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To Be or Not to Be (1942)

Passed | | Comedy, War | 6 March 1942 (USA)
During the Nazi occupation of Poland, an acting troupe becomes embroiled in a Polish soldier's efforts to track down a German spy.


Ernst Lubitsch


Melchior Lengyel (original story), Edwin Justus Mayer (screenplay)
Top Rated Movies #195 | Nominated for 1 Oscar. Another 2 wins & 1 nomination. See more awards »




Complete credited cast:
Carole Lombard ... Maria Tura
Jack Benny ... Joseph Tura
Robert Stack ... Lieutenant Stanislav Sobinski
Felix Bressart ... Greenberg
Lionel Atwill ... Rawitch
Stanley Ridges ... Professor Siletsky
Sig Ruman ... Colonel Ehrhardt
Tom Dugan ... Bronski
Charles Halton ... Producer Jan Dobosz
George Lynn ... Actor-Adjutant
Henry Victor ... Captain Schultz
Maude Eburne ... Anna
Halliwell Hobbes ... General Armstrong
Miles Mander ... Major Cunningham
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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 <kyousten@bev.net>

Plot Summary | Plot Synopsis


Comedy | War


Passed | See all certifications »

Parents Guide:

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Did You Know?


Robert Stack played Lieutenant Andrei Sobinski in this film while his 1941 (1979) co-star Tim Matheson played him in the remake To Be or Not to Be (1983). See more »


When Maria types the memo to put under the pillow, she types two lines with a total of 18 keystrokes. However, the actual memo is four lines of about 80 plus keystrokes (not counting spaces). See more »


[first lines]
Narrator: Lubinski, Kubinski, Lominski, Rozanski, and Poznanski. We're in Warsaw, the capital of Poland. It's August 1939. Europe is still at peace. At the moment, life in Warsaw is going on as normally as ever. But, suddenly something seems to have happened! Are those Poles seeing a ghost? Why does this car suddenly stop? Everybody seems to be staring in one direction. People seem to be frightened, even terrified! Some flabbergasted! Can it be true? It must be true! No doubt! The man with ...
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Alternate Versions

In the German version there are two changes made to the original score: first, with the Germans marching into Warsaw we hear the fanfares of the Deutsche Wochenschau (i.e. the German News Reel) instead of "normal" music. Then, during the opera scene we hear the Nazis singing all three verses of "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles" in the background. However, in the Third Reich it was common (and was thus later inserted into the German sound track) only to play the verse one, directly leading into the "Horst Wessel Lied", which was something like the official party anthem. See more »


Referenced in Forwards Ever! (2017) See more »


Polonaise in A major, Op. 40, No. 1, 'Military'
(1838) (uncredited)
Written by Frédéric Chopin
Orchestral arrangement by Aleksandr Glazunov
Heard during the opening and closing credits
See more »

User Reviews

Fiction can make fun of reality, that's the revenge of reason over barbarity...
25 June 2019 | by ElMaruecan82See all my reviews

"To Be or Not To Be" doesn't trivialize the barbarity of the Nazi regime as much as it ennobles art and gives an aura of metaphysical importance to laughter, as the main characteristic of the reasonable person. It's precisely because Ernst Lubitsch could laugh at the Nazism that one shouldn't underestimate the sadness and terror that devoured his soul. One could say the same about Chaplin's "Great Dictator", more focused on the inner heroism of the little people while Lubitsch' movie is a love letter to artists, and the work of a true one.

Lubitsch grew up in Berlin and became an acting sensation after World War I before becoming one of the most promising directors of Hollywood. A precocious talent with a sense of sophistication that would be known as the 'Lubitsch touch', he was probably under the influence of that boost of creativity and flamboyance that made Berlin an artistic Mecca in the early 30s (like in Bob Fosse's "Cabaret"). His film opens on Warsaw, a more suitable place for free art once Germany surrendered to swastikas. And as if he anticipated the criticism over his subject, the story features a play named "The Gestapo" and satirizing the Nazis. During a rehearsal, the man playing Hitler (Irish actor Tom Dugan) delivers a hilarious and unexpected "Heil myself". The line gets cut by the director who makes it a matter of ethics not to make Nazis funny, much to the actor's reluctance.

