To Be or Not to Be (1942) Poster

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The Nazis have never been mocked better
gogoschka-120 December 2013
Comedies rarely stand the test of time - this one does: one of the funniest films I have ever seen.

When I was 16 (20 years ago, sigh...), this was re-released for a short time in a local art-house cinema, and my father insisted I go watching it with a friend. Well, teenagers don't normally line up to see 50 year old black and white comedies, but - man, was I glad I did!

This is a pitch black comedy that feels as fresh today as it must have then; in fact, this must have been kind of a shock in 1942. There are no cheesy clean characters or cringe-worthy lines: this is a firework of fast, witty dialogue with an edge and the sexiest, cleverest (and most morally ambiguous) female protagonist I have ever seen in a film before the "New Hollywod" era.

Even the structure and the way the story evolves are very modern; there are flashbacks and twists and turns that might be very common in contemporary films but must have seemed almost "avant-garde" at the time.

The biggest fun, of course, is how Lubitsch takes the pi** out of Hitler's blind, fanatic followers. I don't believe the Nazis have ever been mocked better than in this comedy masterpiece (and I only hope old Adolf has seen it, too). Mel Brooks' remake is not bad, but the original is simply killer.

See it, and then see it again (and again).

Priceless. 10 out of 10

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One of the great romantic/satirical comedies of all time
Balthazar-520 November 2005
There is a famous review of this film by the late Sunday Times critic, Dilys Powell which begins 'Is the joke funny?'... what Miss Powell was getting at was that, given the horror of the Holocaust, it is appropriate to laugh at the Nazis. The answer is, ultimately, irrelevant to the viewing of this modest masterpiece.

Lubitsch was, by this time, coming to the end of an exquisite career that defined the nature of sophistication in 'light' cinema. 'To Be or Not To Be' skips lightly over all of the minefield of a subject like this and it is difficult or impossible to think of any other filmmaker who might have managed it (if you look at Mel Brooks' limp remake, you can see why).

In 1996, I presented a massive season of 'the greatest' films in Belfast for the centenary of cinema - 250 titles in 9 months. Of all of them, this was the film which got the greatest ovation - about 5 minutes with a nearly full house standing and applauding! They may have applauded for many reasons, but here are certainly some of them...

The very complicated narrative is presented virtually flawlessly and the comedy is never allowed to hold up the narrative. The principle actors - Carole Lombard (breathtakingly beautiful) and Jack Benny in particular, but many of the supporting cast as well - throw themselves into the affair with a gusto that is completely infectious. Apart from the satirical aspect of the story and the way in which Hitler and the Nazis are mercilessly ridiculed for their authoritarianism and the fear which is their only motivator, the film pokes gentle fun at the vanity of actors in a warm and happy manner. Finally, and most important, is the notion of farce. Farce rarely works in the cinema, but here it does, and in the grand manner - just look at how many times the situation regarding Professor Siletsky changes profoundly during the film - it is dizzying - yet the characters manage to come up with (often self-defeating or inappropriate) schemes on every occasion.

This is a wonderful work that, I have no hesitation in saying, is absolutely vital for anyone who wants to really understand the glory of the cinema. But to answer Dilys Powell's question... yes, the joke is deliriously funny.
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A controversial classic that was actually made in 1941
IamWilliamBlake15 August 2003
This movie was made before while the US was still playin' both ends against the middle. Makin' huge profits while staying "neutral" The film was not allowed to be released until after, the US entered the war.

Easily the best of the screen versions. The cast is tight and the timing is impeccable. You can really tell that the cast believed in the film. Since America had not taken a formal stance at the time this went into production the producers, cast, and crew were really making something revolutionary and controversial. So much so that the making of this movie was not even mentioned on the Jack Benny radio program. Which is a major deal for those familiar with Old Time Radio, Jack's film career provided excellent material for comedy writers on the radio show, but also the radio show was an excellent opportunity to promote a movie. It is doubtful that this was a missed opportunity, what is more likely is that his sponsor or perhaps the network did not want to advocate a position.

