Directed by: Ernst Lubitsch
Music: Warner R Heymann
Starring: Carole Lombard, Jack Benny,
Stanley Ridges, Robert Stack,
Tim Dugan, Felix Bressart,
Lionel Atwill, Maud Eburne,
Charles Halton, Henry Victor
I’d seen the Mel Brooks version of To Be or Not to Be many years ago and found it hilarious. It was only later that I discovered that the 1980s film was a remake. So, while I ordered the Mel Brooks film again, I decided I had to watch the original film made four decades earlier. Strangely, Netflix sent me the original, which was great.
The year is 1939 in Warsaw, Poland. Europe is still at peace, a voiceover informs us. But suddenly, there’s a turmoil – Is that Adolf Hitler? In Warsaw?
It all began, continues a voiceover, in the Gestapo headquarters in Berlin. Where, when the ‘Führer’ is interrupted by a furious stage manager Dobosh (Charles Halton), you suddenly realise that these are actors, and the 'Gestapo headquarters' is a theatre. Dobosh is furious because ‘Hitler’ (Tom Dugan) wants to improvise ('Heil myself!'), a character actor, Greenberg (Felix Bressart), wants to give Dobosh his opinions (failing that, his ‘reaction’), his leading lady, Maria (Carole Lombard) wants to wear a ball gown for a scene in a concentration camp… on top of it all, Dobosh doesn’t think ‘Hitler’ looks anything like Hitler.
Which is why, in a bid to prove Dobosh wrong, Bronski has been showing himself as Hitler in public.
That night, the troupe is putting on Hamlet with Joseph Tura (Jack Benny), Maria’s husband, as the doomed Prince. Greenberg, whose only ambition is to be allowed to play Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, and condemned to playing spearholder in Hamlet, vents to Bronski, who commiserates with him. Meanwhile, back in the dressing room, Maria has just received a bouquet and a note from a certain Lt Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack). He wants to meet her, and Maria agrees to do so – arranging for him to come to her dressing room when her husband begins the famous soliloquy, 'To be or not to be… The ardent young man does so, much to Tura’s distress.
Soon, the troupe who regularly put on a satirical review named ‘Gestapo’, are warned not to perform the farce since Poland doesn’t want to annoy the Germans. The next night, Sobinski interrupts Tura’s performance again, much to the actor’s irritation. And Maria soon realises that Sobinski has taken every word she’s ever uttered in any interview as the gospel truth, that he also assumes that 'they' are madly in love 'each other', and that she will leave her husband for him.
Before she can disabuse him of the notion (and she tries), they get the news that Poland has been invaded. The German threat is now very real.
Sobinski leaves at once to join his regiment, while Dobosh hurries the actors into the basement. Warsaw is bombed and the soldiers of the Third Reich march in – the occupation of Poland is complete. And Greenberg is now wishing he could at least play spear-holder again.
Meanwhile, in Britain, Sobinski and other young Polish men who have joined the Polish division of the Royal Air Force, are entertaining a Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges), a leader of the Polish Resistance. As he leaves, Prof Siletsky lets slip that he’s leaving on a top-secret mission to Warsaw, and the home-sick regiment give him notes for their relatives back in Poland.
Sobinsky, who also gives him a message for Maria – ‘Tell her, ‘To be or not to be…’ becomes suspicious because the professor doesn’t seem to recognise Maria's name. He quickly apprises his superiors, who realise that Prof Siletsky now has a list of the names and addresses of the relatives of the Polish airmen. Sobinski is immediately air-dropped into Warsaw to warn the Resistance.
Sobinsky manages to reach Maria who is successful in passing the message on to the Underground.
Unfortunately, Siletsky has already arrived in Warsaw – Maria is stopped on her way back home and taken to the professor who wants to know if ‘To be or not to be’ is a code as he suspects. He invites Maria to dinner; she escapes for the moment by pretending she would like to dress up.
Meanwhile, Tura, who has returned home is flabbergasted to find Sobinsky in his bathrobe in his bed. This is when Maria returns, and there’s some serious crosstalk as Maria and Sobinsky are worried about Siletsky and Tura wants to know what’s going on between Sobinsky and his wife.
Maria returns to keep her dinner date with Siletsky. They are interrupted by Rawich (Lionel Atwill) who, masquerading as an officer of the ‘Gestapo’, escorts Siletsky to the ‘Gestapo Headquarters’ – the theatre given a facelift. There, he meets Tura, who is masquerading as Col. Ehrhardt, and passes on the list of names.
