To Be or Not to Be is a 1942 Screwball Comedy produced by Alexander Korda's London Films company (though actually shot in America at the United Artists studios), directed by Ernst Lubitsch, and starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard in her final film role.Set in Warsaw during the early part of World War II, To Be or Not to Be follows the fortunes of a group of actors as they get drawn into the resistance. Before the war, actress Maria Tura (Lombard), wife of that great, great Polish actor, Jozef Tura (Benny), receives the attentions of Polish Air Force pilot Lt. Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack). Wanting to meet with him when her husband is not around, she tells Sobinski to leave the theater and come backstage while her husband is performing the "to be or not to be" soliloquy from Hamlet. Sobinski ends up doing this a number of times, always to the same cue. Jozef almost catches them together, but just before it can happen, what all of Poland fears happens instead: Germany invades, and war is declared. Sobinski makes a quick escape to Britain along with his squadron, while the rest of Poland has no choice but to deal with the trials of Nazi occupation.Some time later, Sobinski, operating with the Polish forces in exile, discovers that a spy is on his way to Warsaw with names of those in the Polish Underground. Given orders to stop the spy by any means necessary, Sobinski parachutes back into Warsaw. The spy has already arrived, but not yet delivered the list to the Gestapo. Having been given shelter by Maria Tura, Sobinski ends up reluctantly drawing her, Jozef, and their acting troupe into a bold scheme to trick the spy into giving the list to Jozef, under the pretense that he is the Gestapo contact the spy is there to see.To Be or Not to Be was remade 41 years later by Mel Brooks, with himself and his wife Anne Bancroft in the Benny and Lombard parts, here renamed Frederick and Anna Bronski; indeed, many of the characters were renamed or refashioned in this outing (e.g., "Stanislav" Sobinski becomes "Andre" Sobinski, Maria's Ambiguously Jewish female dresser Anna becomes Anna's unambiguouslygay male dresser Sasha, and Brooks' Bronski character takes over the functions of the original film's Dobosz as head of the company and (predictably, if implausibly) the role of the original Bronski (Tom Dugan, who did indeed bear a remarkable resemblance to the dictator) in impersonating Adolf Hitler. Brooks broadened the original Screwball Comedy to broad farce, with much lampshading and breaking of the fourth wall. Charles Durning was nominated for a best supporting actor Academy Award for his performance as Colonel Erhardt.
The 1942 movie contains examples of:
Adolf Hitler: The film begins with him apparently coming to Warsaw. However, it is soon revealed that this is the actor Bronski, made up to look like Hitler.
Adolf Hitlarious: Invoked, but ultimately averted. During his entrance as Hitler during a rehearsal, Bronski responds to the other actors' salutes of "Heil Hitler" with "Heil myself." He is then promptly yelled at by Dobosz the director for going off-script. Greenberg, the Jewish actor, is in favor of Bronski's ad-lib but gets shut down by Dobosz, who wants their play to be a serious drama. Hitler is never really treated as an object of ridicule, unlike in the remake.
Analogy Backfire: The actor Bronski, cast as Hitler in a play, is told by Dobosz the director that he doesn't look convincing as Hitler. To prove the point, Dobosz points to a portrait of Hitler on the set, only to have Bronski point out that the portrait is actually of himself dressed as Hitler. At that point, the director responds "well, then the portrait's wrong too."
Large Ham: It's about actors, so this is inevitable. Jozef Tura is something of a Large Ham, but the title goes to Rawitch (Lionel Atwill). As the Jewish actor Greenberg (Felix Bressart) tells him, "What you are, I wouldn't eat."
The Mole: Siletsky, although he comes under suspicion by the end of the first scene that features him.
Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Tura successfully manages to convince Erhardt of his identity as Siletsky, when his friends storm the room and ruin his graceful departure.
