Review — To Be Or Not To Be

By Spike Harville —

To Be or Not to Be (1942) written and directed by Ernst Lubitsch is a
delight. I don’t want to give away a bit of this movie as the whole of
it is delicious, and just like candy before dinner, I don’t want to
spoil your appetite for seeing it.

It stars Jack Benny, Carole
Lombard and Robert Stack. Who knew Benny could act? Yeah he did a lot
of schtick on TV and before that, radio, but he is a graceful and
believable as a high-strung self-absorbed ego-centric and neurotic stage
actor. I guess I could’ve just said “actor” and you could’ve filled in
the rest.

The story revolves around a married couple. Joseph and Maria Tura. Both of whom work in the theater.

The
wife has a young and handsome admirer, a Polish Air Force pilot with
whom she has arranged to meet when her husband is onstage and performing
the famous Shakespearian soliloquy in Hamlet. As soon as Joseph
delivers the line “To Be or Not To Be” the young pilot is to dash back
to Mrs. Tura’s dressing room. Of course this disrupts the performance
several nights in a row as the young pilot sits in the middle of the
second row and excuses himself all the way to the aisle.

The
Polish pilot, Lt. Stanislav Sobinski, is backstage on the night that
Hitler’s army invades Poland and he rushes off to war. Some time after
the invasion we see him and other young pilots relaxing one evening
around a piano, singing songs of Poland while safely in England where
their squadron is based. An older distinguished Professor Siletsky is
with them and during a break lets it slip that he is going back into
Poland on a secret mission.

The pilots each write down
messages along with the names of family, friends and resistance fighters
to whom the messages should be relayed. Sobinski becomes suspicious
when he gives Siletsky a message for Maria Tura and he doesn’t recognize
the name of Warsaw’s most famous stage actress.

Sobinski’s
superiors send him to Warsaw to silence Siletsky. before the information
cam be delivered to the Nazis. The timing of his arrival is
miscalculated and, in trouble, he must call upon Joseph Tura and the
acting troupe for help. For once their performances must be believable,
their lives depend on it.

SIDE NOTE: In 1983 Mel Brooks, Anne
Bancroft and Tim Matheson were in the remake of this movie and they all
did outstanding jobs. It’s one of my favorite Mel Brooks movies. It
follows the original faithfully and like the original 1942 film, it is
hilarious. Both versions are worth seeing, I think the Jack Benny
version is slightly understated, which plays very well.

So… how
does it rate? I asked ten actors and filmmaker friends to rate the
movie on the 5 star scale. I asked the same from the normal friends I
have and my family.

The actors and filmmakers gave it 5 stars. Friends and family gave it 4 1/2.

Do
I like this movie? Darn skippy. This is a great movie. It is
simultaneously hilarious and chilling. It is one of the best examples
of farce ever. Jack Benny and Carole Lombard were a great screen team,
just this once. Carole Lombard (Mrs. Clark Gable) was killed just two
months before the movie was released while on a patriotic war bond trip
and her plane went down. She was 33.

Lombard and Benny mesh
together in that mid-life, comfortable with each other and in their own
skin kind of way. I believed that they shed their shallow actor selves
and in time of crisis became Polish patriots, willing to risk and lose
all in their own personal war against the Third Reich. There are a few
films that I give the “You’ve got to see this movie” stamp to: this is
one of them. This movie was relevant in 1942; it is relevant and
poignant today. I give it 5 stars.