Basically, Lubitsch asks us the question: should we sacrifice a good line for the sake of seeming decency? How many times haven't we felt the necessity to cross the barrier of good taste because it was so tempting. So the line is censored because of the risk of offending Hitler and when the Germans come on a day of September 1939, the play is cancelled once and for all. The situation resonates like Churchill's parable about war and dishonour, fearing the Nazis is the dishonourable attitude, even when meant to play safe, you're never safe with them, so let's just use your best weapon, guns or gags it doesn't matter. While I was wondering if Lubitsch would have been as loose on the Nazis if he knew about the Camps, I was hiding a chuckle because the line "so they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt" kept springing to my mind. Should I feel guilty?

No less than for any movie that dared to turn the subject into laughing matter, from Donald Duck's "Der Fuerher's Face" to "La Vita e Bella". It's because Nazis were human that their crimes were horrific, it's because they were human that they should be mocked. Art is the triumph of the intellect over the brutal force, the sensitivity over cynicism, it can be sophisticated and fancy but it can't really do without powerful sentiments, this is why the film makes a good use of Shakespeare's lines (borrowed from "Hamlet" and "The Merchant of Venice") and even more why it focuses on a married couple, the greatest actress of Poland Maria Tura (Carole Lombard) and her hammy husband Joseph (Jack Benny). The film opens with a sort of vaudevillian mood where Maria exploits her husband's "Hamlet" soliloquy to bring the handsome aviator Sobinski (Robert Starck) to her room, the running gag is not overused so Marie doesn't appear too cheap and Joseph too dumb.

There's a fine balance between the romance and the screwball situations and they all get along with the intricacies of a plot that involves a sinister but seductive spy named Professor Siletski (Stanley Ridges), who proposes Maria to become an agent. Meanwhile, the troop must absolutely capture the man, confiscate the documents that contain names of Polish Resistant members and get rid of the spy, and this is where their Nazi costumes get quite handy. So we see Jack benny and all his friends impersonating Nazi officers and even Selitski with variable effects, sometimes with the right timing, sometimes a delay force them to rewrite the script. In a sort of meta-referential nod to his own art, Lubitsch directs actors playing directors, actors and writers, proving that sometimes a good act can be a matter of life and death. Hammy too much and your cover is blown if not your head. Maria proves to be a more restrained actress so she can dodge the Nazis' flair, same can't be said about Joseph and Benny's antics endanger the film's credibility in their exaggerated audacity, the man pushes his luck so often it's a wonder how he did survive.

The film also suffers from a series of contrivances that happen all too conveniently near the end leading to a rushed climax only redeemed by the hilarious ending. Still, the real black spot in the film's legacy is of course the haunting of Carole Lombard's memory. The actress died in a plane crash a few weeks after the film's release, the USA had just entered the war and she was collecting bonds during a tour across America. In a way, she was a victim of that war though she lived far from the ruins and ashes of Poland, her death cut one of the most promising careers short and made Gable so inconsolable he joined the war too... I avoided that film for a long time because of that story, it had saddened me a lot even more because I happen to be afraid of flying.

I couldn't believe how many times she referred to flights during the film, the simple fact that she loved an aviator gives it an eerie feeling, it's just as if the film was doomed to be clouded by tragedy, individual and universal. However, and that might be the secret of "To Be or Not to Be", It's all fiction, it's not reality, the film was criticized when the war was still raging and now it's a classic, once reality is as dead as fiction, what remains is the essence of art.as

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English | German

Release Date:

6 March 1942 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

To Be or Not to Be See more »


Box Office

Gross USA:


Cumulative Worldwide Gross:

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Company Credits

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Technical Specs


Sound Mix:

Mono (Western Electric Mirrophonic Recording)

Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
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