This movie is wonderful for so many reasons. Not only is it hilarious, there is suspense, intrigue, and history. Another poster, mentions the Nazi's jumping out of the plane at the order of a radio transmission by Hitler. The thing to remember here is that the Nazi army was seen as an unstoppable war machine, so efficient, that soldiers would commit suicide if asked. This was less humor than it was to evoke fear of fascism.

Everyone remembers Bob Hope and his travels during WWII, well Jack Benny and Carole Lombard were no slouches either. After all they made this movie. Carole died in a plane crash along with her mother and twenty others returning from a war bond rally before the film was released. Jack went where few if any cameras or radio transmitters could reach. He could be found in the most remote parts of the world entertaining the troops. Not to take anything from Bob, he went there as well, he just had more photo ops.

Bottom line watch this movie--twice, maybe more, the dialogue is so quick and witty there is a good chance you might miss it the first time, them again it is worth at least to looks.
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Swan Song in Warsaw
theowinthrop12 November 2005
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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A gem of a picture!
david-17646 March 2005
This comedy excels due to witty dialog and superior direction. Set against the backdrop of Hitler's invasion of Poland, due acknowledgment is made of the tragedy of that event. This was a wartime picture, after all. But the satire serves as a perfect antidote, and "To Be or Not To Be" is simultaneously funny and sharp. Right after I watched this movie, I wanted to watch it again--it was that entertaining. The stars and character actors were all superb. Having Jack Benny play the lead was an inspired casting choice. Felix Bressart and Tom Dugan as Greenberg and Bronski, sort of the Rosencranz and Gildenstern of this movie, are hilarious. If you have not yet seen this movie, rent or buy it and treat yourself to a real gem!
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Witty and mocking
bob the moo20 September 2003
Joseph Tura and his wife are part of an actors troop in pre-WW2 Poland. When a handsome young pilot is forced to break off his affair with Mrs Tura to go to England and join the RAF, he sends a message through an English agent who offers to take messages to families of all the pilots when he goes to Poland. Realising too late that Professor Siletsky is a double agent taking addresses to the Nazi's, Lt Sobinski alerts Tura who is forced to play several roles to try and outwit the Nazi's and protect the underground resistance.

Despite having heard it mentioned (and avoided the remake) I had still never seen this film until earlier today. I wasn't sure what to expect as I knew that it had been made during the war and that it's humour might not seem as mocking or sharp today. However I was surprised how funny it actually was while it also dealt with the Nazi issue at the same time. The mocking tone of the film is balanced nicely by a real vein of wit with sharp word play all around. The plot is kept ticking over by this humour until Tura is able to drive the film by his many performances!

The Nazi's are mocked without taking away from the horrors of what they were. The cast are what really makes the film work for me though. Although he takes second billing, I can't help but feel that Benny is the star of the film as he has all the best characters and the lion's share of the lines. Lombard does very well indeed and shows a real ability for quick witty lines – the fact that she died in a plane crash leaving this her last movie should be considered a great loss. The whole support cast, whether Polish actor or German commander, all play very well managing to bring both wit and pathos to the film.

Overall a film that is not as uncomfortable to watch as I suspected it might have been, in fact one that is downright hilarious at times and has all the sharpness and wit that I want in a comedy. When Jack Benny says `so they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt' for the 5th time, I defy you not to be rolling!
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Classic Satirical Comedy That Gets Even Better As It Goes Along
Snow Leopard28 October 2004
Beneath all the one-liners and amusing gags, this classic comedy has an undertone of satire that is quite effective. Jack Benny plays his role with just the right amount of exaggeration for it to work perfectly, and he, Carole Lombard, and the rest of the cast help Ernst Lubitsch to tell a lively yet worthwhile tale. There are a few slow spots early in the movie, but after it hits its stride, everything fits together well.

Very few film-makers can make something like this succeed, because they take themselves too seriously. Lubitsch does not, and as a result this film provides a caricatured but relatively insightful portrayal of the Nazis, with a light-hearted yet appreciative look at those who opposed them in the occupied countries. The right kind of lighter touch can sometimes be more effective in commenting on important issues than the heavy, emotionally laden harangues that are all too common.

While providing good entertainment, this movie also brings out the Nazis' inherent insecurity, pettiness, and short-sightedness, while also demonstrating their growing capacity for destroying the innocent. For example, the wonderful character actor Sig Ruman is greatly entertaining as a Nazi bureaucrat, yet he also cleverly brings out the pathetic side of such persons.

