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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
Favorite films: http://www.IMDb.com/list/mkjOKvqlSBs/
Lesser-known Masterpieces: http://www.imdb.com/list/ls070242495/
Favorite Low-Budget and B-Movies: http://www.imdb.com/list/ls054808375/
Favorite TV-Shows reviewed: http://www.imdb.com/list/ls075552387/
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.
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.
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.
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.
While I enjoyed this movie a lot, there's one thing which REALLY bugs
me. The IMDb editors wouldn't accept this as a "Goof", but I can't let
it pass without comment...
The plot requires that Maria meet with Sobinski in her dressing room while Joseph is delivering the "To be or not to be" soliloquy from HAMLET, III:i. But since since Maria is playing Ophelia, THIS CANNOT BE. Ophelia is IN that scene, both immediately before and immediately after Hamlet delivers this 33-line speech. It's doubtful that she leaves the stage at all (there are no stage directions calling for an exit and re-entrance), and she would CERTAINLY be no further from the stage than the wings.
OK, OK, I'm being anal. It's creative license, and like I said I DO really like the movie. But still, it seems like this ought to fall into the category of "Factual Error", even though it's a forgivable error.
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.
Interestingly, when the serious and tragic theme of the Second World
War used as the basis for a great comedy. From this point of view it is
difficult to separate the horrors in people's lives and the way that
fashioned this comedy. Comedy based on the tragedy is not entirely
correct thesis. TO BE OR NOT TO BE is extremely brave, required and
great project. The title is not a parody phrase from Shakespeare's
works, but alluding to the existence and struggle for survival.
Frivolous and inappropriate descriptions are that only correspond to the characteristics of the genre. Hilarious fun theater company in Warsaw trying to outwit the Nazis during the war. This is enough to man peed with laughter. Not pertinent, but it is necessary.
The film can be seen as shocking joke, making fun of the Nazi approach and spectacle, but certainly not anti - Polish propaganda. The characters in the film do not cease to be what they are. They are actors. With good acting, improvisation, ingenuity and courage, winning terrible enemy.
Carole Lombard as Maria Tura, an actress in Nazi-occupied Poland was a brave woman, an actress whom everyone admired, and we all know that the charm of a woman can be a powerful tool. The funny thing is in the film, no one can "break" other than her husband. Although, it is in this case quite helpless. Jack Benny as Joseph Tura, an actor and Maria's husband. He is "the first line" of ridicule. Uncertain is in itself and turns a fool several times. But in the end he shows to us his "great acting". Robert Stack as Lt. Stanislav Sobinski, a Polish airman in love with Maria is a handsome soldier and lover required in the script. Felix Bressart as Greenberg and Sig Ruman Col. Ehrhardt are hilarious. One wants a role because it is only created for her and the other for their mistakes "that can not be counted" always blame his servant.
To be or not to be is fun movie. It has a hilarious story, great dialogue, acting and good scenery. I am aware of the other side, which may have the opposite impression. I think the aesthetic and spiritual this movie does not offend anyone who passed all the horrors of the Second World War.
It is surprising how funny To Be or Not to Be actually is. It does not
make a mockery of ALL Nazis seeing that the main villain is smart and
cunning, but it does make buffoons out of the high command or enlisted
Germans who follow orders blindly without questioning the logic behind
the orders. The Germans who are fooled are fooled by nothing other than
an acting troupe with Jack Benny at the helm, showing the Germans as
buffoons who take in information at face value.
As the movie begins, the audience laughs at the ridiculousness of the acting troupe performing as the high command under Hitler's third Reich. This comedy is interrupted by a soldier becoming infatuated with Tura's (Jack Benny) wife to the point where he thinks they will have a future together. This relationship finishes setting up the first act, and the audience regains the gift of comic relief when it is the acting troupe who must save Tura's wife and bring down Hitler's high command as their identity is nearly compromised.
The humor in the film has a wide range. At times it consists of Jack Benny complaining, but mostly the humor deals with the dramatic irony that the German command is unaware of the acting troupe's true identity. The troupe moves along with its plans with great ease as most Germans take them as fellow Germans and do not see past the costumes. Making the Germans puzzled is almost as wacky as watching a Marx Brothers movie, but it is not exactly the same type of humor since the Marx Brothers deal with rapid-fire jokes and physical comedy such as matching action to make characters believe they are looking into a mirror. In the case of To Be or Not to Be, the actors lead the Germans to believe they are dealing with officials, creating a similar illusion to the "mirror" antics of the Marx Brothers.
An interesting notion of this film is that it was made at the time of the war, but does not induce fear of the enemy (Nazis) at any time during the film. Showing that the enemy can be imitated, and that, in fact, Hitler is "just a man with a little moustache," it illustrates how little people had to worry about the enemy at that point in time by portraying the enemy as buffoons, not unlike Chaplin's The Great Dictator.
To Be or Not to Be is a great, overlooked World War II comedy, and while it may not be up to part with The Great Dictator, it deserves more attention.
Is difficult to imagine is that comedy so at ease, without the exaggerated facial expressions and movements jokingly, completely just script operation, distinctive characters show and the storyline of the conflicting collision out a very exciting laugh, or a fine sense of humor and amusing humor. Let me think later "La Grande Vadrouille" in the group play interspersed and coincidence echoes. As amazing actor, hapless Colonel, loyal soldiers, war machine heartbeat.Revisit the classic comedy, from beginning to end immersed in the plot to create out of the atmosphere of joy, the director of the comedy elements with effortless, structure, lines, performing, narrative and music and drama are called perfect, textbook style comedy film.
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