To Be or Not to Be

Released:  1942

Cast:  Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack, Felix Bressart, Sig Ruman

Oscar Nominations:  Best Original Score (Werner Heymann)

SUMMARY:  In 1939, Josef Tura (Jack Benny) is an actor in Warsaw, Poland, as is his wife, Maria (Carole Lombard).  The two are the leads in a company of actors, which also includes Greenberg (Felix Bressart), Rawich, Bronski, and Dobosh, the company’s producer.  The group is working on a play that makes fun of Hitler and the Nazis, but is told by the government not to perform it, since it runs the risk of insulting the Germans.  Instead, the group puts on Hamlet, with Tura playing the lead role.  Bronski and Greenberg are upset at being reduced to “spear carriers”:  Greenberg, in particular, has much greater aspirations.  He particularly wants to play Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, and often practices the “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech.  During that evening’s performance, Maria receives another in a series of bouquets from a young admirer named Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack).  Sobinski is a pilot in the Polish military, and is infatuated with Maria.  Maria’s marriage to Josef is rather contentious, and she encourages the young man’s attention.  After several dates, she tells him to come to her dressing room one evening as Tura gives his “To be or not to be” speech.  During the performance, Sobinski is sitting in the second row, and it is painfully obvious to everyone — including Tura — when he gets up and leaves as the speech starts.  Tura takes this as a sign that he is losing his touch.  Only a short time later, Germany invades Poland, signaling the outbreak of World War II.  Sobinski immediately leaves to fight.  He manages to escape before Poland is conquered, and joins the Polish division of the Royal Air Force.  in England he meets a Polish Resistance leader named Professor Siletsky, and with his fellow pilots, hosts a party for the man.  When the pilots learn that Siletsky is returning to Poland for a secret mission they all ask him to try to contact their families, and give him all kinds of personal information.  Sobinski decides to send a message to Maria, but when Siletsky fails to recognize the famed actress’s name, he becomes suspicious.  He ultimately reports the incident to his superiors, who realize that Siletsky has a list of the friends and families of escaped Polish airmen to be turned over to the Germans for reprisals.  They decide to send a man to Warsaw immediately to stop Siletsky, and Sobinski volunteers.  However, he arrives too late:  Siletsky is already there and has made contact with the Germans.  Sobinski is pursued by the Nazis but manages to escape to Maria and Josef’s apartment.  It is Maria who transmits the warning to the Resistance, but she is arrested only hours after doing so.  Siletsky wants to question her about the meaning of the phrase (“To be or not to be”) that Sobinski sent as a message.  Once he meets her, he decides to try to recruit her as a spy.  Desperate to get away and warn somebody about what is happening, Maria makes the excuse of changing her clothes, then rushes home.  Before she can get there, Tura comes home to find Sobinski sleeping in his bed.  A fight nearly breaks out, but Maria arrives and reveals that Siletsky is in league with the Nazis and must be stopped before he can reveal the names of the Polish citizens.  Though Tura has little idea of what is actually going on (both with the plot and with Sobinski and Maria), he declares that he will kill Siletsky.

The three make contact with the disbanded acting troupe, then Maria returns to Siletsky’s hotel.  The two are interrupted by the arrival of several Nazis — who are actually actors — who announce that the Gestapo wants to see Siletsky immediately.  He is taken to their theatre, which has been disguised as Gestapo headquarters using props from the canceled play.  Tura plays the role of the local Gestapo head, Col Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman), and gets Siletsky to hand over the list of names; hoever, Siletsky soon realizes that this is not really Col. Ehrhardt, and tries to escape through the theatre.  He is shot and killed by Sobinski (disguised as one of the Nazis), and the body is hidden in the theatre.  Tura then goes back to the hotel, this time disguised as Siletsky.  However, he is met by the real envoy of the real Col. Ehrhardt, who really does want to see Siletsky.  Tura is forced to continue the charade in front of the colonel, but learns that Hitler is due to visit Warsaw the next day.  Tura is also supposed to have another meeting with Ehrhardt, but unbeknownst to him, Siletsky’s body is discovered in the hotel before their appointment.  Maria learns of this, and when she cannot warn her husband in time she alerts the other actors.  At the meeting, Ehrhardt tries to force a confession from Tura by leaving him in a room with Siletsky’s body.  The quick-thinking Tura gets out of the situation by claiming that the dead man is actually the imposter — and proves it by revealing the man’s fake beard (he had hurriedly shaved the man’s real beard, then pasted on a fake one he was carrying).  Tura has Ehrhardt completely convinced of his legitimacy — until the troupe bursts in, in Nazi disguises, claiming that Tura is an imposter (their attempted rescue, which is now completely unnecessary).  They even pull off his fake beard.  They succeed in getting Tura out of the Gestapo offices, but he is now unable to leave the country on the plane that Ehrhardt had arranged for Siletsky.  They come up with one final plan that will allow them to all escape.  When Hitler arrives in Warsaw, he will attend a performance of soldiers in the troupe’s old theater.  Once again dressed as Nazis — with Bronski as Hitler — the group sneaks in.  While everybody inside the theatre (including the real Hitler) is occupied, Greenberg distracts the guards by suddenly coming out of the ladies’ restroom.  The others come out, and Bronski/Hitler berates the guards for allowing the commotion.  When questioned about his motives, Greenberg is able to deliver his Shylock speech.  An adjutant (Tura) suggests that “Hitler” leave Poland immediately, and the entire group is driven to the airport.  Bronski goes to pick up Maria, but she is dealing with the sudden (and rather amorous) appearance of Col. Ehrhardt.  When Bronski bursts in, still disguised as Hitler, Ehrhardt believes that Maria is having an affair with Hitler, and is mortified.  Luckily, Maria manages to get away.  The plane takes off with the whole troupe, plus Sobinski, aboard.  “Hitler” orders the Nazi pilots to jump out of the plane, which they gladly do; Sobinski then flies the plane to Scotland.  While her husband is being hailed as a hero, Maria reveals that his greatest wish is to play Hamlet.  Some time later, Tura is on stage as Hamlet, while Sobinski watches from the first row.  Just as he begins the “To be or not to be” speech, a man in the second row gets up and leaves.

MY TAKE:  I have a feeling that the summary makes this movie sound more confusing than it really is.  In actuality, it’s pretty easy to follow.  This film is notable for several reasons.  First, it was made in 1942, while WWII was still being fought — and Germany seemed to be winning.  Quite a few people at the time thought that the film was in poor taste, as there was nothing funny about the Nazis.  They were particularly offended by the line, “What he did to Shakespeare, we are doing now to Poland.”  This is said by Col. Ehrhardt (the real one), speaking about Tura’s acting.  Personally, I thought it was pretty funny, and in the same vein as The Producers.  However, I watched the movie a long time after WWII ended — and I knew what that ending was.  The other reason why this film is notable is because it was released two months after star Carole Lombard died in a plane crash.  She was actually doing a War Bonds tour, which broke records, and decided to fly home (over the objections of her mother and husband Clark Gable’s agent, who wanted to take the train).  The plane crashed into a mountain, killing everybody aboard.  There was actually a part in the film where Lombard said something like “What could happen on a plane?” that was removed before the film was released, out of respect for her.  Obviously, this was her last film; she was only 33.  That sad note aside, this is a very clever, funny movie.  It was co-written, produced and directed by Ernst Lubitsch, who was actually a German Jew who had immigrated in the 1920s.  He was also responsible for movies like Ninotchka, which uses the same type of sly, witty humor.  The various innuendos and subtle insults are hilarious, especially when the object of those insults completely misses them.

RATING:  Smart and funny.



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