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Film / To Be or Not to Be

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Professor Siletsky: After all, it's nothing alarming - it's only Shakespeare.
Jozef Tura: (disguised as Col. Ehrhardt) That's what you think!

To Be or Not to Be is a 1942 Screwball Comedy film 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, the latter in her final film role.

Set in Warsaw during the early part of World War II, the film follows the fortunes of a group of actors as they get drawn into the resistance. Before the war, actress Maria Tura (Lombard), the 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 as a vehicle for Mel Brooks 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 version. ("Stanislav" Sobinski becomes "Andre" Sobinski, Maria's Ambiguously Jewish female dresser Anna becomes Anna's unambiguously gay 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.) Ronny Graham and Thomas Meehan wrote the screenplay, and Alan Johnson directed; as people who had worked with Brooks before, it's not surprising that the original Screwball Comedy is played as more of a 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 Ehrhardt.

The 1942 movie contains examples of:

  • 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 Bronksi'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."
  • Attempted Rape: Col. Ehrhardt to Maria.
  • Bavarian Fire Drill: The plot to smuggle the troupe out of Poland hinges on fooling the SS guards into believing that they have just stopped an assassination attempt on "Hitler" (in reality Bronski).
  • Beard of Evil: Siletsky. Even noted by Maria Tura.
  • Big Bad: Colonel Ehrhardt.
  • Book Ends: In the beginning, Jozef Tura plays Hamlet in Poland. When he starts his soliloquy, Sobinski leaves the theatre room. In the end, he plays Hamlet in the UK. When he starts his soliloquy, another man leaves the theatre room.
  • Bungled Suicide: When Ehrhardt thinks he has pissed off Hitler (the fake one). We hear a shot... and then promptly "SCHULTZ!!"
  • …But He Sounds Handsome: When Tura impersonates Ehrhardt to Siletsky, and then Siletsky to Ehrhardt, he inevitably inquires if they've heard of "that great, great Polish actor Jozef Tura." Ehrhardt mentions he saw Tura in Poland, and "what he did to Shakespeare, we are doing to Poland."
  • Catchphrase:
    Jozef Tura (disguised as Ehrhardt): So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt?
    • Also
    Col. Ehrhardt: SCHULTZ!!!
  • Chekhov's Gag: When Jozef Tura impersonates Ehrhardt, he repeats "So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt?" with a roaring laughter several times because he can't think of anything else to say. Later, when Jozef Tura impersonates Siletsky, he meets the real Ehrhardt, who also constantly repeats "So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt?" - with the same kind of laughter. To which Tura-as-Siletsky replies "I thought you would react just that way."
  • Chekhov's Gun: Someone from the troupe tells Maria that Jozef's fake beard came loose, so he gave him a second beard. This second beard does not seem to be important, until Jozef uses it to make Siletsky's body out to be the body of an impostor.
  • Cover Identity Anomaly: The German spy gives himself away by not knowing who Maria Tura is, despite her being a hugely famous actress in his supposed hometown.
  • Dead Person Impersonation: After Siletsky is killed by La Résistance, Jozef Tura disguises himself as him to further thwart his plans.
  • Double Entendre:
    • When Maria meets Sobinski in her dressing room:
    Sobinski: You may not believe it, but I can drop three tons of dynamite in two minutes.
    Maria Tura: Really?
    Sobinski: Does that interest you?
    Maria Tura: It certainly does.
    Sobinski: I don't want to overstep myself, but I'll take a chance. Would you permit me to show you my plane?
    Maria Tura: Maybe.
    Sobinski: When shall I call for you?
    Maria Tura: Tomorrow at 2:00 at my home. No, I'd better meet you right at the airport.
    Sobinski: Goodbye. I hope you forgive me if I acted a little clumsy... but this is the first time I ever met an actress.
    Maria Tura: Lieutenant, this is the first time I've ever met a man... who could drop three tons of dynamite in two minutes.
    • When Siletsky dines with Maria and tries to pick her up:
    Siletsky: Shall we drink to a Blitzkrieg?
    Maria Tura: I prefer a slow encirclement.
  • Double Take: When Tura notices dead Siletsky.
  • Dressing as the Enemy: Tura and company do this all the movie.
  • Earn Your Title: Someone nicknamed "Concentration Camp" Ehrhardt is unlikely to be a good guy.
  • The Faceless: The real Hitler is only seen from behind.
  • Have You Told Anyone Else?: When the Resistance fighters and actors disguised as Nazis prepare to kill a traitor, they subtly inquire about whether he's made a copy of the list of underground agents and families of Polish fighter pilots he's preparing to turn over. Unfortunately, he has, leading to a scramble to retrieve that.
    Joseph: I assume there are no supplementary documents still at the hotel?
  • Hitler Ate Sugar: Inverted. Colonel Ehrhardt is openly contemptuous of his aide's teetotalism and non-smoking until it is pointed out that the Führer has the same habits.
