To Be or Not to Be (1942 film)

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To Be or Not to Be
To Be or Not to Be 1942 poster.jpg
theatrical poster
Directed byErnst Lubitsch
Produced byErnst Lubitsch
Written byMelchior Lengyel
Edwin Justus Mayer
StarringCarole Lombard
Jack Benny
Robert Stack
Felix Bressart
Sig Ruman
Music byWerner R. Heymann
Uncredited:
Miklós Rózsa
CinematographyRudolph Maté
Editing byDorothy Spencer
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release datesMarch 6, 1942
Running time99 minutes
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
 
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To Be or Not to Be
To Be or Not to Be 1942 poster.jpg
theatrical poster
Directed byErnst Lubitsch
Produced byErnst Lubitsch
Written byMelchior Lengyel
Edwin Justus Mayer
StarringCarole Lombard
Jack Benny
Robert Stack
Felix Bressart
Sig Ruman
Music byWerner R. Heymann
Uncredited:
Miklós Rózsa
CinematographyRudolph Maté
Editing byDorothy Spencer
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release datesMarch 6, 1942
Running time99 minutes
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish

To Be or Not to Be is a 1942 American comedy directed by Ernst Lubitsch, about a troupe of actors in Nazi-occupied Warsaw who use their abilities at disguise and acting to fool the occupying troops. It was adapted by Lubitsch (uncredited) and Edwin Justus Mayer from the story by Melchior Lengyel. The film stars Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack, Felix Bressart, Lionel Atwill, Stanley Ridges and Sig Ruman. The film was released two months after actress Carole Lombard was killed in an airplane crash.

The title is a reference to the famous "To be, or not to be" soliloquy in William Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Plot[edit]

The film chronicles the adventures of a Polish theater company before and during Nazi occupation, especially those of the resident ham, Josef Tura, and his wife, Maria. The film opens with the seemingly impossible appearance of Adolf Hitler in Warsaw before the 1939 invasion. We discover this is a local actor, Bronski, who is playing Hitler in a new work satirizing the Nazis. During rehearsals, Bronski's resemblance to Hitler was called into question, so he took to the streets to prove himself. His effort fails when a young girl asks for the autograph of "Mr. Bronski."

The action then shifts to later that night, when the theater company is performing Shakespeare's Hamlet, with Tura in the title role. Bronski commiserates with his friend and colleague, Greenberg, about always being the ones to "carry a spear," instead of having starring roles. Greenberg reveals it has always been his dream to perform Shylock, especially the famous "Hath not a Jew eyes?..." speech.

Meanwhile, Maria is inspecting a bouquet of flowers she received from a handsome young pilot named Lt. Stanislav Sobinski. She arranges to meet him, telling Sobinski to come to her dressing room when Tura begins his "To be or not to be..." speech, so they can be sure of privacy. The young man walks out (very obviously) when Tura begins his monologue — causing the highly-strung actor great distress. Sobinski and Maria begin an affair but soon after Germany declares war on Poland and Sobinski leaves to join the fight.

A montage and voice-over show us Hitler conquering Poland, and tell us that the Polish division of the British Royal Air Force is fighting to free its mother country. We cut to this very division, where Lt. Sobinski and other young pilots are singing with an apparent Polish resistance leader named Prof. Siletsky. Siletsky hints he will return to Warsaw soon, but Sobinski is suspicious when he gives Siletsky a message for Maria Tura and he doesn't know who the famous actress is.

Sobinski's superiors send him to Warsaw to warn the resistance. He manages to reach Maria, who passes the message on in his stead. Immediately after, she is stopped by two Nazi soldiers, who have been ordered by Siletsky to bring her to his hotel. Siletsky delivers Sobinski's message and invites Maria to dinner, hoping to recruit her as a spy for the Nazis. She pretends to be interested and goes home "to change her clothes." Just before she arrives at her apartment, Tura returns and Maria, Tura and Stanislav end up in a three-way conversation in which Maria and Stanislav try to figure out what to do (kill Siletsky, they conclude), and Tura tries to figure out what on Earth is going on. In the end, Tura proclaims that he will kill Siletsky.