Aside from a couple of good gags, it starts off just a little slowly. A lot of time is spent on Robert Stack's character, who is (through no fault of Stack's) not very interesting. Likewise, the subplot involving him and Lombard takes up a lot more time than it was worth. Other than that, though, it moves briskly, with many entertaining scenes while it develops the story. As the pace picks up, the members of Benny's acting troupe get some fine moments of their own, Benny himself has some fine scenes with several other characters, and everything builds up nicely towards a good finale.
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Playing Hamlet in Poland
jotix10011 November 2005
Having seen most of Ernst Lubitsch American films, we had missed this one because it's not played often these days. "To Be, or not to Be" is a wonderful satire that only a director like Lubitsch, with his European background could have pulled. The film is a good comedy that seems to has kept some of its freshness intact.

The film works because of the great contribution of Jack Benny and Carole Lombard, who sadly, died before the film had its premiere. They play the Turas, a Polish theatrical couple that foresee the Nazi invasion of their country.

In fact, Jack Benny, a man associated as a comedian, first on radio, then on television, was an actor with an uncanny sense of timing. Mr. Benny was a natural for this type of comedy, as he proves in the film. His pairing with Carole Lombard was a stroke of genius. In fact, for being associated to lighter fare, he demonstrates with his take on Joseph Tura, he was an actor of stature.

Carole Lombard is seen as Maria Tura, a grand dame of the Polish theater. Ms. Lombard gave a marvelous performance and her contribution to the success of this film is amazing. Robert Stack is seen as the pilot Sobinski. Other faces in the cast include Felix Bressard, Lionel Atwill, Sig Ruman, George Lynn, and others that are perfect under Ernst Lubitsch guidance.

This is a film to be treasured because of the work of Jack Benny and the impeccable direction of Ernst Lubitsch.
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ivan-224 October 2002
This movie proves that comedy can be sublime. At a time when the gods are crazy, this movie swims with the current, seeking to outdo their craziness. That's why it's also very touching. The outcome of the craziness was unknown at the time. That also makes this film daring. Whether intentionally or not, the film implies that Hitler himself was a Hitler-impersonator, that Hitler is a kind of unattainable ideal, a Platonic idea of pure evil. A similarly sublime and bold and touching film made during another craziness (not twenty years thereafter, as its more applauded cousins!) is "THE GAY DECEIVERS" (1969). It too dances with the gods, and breaks your heart as it makes you laugh.
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"In the hands of a ham"
Steffi_P6 August 2011
It has long been controversial to make a comedy out of war and tragedy, but often it is among the best ways of dealing with a difficult subject. Being able to satirize evil and imagine humour even in the most desperate of plights is a big part of coming to terms with these things. And when done in the right way, it can make some of the most compelling works that cinema has to offer. With To Be or Not to Be, director Ernst Lubitsch, who had spent most of his career making sophisticated and often innuendo-laden comedies with absolutely no political content, surprised everyone by tackling the most urgent of topical issues head-on, yet still maintaining the frivolous comedy style that was his forte.

Co-written with Melchior Lengyel (who had provided Lubitsch with his earlier hit Ninotchka) To Be or Not to Be features a brilliant premise – that of actors turning their skills to do underground work. As such it takes a light-hearted yet affectionate view of stage acting (which is where Lubitsch started out). This was a rather timely subject in Hollywood at the time. In the early days of sound, a lot of theatre actors had been called in to do the talkie business, but now the trend was shifting towards subtler, more naturalistic performances, as especially encouraged by directors like William Wyler and George Stevens. And there's nothing wrong with that approach – Wyler and Stevens were making some excellent pictures – but as a result the good old ham actor was becoming a somewhat marginalised figure. To Be or Not to Be makes the theatrical scenery-chewers into the heroes. The debate between the different styles is itself the subject of many of the gags, for example Lionel Atwill continually having to be reminded not to overact. The young Polish airman who woos Lombard is named Stanislaw, perhaps after Stanislavski, the nemesis of ham actors.