  • In Medias Res: The movie opens somewhere in the middle of the story with Hitler in the streets of Warsaw and the narrator asking how he got there. Then we rewind to the beginning.
  • It's All About Me: Maria accuses her husband of this.
    Maria: If I go on a diet, you lose the weight. If I have a cold, you cough. And if we should ever have a baby, I'm not so sure I'd be the mother.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Both Turas are fairly shallow and egotistical, but with some prodding they both start helping La Résistance.
  • Jumped at the Call: Joseph and the other actors don't hesitate to volunteer their services to stop a traitor and save the Resistance, despite having no prior involvement with the underground.
  • 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."
    • Sig Ruman as Colonel Ehrhardt is pretty hammy.
  • Literary Allusion Title: No points for guessing to what exactly. It is spelled out repeatedly in the movie itself.
  • Love Triangle: Maria is married to Jozef Tura, but Sobinski falls in love with her.
  • Mathematician's Answer: When Ehrhardt asks how long it has been since Siletski (really a disguised Tura) saw his friend Hitler, Tura evasively replies, "much too long."
  • Mistaken for an Imposter: Invoked by Jozef Tura through a bizarre beard transfer with the real Siletsky.
  • Mistaken for Fake Hair: Jozef Tura, one of the protagonists, wears a fake beard when impersonating Professor Siletsky, a Nazi double-agent. After the real Siletsky's body is discovered by the Nazis, they place Tura in a room with the corpse to see what he will do. Tura proceeds to shave off the real Siletsky's beard and replace it with a spare fake beard, and then claims that the real Siletsky is the impostor, counting on his captors inevitably pulling on the corpse's beard. Tura then invites his embarrassed captors to pull on his beard, which they decline to do.
  • The Mole: Siletsky, although he comes under suspicion by the end of the first scene that features him.
  • Never My Fault: Ehrhardt accuses Schultz of passing the buck whenever Schultz claims to be Just Following Orders, even though Schultz invariably was following orders, from Ehrhardt himself, before something happened that made the Colonel change his mind.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Tura successfully manages to convince Ehrhardt of his identity as Siletsky, when his friends storm the room and ruin his graceful departure.
  • Not-So-Harmless Villain: Ehrhardt is mostly a comical buffoon, but 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 Ehrhardt's assistant wonders what to do if Tura isn't clever, Ehrhardt's response is (paraphrased) "Then we'll break every bone in his body." Also, in his first introduction is speaking on a phone ordering the execution of some prisoners even if there was no evidence against them.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: The military intelligence leaders who Stanislav tells his suspicions about the professor want to give the professor the benefit of the doubt but immediately believe Stanislav once he reveals that the professor told the Polish pilots about his supposedly top secret mission and then got a list of the names and addresses all of their families back in Poland.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Tura climaxes his ingenious beard transfer scheme by daring Colonel Ehrhardt 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.
  • La Résistance: Siletsky must be killed off because he is going to disclose important information about the Polish underground to the Gestapo.
  • Running Gag: Several of these.
    • Someone leaves the theatre room every time Jozef Tura starts reciting Hamlet's soliloquy. Tura cannot stand it.
    • Ehrhardt blames Schultz for something that did not work.
  • Set Behind the Scenes: The protagonists are the actors of a theater troupe.
  • Shoutout:
    • The troupe plays Hamlet.
    • Greenberg would like to play Shylock's role in The Merchant of Venice. In the end, he gets to opportunity to recite Shylock's most famous monologue.
    • In order to pass a message on to the Polish underground, Maria must hide it in a copy of Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina.
  • Spear Carrier: Bronski and Greenberg are this in the acting company, and have a running conversation about it.
  • Strange Minds Think Alike: Jozef, impersonating Col. Ehrhardt and struggling not to give himself away, just repeats "So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt..." over and over for lack of anything else to say. The impersonation turns out to be completely accurate because when the real Ehrhardt enters the picture he also endlessly repeats the same phrase in conversation.
  • Take That!: Directed at the Bard of Avon himself:
    Jozef Tura: Even Shakespeare couldn't see Hamlet three nights in succession.
  • Those Wacky Nazis: Sig Rumann's "Colonel Ehrhardt" in particular is a buffoon, but you never lose sight of how dangerous he is.
  • Title Drop: Tura reads William Shakespeare's line... repeatedly.
  • Unspoken Plan Guarantee: The final escape plan of the troupe is not explained to the audience beforehand. The plan works.
  • Workplace-Acquired Abilities: The playing skills of the actors are very useful when they need to impersonate the Nazis.
  • Zany Scheme