Just as Tura is heaving a sigh of relief, Siletsky lets drop that a duplicate list will be sent to Berlin the next day. While the conspirators are wondering how to deal with this latest impediment, Tura unwittingly alerts Siletsky to the farce.
Siletsky manages to escape until, cornered on the stage, he’s shot dead by Sobinsky. Tura, made up as Siletsky, goes to Siletsky’s hotel room to confront Maria and to destroy the copy of the list that Siletsky has in his trunk.
He finds Captain Schultz (Henry Victor), the adjutant of the real Col. Ehrhardt, waiting for him. Tura manages to pass the key of the trunk to Maria, and meeting Col. Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman), convinces him that he’s the real Siletsky.
A couple of days later, Col. Ehrhardt sends for Maria to inform her that Siletsky’s body had been discovered in the theatre and to find out what she knows about the matter. By the time Maria returns to warn the Resistance that Siletsky has been found, Tura has already left to keep 'Siletsky's' assignation with the Colonel. The Colonel, wanting 'Siletsky' to incriminate himself, sends Tura to keep company with Siletsky’s corpse.Tura is in a pickle – how will he escape the Gestapo? What can the Resistance do to save him, and will they be in time? Or will they just make matters worse?
Based on a story by Mechior Lengyel, To Be or Not to Be is all the more poignant when you realise that it was released in 1942 - when Poland was occupied by Germany. Perhaps that's why the film wasn’t initially well-received. Audiences were appalled that the bombing of Warsaw and the German occupation of Poland were treated so lightly. (Also, Carole Lombard died in a plane crash a month before the film released.) In fact, one critic even went so far as to imply that director Ernst Lubitsch's German birth may have had something to do with his lack of empathy. Lubitsch responded with a strongly-worded Op-Ed in the same paper, saying he had satirized the Nazis and their ideology, and while one may question whether serious matters should be treated lightly, his place of birth had nothing to do with it.
Long known for his elegant (but wicked) comedies of manners, Lubitz went into full-blown satire here. Tightly scripted, most of the humour came the witty dialogues:
Col. Erhhardt, upon asked if he had heard of the 'great, great actor, Joseph Tura' says that he'd seen the actor before the war - 'What he did to Hamlet, we are now doing to Poland.'
Or Greenberg, a Jew (though it's never mentioned in the film), telling Ravitch, 'What you are, I wouldn't eat!' Ravitch's response? 'Are you calling me a ham?'
The film relentlessly mocks the blind obedience of the German troops (in one scene, the pilots jump out of the plane without parachutes when ‘Hitler’ orders them to), and the total authoritarianism of the Nazi regime. Lubitz also directly mocked Hitler – Dubosh, excoriating Bronsky as not being very Hitler-like, remarks, ‘To me, he’s just a man with a little moustache.’ Whereupon the troupe’s make-up man quips, ‘So is Hitler.'
And when Col. Ehrhardt says (of Schultz) that one cannot trust a man who doesn’t smoke, drink or eat meat, Tura (as Prof. Siletsky) promptly responds, "Like our Führer?' – the implication being that Hitler cannot be trusted either.
The film doesn’t make light of the horrors of the Nazi regime. While the voiceover informs us that the Germans bombed Warsaw just to show they could, it’s the stark images that stay on in your consciousness.
The light scenes – where Maria is not allowed to leave the hotel (occupied by the Gestapo) because the professor hasn’t left word that she could – also emphasise how oppressive it was endure Nazi occupation. The film also makes direct commentaries on concentration camps and considering that the Nazi threat was looming, it must have taken guts to lampoon the Gestapo in 1942.
Jack Benny and Carole Lombard shine in their respective roles as ‘that great, great actor, Joseph Tura’ and his wife, Maria. However, there’s a consummate cast of supporting actors who are brilliant in their own way, even if they only have a couple of scenes. One example of this is Anna (Maud Eburne), Maria’s maid. She’s devoted to Maria, but dryly sarcastic. When Maria casually remarks that it might be best if her husband doesn’t know of her tryst with Lt Stanislav, Anna quips: “What the husband doesn’t know won’t hurt the wife.”
Now, if I really want to compare this to the Mel Brooks version, I will have to watch that again. Perhaps later. But for now, this film is a treat - if you haven't watched it already, do watch.