The casting of To Be or Not to Be is like a celebration of the little hams. You won't find theatrical legends like Charles Laughton or John Barrymore here, but supporting players like Atwill, Felix Bressart and Tom Dugan are exactly the sort of people who were now a dying breed in the Hollywood movie. Here they can be seen at their unashamed best. The two leads on the other hand are not hams at all, but they were among the best comedy actors of the era. Jack Benny was ironically a master at underplaying scenes, often at his funniest when doing very little, such as drawing out the pause before beginning Hamlet's soliloquy. Carole Lombard was a consummate comedienne, often adopting a tone of complete sincerity that made little throwaway lines (like her enraptured "It certainly does (interest me)" when Robert Stack is talking about his bomber) sound comically ridiculous. But she could turn that sincerity to dramatic purpose as well, for example her very genuine look of trepidation when she is questioned trying to leave the hotel.

And finally let us talk of Lubitsch himself. There isn't much to say about Lubitsch's direction here that I haven't said in one of my many other reviews of his pictures. One thing that is specifically worth mentioning now though is the attention Lubitsch gives to minor performers. Another feature of the more modern directors is that they gave very little screen time to bit players. The aforementioned Wyler would often get supporting players to do their scenes with their backs to the camera so as not to draw attention from the leads. Again this is not intended as a criticism – it is right for Wyler's dramas. But Lubitsch was one director who always found a little bit of camera time for even the most inconsequential of actors. There are obvious examples in To Be or Not to Be with the many members of the acting troupe, but notice how in the scene with the Polish aviators in Britain, he treats several of them to close-ups. These aren't "face-in-the-crowd" close-ups that you might see in a montage. Instead it's as if each of these men has become a lead character for a few seconds, even though they will soon disappear from the story. But Lubitsch did not do this indiscriminately. In the scene where Lombard passes on the photograph at the bookstore, there are two Nazis in the background. We don't catch a glimpse of their faces, we just have to know that they exist. It seems that when Lubitsch lingers on a character's face he does so out of affection. And that is really the attitude that permeates To Be or Not to Be – contempt for the villains, affection for the heroes, even through all the wit and satire. It is this ideal that really makes that fusing of the tragic and the comic work.
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Jack Benny as Hamlet
krorie9 April 2006
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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A Wonderful Film Featuring Benny And Lombard
atlasmb2 April 2017
This cinematic satire, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, contains some excellent acting--especially by its leads, Jack Benny and Carole Lombard. Its story is clever and funny. Lubitsch certainly earns, again, our respect for his directorial skills.

But regardless of the talents on display in "To Be or Not To Be", this is a film that should be seen for its place in history.

Just two years before its release, Chaplin gave the world the wonderful film "The Great Dictator", a tour de force spoof of Hitler. And it was very successful. It found an appreciative audience in the early days of the world conflict.

"To Be or Not To Be" did not receive the same warm welcome, mostly due its place in the chronology of its time:

First: The film is shot

Then: Pearl Harbor is attacked, bringing the United States into the war.

Then: Carole Lombard dies in a plane crash while supporting the American war effort.

Then: The film, edited and completed, is released.

Obviously the pall of Carole Lombard's death hung over the film. How difficult would it be to laugh at a film under those circumstances? Then consider the tremendous stresses of a country just entering a global conflict on multiple fronts--relatives going off to war, families trying to find a new balance, the challenges of a nationwide effort to reindustrialize, the profound shift in economics on a national scale, the fear of military enemies whose motives and methods seemed somewhat unfathomable.

Looking back now, it is easier to enjoy this film, even though we have a much greater understanding of the horrible realities of Hitler's plans. Though our viewpoint is clouded with wistfulness, this film deserves to be celebrated, especially for the performances of Benny and Lombard, which are seminal in the careers of both artists.
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That Is The Question, Lubitsch Or Brooks?
bkoganbing28 January 2011
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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Outstanding War Time Comedy with Dark Humor
Warning: Spoilers
Ernst Lubitch's "To Be Or Not To Be"(1943) has to be the most genuinely bizarre political satire to emerge from Hollywood's golden age. It stars Jack Benny and Carol Lombard as Joseph and Maria Tura - a married couple and stage performers living in occupied Poland during WWII. Determined to alter the course of the war, the two helm a troupe of ham actors in a dead pan comic assault on the Nazis When a spy emerges who has damaging information to the Polish resistance, Joseph and Maria decide to prevent the information from being delivered to the Reich. Benny's brilliant lampoon of Hamlet's soliloquy "to be or not to be" is at the crux of a disastrous rendezvous between Maria and Lt. Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack).