Later that evening, Mrs. Tura returns to the professor's room and pretends to be attracted to him. Just as they kiss, there is a knock at the door. It is a Nazi officer (whom we recognize as one of the members of the acting company). He informs the professor that he is wanted at Gestapo headquarters, but actually escorts him to the theater, which has been hastily disguised with props and costumes from the play.

Tura pretends to be Col. Ehrhardt of the Gestapo, and Siletsky gives him the report containing the names and addresses of the families of the Polish pilots. He also reveals that Sobinski gave him a message for Maria and that the line "to be or not to be" was the signal for their rendezvous. Tura reacts in an insanely jealous way and declares he will have Maria arrested. Noting this overreaction, Siletsky quickly figures out that he has been duped, pulls a gun on Tura and tries to escape, but is shot and killed by Sobinski on the stage of the theater. Tura returns to the hotel disguised as Siletsky in a fake beard and glasses, to destroy the information about the Polish resistance that Siletsky has in his trunk. Unfortunately, he's met at the hotel by the real Col. Ehrhardt's adjutant, Capt. Schultz, and taken to meet Ehrhardt himself. Luckily, Tura manages to pass himself off as Siletsky and learns during their meeting that Hitler himself will visit Poland the next day.

The next day, the real Siletsky's body is discovered in the theater. Ehrhardt sends for Maria to tell her, but she is unable to warn Tura in time, and he arranges another meeting with Ehrhardt, again posing as Siletsky. When Tura arrives, Ehrhardt sends him into a room with Siletsky's dead body in it, hoping to frighten him into a confession. Ad libbing like a pro, however, Tura shaves off Siletsky's beard and then attaches a spare fake beard that he was carrying in his pocket. He then calls Ehrhardt into the room and manipulates him into pulling Siletsky's now-fake beard off. This seems to prove that the real Siletsky was actually the imposter, but just as Tura is about to make his escape, the other actors (sent by Maria and again in Nazi costume) storm into Ehrhardt's office, yank off Tura's false beard and pretend to drag him away to prison. This gets Tura out of Gestapo headquarters, but now he cannot leave the country on the plane Ehrhardt had arranged for him, and it's only a matter of time before the actors' ruse is discovered.

Now the actors make their boldest gambit of all. The Nazis put on a show at the theater to welcome Hitler, and Sobinski and the actors sneak in dressed as Nazis. Prominent among them is Bronski, initially without his Hitler mustache from the play. The actors hide in the powder rooms until Hitler arrives and takes his seat, and then, as the Nazis are singing the German national anthem inside, Greenberg suddenly appears from the ladies' room and charges toward Hitler's box. This distracts the Führer's guards long enough for Bronski, now wearing a Hitler mustache, to emerge unnoticed from the men's room and pretend to have come out of Hitler's box surrounded by his "entourage."

Playing the head of Hitler's men, Tura demands to know what Greenberg wants from the Führer, and Greenberg finally gets his chance to deliver Shylock's famous speech, infusing it with all his love for Poland and his hatred of the Nazis that have subjugated it. He ends with a ringing "if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?!" and Tura orders his "officers" to take Greenberg away. He also recommends that Bronski/Hitler leave Poland immediately, and all the actors march out, get in Hitler's car and drive away.

Back at her apartment, Maria is waiting for the actors to pick her up. They all intend to leave on Hitler's plane, but Col. Ehrhardt shows up and tries to seduce her. Ehrhardt is utterly floored, however, when the door opens and Bronski walks in disguised as Hitler. Equally shocked, Bronski turns and walks out in silence, but Ehrhardt immediately thinks that Maria is having an affair with Hitler and he has just been caught trying to steal the Führer's girl. It's the perfect opportunity for Maria, who dashes after Bronski calling, "Mein Führer, Mein Führer!"

