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USA 1942
Directed by
Ernst Lubitsch
99 minutes
Rated G

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

To Be Or Not To Be (1942)

Although Chaplin had lampooned Hitler two years earlier in The Great Dictator, Ernst Lubitsch’s bold comedy poking merciless fun at the Nazis, like Roberto Begnini’s  Holocaust comedy Life Is Beautiful was, understandably enough, considered in questionable-to-poor taste at the time of its release. It had a double blow against it in that Carole Lombard died in a plane crash two months before the film’s release.

Set in Poland at the start of Hitler’s triumphal run it tells the story of how a Warsaw theatrical troupe headed by husband-and-wife  Joseph (Jack Benny) and Maria (Lombard) Tura become part of a plot to kill a Nazi collaborator Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges).

Jack Benny, in his finest screen moment provides most of the laughs (his performance style is strongly reminiscent of Groucho Marx) as the mediocre but chronically actor, Joseph Tura, but Sig Ruman as a stupid Gestapo chief Col. “Concentration Camp”  Ehrhardt, is a hoot, their scenes together providing the film's comedy  highlights. Lombard plays a relatively straight role even with a fresh-faced Robert Stack who appears as her would-be lover.

The film also has an understated but nevertheless serious and propagandistic side and the wanton destruction of Warsaw and the persecution of the Jews (one of the company played by Felix Bressart , recites Shylock’s speech from “The Merchant Of Venice”) are effectively interpellated into the farcical goings-on.

Lubitsch whose contributions to the script were uncredited brings an elegance to the proceedings and the film is more an achievement of restrained style than outright comedy.

FYI:  Mel Brooks remade the film in 1983 with himself and wife Anne Bancroft the lead roles.




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