Stan gets the hots for Maria - a passion not reciprocated. Hence, when Stan is dispatched for war, he cruelly implicates Maria with Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges), the real spy who has a secret plan to destroy the Warsaw resistance. The theater troupe is then forced to use their thespian skills to ensure their own survival; impersonating Nazi officers and even Hitler in order to outwit the enemy. Controversial to say the very least, "To Be Or Not to Be" opened to modest acclaim and was later remade, to limited effect, as a 1983 farce starring Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft.

Warner's DVD treatment is middle of the road. The black and white image has been mastered from reasonably clean film elements. Contrast levels are adequate, though at times weak. There's a hint of edge enhancement and some fine detail shimmering, but nothing that will distract. Fine details are sometimes nicely realized but darker scenes suffer from inconsistent quality. Film grain is moderate. Age related artifacts are present throughout. An archival news reel and short subject are the only extras included.
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Excellent propaganda comedy
MartinHafer18 March 2006
During and just before WWII, there were a lot of propaganda films created by Hollywood to drum up morale in our fight against Fascism. Nearly all of them were deadly serious war films. And, while many of them were great, after a while they all tended to blend together. Because of this, TO BE OR NOT TO BE is a real standout picture. The movie is a comedy and yet is every bit as effective in inspiring the war effort. Now it's not surprising that the film is so well-made as its director is Ernst Lubitsch and he is ably supported by lots of wonderful character actors such as Felix Bressart and Sig Rumand (among others). However, the nice surprise about the movie was the acting of Jack Benny in the starring role (along with the wonderful Carole Lombard). For years, Benny made fun of his acting and the movies he made, but he was great and the film was great. Aside from the rather dopey HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT, in fact, I really like the few films he made.

All-in-all, a fine and fun film--chock full of quality.
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Ron-1818 July 2002
A delightful spoof of Adolph Hitler. Filmed early during World War II, the movie was probably several generations before its time. Great cast including Jack Benny, Carole Lomard, Robert Stack, Lionel Atwill and Tom Dugan among others. Jack Benny's facial expressions alone are worth watching this great film.
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Hail my self
VicTheDaddy31 May 2006
I watched this film recently and thought id leave a brief comment,i found this original version better than the remake although the one with Mel Brooks is good as well.What i like about this Jack Benny version is that the humour is never forced,you can see the sincerity in the actors as although they are playing for laughs they are also saddened by the dark humour in their scripts,this film was probably Ernst Lubritsch's way of drawing the publics attention to what was really going on during that period in Warsaw,Chaplin did the same thing when he made the Great Dictator.Sometimes the best way to get your point across to people is through comedy as the horrors that were really going on during this time were being very played down by the press and the government and yet the public had to be made aware in some way.I found this a very intelligent comedy,in that its funny when it wants to be and yet makes sure you see its serious nature.And on the other hand making fun of your enemy is a great way of getting back at them.Great film a real pity that it was Carole Lombards last.
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Decent but disappointing
David Austin25 January 2003
Sometimes classics live up to their reputations and sometimes they don't. This one didn't. It wasn't bad - some quite funny bits, likeable, never boring, but nothing outstanding, except perhaps in the subject matter. I've been watching a few Lubitsch movies recently and I ended up watching this one within a few days of watching Shop Around the Corner. I was struck by how much sharper and wittier "Shop" (which I felt was everything it was cracked up to be) was in comparison to To Be or Not To Be. Benny's character was a little too buffoonish, Lombard's character was a little too boring (though the first scene between Ehrhardt and the false Siletsky was excellent). Unfortunately, this film was just a little too over-the-top, silly, and conveniently plotted, without ever tapping into the fun of a real screwball comedy. Oh well...
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You've heard of that Great, Great actor....
gazzo-21 October 1999
Terrific movie! The opening gag with 'Hitler' walking out into the street is a scream. Tense, funny, satiric, suspenseful; with some of the better bombastic teutonic actors in the business at the time: Lionel Atwill, Sig Rumann, etc. Much fun! Love seeing 'Unsolved Mysteries' Man there at age 24 or so, as a leading man type. (Lord-Robert Stack's almost 10 years Younger than me in that film...) You also get to see how good Carole Lombard was, and it's sad she was dead before the movie was out.

