be Or Not To Be into and Mel's version is very funny.
When the film opens the biggest problem that Jack Benny has on his mind is who's this secret admirer who keeps sending flowers to his wife Carole Lombard every night while they're on stage. Although it's helped his Hamlet performance, the angst Benny is feeling about Lombard being faithful, pretty soon Benny, Lombard, Polish airman Robert Stack and the whole touring company that Benny heads are all caught up in the Nazi German invasion of Poland which inaugurates World War II.
Stack joins the Polish squadron of the RAF and there's a nice little Polish colony as with other occupied nations during World War II. One of them is Stanley Ridges who does propaganda broadcasts for the BBC. And he gets to be good pals with the airmen. But after he leaves for Germany on a 'secret' mission it's discovered in reality he's a German agent and is going back to Germany with a list of exiled Poles so that the Nazis could retaliate against families. Stack goes back to Poland after Ridges.
Where he meets up with Lombard and Benny and the rest their troupe and let's just say that their talents as actors are never more needed than in the series of performances they give the occupying Germans.
Whether dealing with marital problems or Nazis breathing down their necks Lombard, Benny, and Stack have no shortage of wits about them. Carole and Jack are old hands at comedy, but Bob Stack showed a nice gift for it as well. Of course Ernst Lubitsch's type of comedy is a great deal more sophisticated than Mel Brooks. He also was making his film at a time when the USA wasn't in the war yet and the outcome for Poland and the rest of the world remained in doubt. Not to mention what was left of a liberal spirit in Germany where Lubitsch was an exile from.
This was Carole Lombard's farewell performance. Completed in 1941 To Be Or Not To Be was released just in time for Pearl Harbor and it certainly beats a lot of hastily made propaganda films that came out to tap into the national anger. It also got the same kind of knocks The Great Dictator did in satirizing the authoritarianism of the Nazis. But both films have stood the test of time. And it's not as preachy as The Great Dictator, but Lubitsch gets his point across. As for Lombard she went on a war bond tour which ended abruptly in a plane crash outside Las Vegas. FDR from the White House proclaimed she was as much a war casualty as any GI at the front and there were few who would disagree.
If your taste runs to an earthier form of comedy Mel Brooks will certainly satisfy you. But for those who value sophistication as embodied in that phrase the Lubitsch touch, this To Be Or Not To Be still pulls in the laughs.
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