To Be or Not to Be (1942)
To Be or Not to Be (1942)

Genre: Dramatic Comedy and War Running Time: 1 hr. 39 min.

Release Date: March 6th, 1942 MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Director: Ernst Lubitsch Actors: Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack, Felix Bressart, Lionel Atwill, Stanley Ridges, Sig Ruman, Tom Dugan, Charles Halton, Henry Victor, Maude Eburne

 


 

D

uring August of 1939, in Warsaw, Poland, a crowd gathers in shock as Adolf Hitler (Tom Dugan) himself shows up on the street corner, despite Germany and Poland still being at peace. His arrival can be explained by a situation in Berlin, to which the scene transitions – though it’s actually just a nearby theater. And Hitler is merely an actor, convinced that he’s a passable lookalike, yet disproven by a little girl who recognizes the celebrity and asks for an autograph.

The cast of what is just a play, titled “Gestapo,” is scrutinized by the quizzical producer (Charles Halton), but major star Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) and his elegant wife Maria (Carole Lombard) – the most famous Polish actress – console the man. Later, during a production of “Hamlet,” also starring the Turas, young aviator Lieutenant Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack) arranges a mid-performance visit with Maria (during Joseph’s big “To be or not to be” soliloquy), causing a disruption that doesn’t go unnoticed. When the foreign office determines that “Gestapo” might upset Germany, the play is canceled, forcing another performance of “Hamlet” and another opportunity for Stanislav to walk out at an inopportune time. During this latest rendezvous, he professes his love for Maria, suggesting that the two of them run away together – an offer that is interrupted by the shocking announcement of war.

As Poland is dragged into a nasty occupation and rebellion, and Europe wages war on their fronts, a secondary plot arises involving Professor Alexander Siletsky (Stanley Ridges), who is tasked with delivering secret information to the Polish underground – but may in fact be a double agent working for the Nazis. Stanislav is then assigned to return to Poland to get to the bottom of the situation, though it will be a hazardous mission, promising possible death at every turn. And the Turas are somehow mixed up in the plan as well – perhaps as spies. “What are we gonna do about my conscience?”

Though the beginning of the film possesses outright comedy, particularly in Benny’s vanity and his bickering with his wife, these moments are fleeting. Once the Nazis invade, kicking the Polish people out of their homes and limiting their access to resources, the scenarios become so bleak that it’s difficult to squeeze humor out of even the situational comedy components. Benny’s high-pitched fussing doesn’t even lighten the mood. “Don’t you realize Poland’s at stake!”

As the Turas attempt to aid the underground movement – primarily by using their acting chops to impersonate Gestapo hierarchy – many of the interactions become downright thrilling. A few scenes mirror the nerve-wracking severity of “Notorious,” which don’t lend to comedy at all. In fact, matters of life and death crop up repeatedly, causing Benny’s brief wisecracks to practically disappear amid the wafting morbidity. Making light of the occupation, confiscations, executions, concentration camps, torture, and spontaneous murder is a continuously uphill battle. “One little slip and I’m a dead man.”

Further permeating the picture are the themes of jealousy and infidelity (and a potential love triangle), along with Joseph’s disappointment with never being recognized as a better thespian than his wife. And these, likewise, lack the outright laughs needed to counter the tension of Gestapo entanglements. A perpetually befuddled colonel (Sig Ruman) is one of the high points of humor (and his frequent embarrassments, which require placing the blame on his subordinate [Henry Victor]), but the spasmodic screwball vibe is just as unnatural and unfitting. “I hate to leave the fate of my country in the hands of a ham.”

Eventually, life imitates art, with the players getting to take advantage of their skills at assuming limitless identities (supporting actors Felix Bressart and Lionel Atwill are notably good) – in some of the more effective bits of humor. Slapstick switcheroos and distractions abound, but the underlying suspense of Nazi oppression never lets up. Ultimately, the two vastly disparate concepts compete against one another, allowing neither one to succeed.

– Mike Massie

  • 5/10