If you have ever wondered about just how good an actor Jack Benny was, check this out. Unbelievable job. Great stuff!

**** outta **** rating, one of the best. Do see it!
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Odd Parallel to "Strangelove"
w2amarketing21 April 2003
TO BE OR NOT TO BE is a fast-paced comedy / drama with an extremely entertaining script and some very clever plot twists. Carole is amazing in what was tragically her last role; Jack a little less stunning but still very good; and the supporting cast is outstanding.

While just about everyone appreciates the humor, many find it difficult to reconcile a film made in the context of 1942 which pokes fun at the Nazis (then a very real threat to the free world), the plight of the poles, and makes light of concentration camps. These are fair objections -- I find it hard to believe that someone could have watched this movie in 1942 and found it amusing. Combined with Carole's tragic death just shortly before its release, and it's easy to understand why TO BE OR NOT TO BE flopped.

As an aside, I will point out that the term "concentration camp" was not nearly as odious in 1942 as we understand it today. While the US knew that such camps existed, the general understanding was that they were internment camps for political dissidents, not extermination camps -- and certainly not on the scale of over 6 million murdered. Thus, while the concentration camp references are the singularly most tasteless element of TO BE OR NOT TO BE when we watch it today, it would have been less so in 1942.

My primary observation was that this film is an interesting parallel to DR. STRANGELOVE -- both are set *and released* during war (World War II and the Cold War, respectively), both are irreverent, both attempt to be humorous with elements of drama. I've never been a big fan of STRANGELOVE because I can't reconcile making light of global nuclear destruction at a time when it was considered very likely. Oddly enough, I didn't have the same problem with TO BE OR NOT TO BE. I can only conclude that (1) I prefer Jack Benny's version of humor to Stanley Kubricks's and (2) I can appreciate irreverence at the expense of the Nazis as opposed to mocking the western governments (primarily the Americans) and their (depicted) haphazard response to a nuclear threat.

I may be off the mark on this, but they were my initial thoughts, and I think it makes an interesting comparison if nothing else.
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Luminous Lombard and a Never-Better Benny Light Up Lubitsch's Classic Nazi Satire
Ed Uyeshima1 August 2006
There is a certain sense of melancholy I feel when I watch this 1942 classic Ernst Lubitsch movie, as it represents the last appearance of the luminous Carole Lombard, surely the most breathtaking and high-spirited of actresses during Hollywood's golden era. In a rush to get home to husband Clark Gable after a successful war bond tour, she died in a plane crash during the film's post-production, and as the result proves without a doubt, the world lost one of the great treasures of the silver screen. She and co-star Jack Benny play Maria and Joseph Tura, the egocentric stars of a Polish acting troupe who are caught in the 1939 Nazi invasion of Warsaw. As a world-class flirt, she is carrying on with a handsome young pilot named Stanislav Sobinski, and their trysts begin once he hears his cue to get up from his theater seat, Hamlet's famous opening line to his soliloquy as spoken by an increasingly perturbed Joseph.

The romantic triangle quickly takes a backseat to an espionage thriller involving a German spy named Professor Siletsky, who holds the names of members of the Polish underground. His intention is to kill them, but the acting troupe, now with their theater in ruins, band together to stop him. This includes the need for the extremely vainglorious Joseph to impersonate Siletsky in front of the befuddled Colonel Ehrhardt and for Maria to seduce any Nazi official who stands in their way. While it sounds like a piece of wartime propaganda, the film actually becomes more farcical even as people are getting killed.

As Joseph, Benny has never been better, conveying both self-absorption and cunning expertly, and the script by Edwin Justus Mayer and an uncredited Lubitsch gives him a number of great one-liners. With her honey-toned voice and smoky elegance, Lombard is at the top of her game as the seductive Maria, as she dexterously shows her comic and dramatic sides with precision and unparalleled style. Delivering her lines with subtle finesse, she provides a strong match for Benny. Sixty-four years later, and there is still no one who can touch her. The rest of the ensemble is memorable starting with Sig Ruman's hilarious turn as Ehrhardt. A fresh-faced Robert Stack, all of 22, plays Sobinski with a callow, zestful energy, while Felix Bressart excels as the ultimately heroic Greenberg.