All the actors take off in the plane. They easily dispose of the real Nazi pilots — Bronski, still dressed as Hitler, simply orders them to jump out of the plane (without parachutes from who knows how many feet up); the mindlessly obedient pilots instantly leap to their deaths. Sobinski flies the plane to Scotland, where Bronski causes a little surprise when he parachutes into a farmer's bale of hay in his Hitler costume and makeup. The actors are soon revealed as heroes. Asked what reward he'd like for his service to the Allies, Tura hems and haws in a show of false modesty, but Maria quickly answers in his stead, "he wants to play Hamlet."

In the movie's final scene, Tura is once again on stage as Hamlet and reaches the moment of "To be or not to be." He eyeballs Sobinski in the audience as he begins the speech, but both of them are struck dumb when a new young man gets up and heads backstage.

Cast[edit]

Production[edit]

Lubitsch had never considered anyone other than Jack Benny for the lead role in the film. He had even written the character with Benny in mind. Benny, thrilled that a director of Lubitsch's caliber had been thinking of him while writing it, accepted the role immediately. Benny was in a predicament as, strangely enough, his success in Charley's Aunt was not interesting anyone in hiring the actor for their films.

For Benny's costar, the studio and Lubitsch decided on Miriam Hopkins, whose career had been faltering in recent years. The role was designed as a comeback for the veteran actress, but Hopkins and Benny did not get along well, and Hopkins left the production.

Lubitsch was left without a leading lady until Carole Lombard, hearing his predicament, asked to be considered. Lombard had never worked with the famous director and yearned to have an opportunity. Lubitsch agreed and Lombard was cast. The film also provided Lombard with an opportunity to work with friend Robert Stack, whom she had known since he was an awkward teenager. The film was shot at United Artists, which allowed Lombard to say that she had worked at every major studio in Hollywood.

Reception[edit]

To Be or Not To Be, now regarded as one of the best films of Lubitsch's, Benny's and Lombard's careers, was initially not well received by the public, many of whom could not understand the notion of making fun out of such a real threat as the Nazis. According to Jack Benny's memoirs, his own father walked out of the theater early in the film, disgusted that his son was in a Nazi uniform, and vowed not to set foot in the theater again. Benny convinced him otherwise and his father ended up loving the film, and saw it forty-six times.

The same could not be said for the critics, however. While they generally praised Lombard, many scorned Benny and Lubitsch. To one critic Lubitsch wrote, "What I have satirized in this picture are the Nazis and their ridiculous ideology. I have also satirized the attitude of actors who always remain actors regardless of how dangerous the situation might be, which I believe is a true observation. It can be argued if the tragedy of Poland realistically portrayed as in To Be or Not to Be can be merged with satire. I believe it can be and so do the audience which I observed during a screening of To Be or Not to Be; but this is a matter of debate and everyone is entitled to his point of view, but it is certainly a far cry from the Berlin-born director who finds fun in the bombing of Warsaw." The critic Mildred Martin reviewed another of Lubitsch's films and referred derogatively to his German birth and his comedy about Nazis in Poland.

Some critics were especially offended by Colonel Ehrhardt's line: "Oh, yes I saw him [Tura] in 'Hamlet' once. What he did to Shakespeare we are doing now to Poland." However, the film has since become a comedy classic.

To Be or Not To Be has a 97% approval rating on the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes with an average rating of 8,7, based on 36 reviews, with the consensus: "A complex and timely satire with as much darkness as slapstick, Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not To Be delicately balances humor and ethics."[1]

Awards and honors[edit]

To Be or Not to Be was nominated for one Academy Award: the Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture. However, in 1996 it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

American Film Institute recognition

Remakes[edit]

References[edit]

Notes

Further reading

External links[edit]