Not-So-Harmless Villain: Erhardt is mostly a comical buffoon like the Nazis of Hogan's Heroes, but unlike them, it's really clear he is a dangerous, evil man. A good illustration is one scene where he is on to Jozef Tura's disguise and puts him through some psychological torture on the logic that Tura is a clever man. When Erhardt's assistant wonders what to do if Tura isn't clever, Erhardt's response is (paraphrased) "Then we'll break every bone in his body."
Refuge in Audacity: Tura climaxes his ingenious beard transfer scheme by daring Colonel Erhardt to try and rip off his own (fake) beard which latter declines out of embarrassment.
The entire climax of the film is one massive and awesomely glorious exercise in this.
Siletski:(brandishing a gun) Up against that wall!
Bronski: Oh, no. I want to see it coming...( Siletski points the gun at him) I don't need to see it coming.
Bilingual Bonus: During the first few minutes, Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft actually sing (and then argue) in Polish. (See Translator Convention below.) If you actually speak Polish, they both speak in such ridiculous, over-the-top accents that it might make your ears bleed. They essentially speak the way a British or American person would speak if they were to read a piece of Polish text out loud - except worse.
Camp Gay: Anna's dresser Sasha is a gay man; he is forced to wear a pink triangle, and later arrested for transportation to a concentration camp.
Composite Character: Mel Brooks' Bronski is a combination of three different characters from the original film: Jozef Tura (the male protagonist, a self-important husband whose performances of Hamlet keep getting walked out on), Dobosz (the actual head of the company and director of the Nazi play), and Bronski (the actor who plays Hitler).
Curtain Call: Has one at the end. It begins as part of the Show Within a Show, but then the actors who are not playing actors also come out for a bow.
Flanderization: The hamminess and egoism is turned Up to Eleven in this film, with Brooks shamelessly mugging in his "Highlights From Hamlet." Frederick in this version is so envious of Anna's fame that he prints her name on the bills in parentheses.
Lighter and Fluffier: Instead of being dramatic actors, as were the Turas of the original, the Bronskis are glorified vaudeville stars: the Nazi play they are putting on is not a serious play about the Reich, but a mocking musical revue called Naughty Nazis (bearing not a little resemblance to The Producers' Springtime For Hitler).
Mood Whiplash: A comedy set in occupied Nazi Poland is obviously going to have a few, but one sequence at the end could really make your neck hurt: There is a comedy set involving clowns one moment, cutting to a touching rendition of Shylock's "Have not a Jew Eyes?" speech from The Merchant of Venice when one of the characters gets caught, back to more clowning around as the Jews make an escape, but then a couple breaks down at the sight of a theatre filled with Nazis... leading to Sasha's Crowning Moment Of Awesome as he manages to rescue the old couple right from under the noses of the Nazi audience.
Not Your Problem: This is Bronski's attitude when, at the beginning of the film, he catches a bunch of his actors and crew backstage listening to a radio broadcast of a Hitler speech. When Rawitch points out that German troops are massed at the border, Bronski retorts they should be more concerned with the audience massed out in front of the stage.
Lupinski: But the Ministry of Information says-
Bronski: That's politics! That's their business! We are in the theatre! That's OUR business!
Bronski: Face it, without Jews, fags or gypsies, there is no theater.
Say Your Prayers: When the German air raid on Warsaw starts, the Catholic Dobish, fleeing to the cellar, crosses himself; immediately afterward, the Jewish Bieler signs himself with a Star of David.
Small Name, Big Ego: In this version, Bronski is willing to aggrandize himself by adapting William Shakespeare into his own "Highlights From Hamlet: "I think I hear the handsome young prince coming now!" Guess who plays the prince?
Painting the Medium: The opening gag where Anna and Frederick perform the entirety of "Sweet Georgia Brown" and briefly argue afterwards in Polish without subtitles before a booming voice announces that the film will switch languages in the interest of clarity.
Zany Scheme: In addition to those in the original film, the costume mistress Gruba asks Bronski to allow her to shelter her cousin in the theater's basement; by the end of the film, one cousin has become Gruba's entire extended family, who must all be smuggled out of the country. Disguised as clowns. And thereafter disguised as Hitler's personal bomb squad.