Ernest Lubitch was a brilliant movie director, immigrant from Germany, who had a way with telling a comedic film. To Be or Not To Be, which debuted in 1942, is a fine example of his work, a movie that finds comedy gold in the errors made by the main characters. The cast includes Jack Benny, Carole Lombard, Robert Stack, Lionel Atwill, and character actors Felix Bressart, Sig Ruman, Tom Dugan, and Stanley Ridges. Jack Benny plays Joseph Tura, the head of a Polish Acting Troupe. He is a hammy actor, and with his huge ego, he thinks he is as good an actor as Laurence Olivier. Carole Lombard is his wife, Maria, also a member of the troupe. She tolerates her husband and unbeknownst to him has recently begun seeing a dashing Polish pilot, Lieutenant Stanislov Sobinski, played by Robert Stack. Whenever the troupe rehearses Hamlet and Joseph is about to begin the famous soliloquy, “To Be or Not to Be”, that is the signal when the Lt. Sobinski leaves the audience to visit Maria in her dressing room. The troupe has been working on a play they wrote themselves, called “Gestapo” in order to not get on Hitler’s bad list( it’s 1939 when the movie begins). The troupe member, Bronski, assigned the part of Hitler, decides to test his make-up and costume and goes out into the public square during a rehearsal and all is well until a child in the crowd recognizes him as Bronski and asks for his autograph!
Time jumps forward a year and Poland is under the control of the Nazi regime. Lt. Sobinski, along with a group of Polish pilots, have joined the RAF(Britain’s Royal Air Force). An official of the Polish government tells the troupe that they can’t perform their play “Gestapo” so they begin to rehearse Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, for the umpteenth time and of course, only Joseph can play Hamlet. Maria is his Ophelia. We meet the dashing Lt. Sobinski again, but this time he is in England with his fellow Polish pilots. They are delighted that Professor Siletsky, a staunch Polish National, is in England and he visits the pilots. He informs them that he’s about to return to Poland and they give him a list of their families’ names and addresses so he can contact them and let them know that their sons are safe in England. Lt. Sobinski gives him a special message to send Maria, “To Be or Not to Be” . The Professor says’s he’ll deliver it but doesn’t know who Maria Tura is. This surprises Sobinski, because Maria is a famous Polish actress. After the Professor leaves, Sobinski contacts British military intelligence and shares his concerns that the Professor might not be who he seems to be. After some digging, they find out he is a Nazi spy! The Brits send Lt. Sobinski secretly into Poland to find the Professor and stop him from giving his information to the Nazis. From here on out, it’s a case of stopping the Professor, Joseph posing as the Professor, and as a Col. Erhardt who is to receive the Professor’s information, Maria trying to fool the Nazis into thinking she’ll be a spy for them, Bronski reprising his Hitler role, and the other actors in the troupe posing as Gestapo members. It is all done with a lot of humor, wit, and of course, has a happy ending.
Ernst Lubitsch produced and directed this movie, based upon a story by Melchior Lengyel, who also wrote the screenplay along with Edwin Justus Mayer. Miriam Hopkins, who’s career was starting a downward slide in the early 1940s, was originally cast as Maria but didn’t like working with Jack Benny and she quit early in the production. Carole Lombard got wind of this and requested the role and got it. Sadly, this would be Lombard’s last film as she would die in a plane crash, traveling on a War Bonds Tour. This film allowed Carole Lombard to shine and her comedic talents are evident throughout this movie.
To Be or Not to Be made the American Film Institute’s 100 Years of Laughs list. It is available to buy through Amazon and is available to rent on Netflix. This Sunday, June 23rd, at 4:15 a.m. it will air on Turner Classic Movies, so set that dvr machine. You don’t want to miss this gem!