The movie makes direct commentaries on the concentration camps, and the satirical aspects are blissfully unapologetic. The stylishness of the comedy in light of the virulent wartime setting is what makes the film memorable and it proves what a master Lubitsch was at this level of subtlety. The 2005 DVD comes with two extras both featuring Benny - an ancient twenty-minute comedy short from 1930 called "The Rounder" and a brief commercial for war bonds. I wish they could have included some tribute to Lombard as it would have been fitting on this disc.
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Think of it---Jack Benny doing Hamlet ! !
wild_willy_m_d23 December 2005
One of the great comedies of all time, by a master, Ernst Lubitsch. Practically a flawless film, damning to the Nazis, ennobling the Polish resistance.

Benny is wonderful as "that great, great actor, Josef Tura", making use of his trademark pause and stare. This was the last role of Carole Lombard, tragically killed in a plane crash on the homeward leg of a war bond selling tour, and she is magnificent. Truly she was THE comedienne of the late 1930's and early 1940's.

I also need to mention the work of (in my opinion) the greatest comic supporting actor ever--Sig Rumann. Unfortunately, few people remember him, except as a caricature. Forget John Banner as Sgt. Schultz. Look for Rumann in "A Night at the Opera", and "Stalag 17". This was a great man.

At all costs, avoid the Mel Brooks remake.
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Strange But Delightful
evanston_dad6 September 2005
It's hard to recognize how utterly daring this film probably was at the time of its release. Charles Chaplin was put on a death list by Hitler for lampooning him in "The Great Dictator" in 1940, and while Ernst Lubitsch's film isn't quite as scathing as Chaplin's, I still have to think that so openly mocking the Gestapo while the war was still raging took a lot of guts for everyone involved.

This isn't necessarily a laugh out loud comedy; there are no really big laughs to be had. But it's never once less than delightful to watch, and all of the performances are terrific. Of course, the most praise must go to Jack Benny, who seems so utterly comfortable on screen, but Carole Lombard is as sexy and engaging as ever, even if she has quite a bit less to do.

Very funny, very entertaining, and probably a must see from the period of war-time cinema.

Grade: A
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Best comedy - ever!
Brian Ellis11 February 2002
Coming up with a list of the funniest movies ever, is pretty hard (there are so many to choose from) but this movie is head and shoulders above the rest ("Blazing Saddles" is the only movie that can come close). This movie has got it all. Ernst Lubitsch was of the few people that used the restrictive Hays code to his advantage with his extremely witty and suggestive dialogue. Jack Benny and Carole Lombard are great but I will always have to say my favorite person in the movie was Sig Ruman. How he got most of the great lines over Benny, is beyond me. Only Robert Stack got the short end. Most of the time he was the straight man and compared to the rest of the cast came off looking a little stiff but someone had to carry the plot along. I hate it when people say this but this movie is one that everyone should see.
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Lubitsch takes his revenge against Nazi Germany
FilmCriticLalitRao7 February 2008
All that can be said about "To be or not to be" is that it was purely an aesthetic vehicle for Ernst Lubitsch to settle scores with Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Germany.Everyone knows well how many talented Jewish artists had to leave Germany when Adolf Hitler came to power. Lubitsch made Nazis bite the dust in a pacifist manner by showing them as ridiculous souls.Although the film is comic in nature there is no denial of its serious tone.There are various serious themes like World War II, relationship between a husband and a wife,behavior of actors,horrors of war which merit viewers' attention.It is true that this film suffers from a complete lack of "Lubitsch" touch but comic elements make for its absence.If you happen to be one of those viewers interested in theater especially Shakespeare and his famous plays, it would be tough for you to tolerate those people who walk out during performances based on this famous bard's plays.The hidden highlight of the film is arrogant behavior of certain actors who find it hard to believe that some people might not have heard of them. It is better to tell them that in life as in plays everything is possible.
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