The 1983 movie contains (in addition to those noted above, unless so noted) examples of:

  • Abhorrent Admirer: Ehrhardt goes backstage to see Anna during the special performance, and tries to force himself upon her.
  • Adaptation Name Change: As mentioned in the description, just about everybody has their name changed from the 1942 version.
  • Adaptation Relationship Overhaul: In the original film, Anna/Maria's flirtation with the pilot is due to a misunderstanding and she and her husband have a strong relationship. In the remake, she leads her suitor on more, and she and her husband have more of a Aw, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other relationship.
  • Adolf Hitlarious: One of the key differences between the original film and the remake is Brooks's willingness to turn Hitler himself into an object of ridicule.
  • Anachronism Stew: On the Naughty Nazis bit, there's a sign saying "A. Hitler: The Mark Stops Here". It's a reference to the idiom "The Buck Stops Here", but that was invented by Harry S. Truman, who became President after the events of the film.
  • Attack! Attack... Retreat! Retreat!: Between Bronski and Siletski
    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.
  • Brick Joke:
    • A few, but longest one is Anne Bancroft's name being in parentheses in the credits.
    • At the end, when Bronski does "Highlights from Hamlet", he says, "To be, or not to be!" and stares at Sobinsky, who smiles and shakes his head "no". Happy, Bronski relaxes and starts to continue the soliloquy, when a British officer gets up and starts to leave. Cue very startled looks from Bronski and Sobinsky.
      Bronski: (nearly sobbing) ... of outrageous fortune!
  • 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.
  • Clown Car: Used as part of the scheme to get the troupe and a dozen Jews out of the theater. The implementation of the trope is slightly different than the traditional however - the car is parked so that it blocks the audience's view of a trapdoor in the stage, allowing people hiding below the stage to climb through the trapdoor and walk through the car, creating the illusion that they had been in the car.
  • Comically Missing the Point: Played with. Sasha hates being made to wear the pink triangle... because it doesn't go with any of his outfits — and happily tells Anne he has a date "with another triangle". It's clear the real import of being marked is not lost on him, though. When Anna says the Nazis have been picking up Jews (to go to concentration camps), Sasha tells her they haven't been taking gays yet, with an emphasis on "yet".
  • The Comically Serious: Colonel Shultz.
  • 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.
  • Deceased Fall-Guy Gambit: Bronski as the mole tells Ehrhardt that he doesn't have the list of the entire Polish Underground as originally hoped, but does have the name of key figures in the Underground that could provide that list if interrogated. He then names two people the Gestapo had recently executed.
  • Fanservice Extra: The chorus girls at the theater don't have any dialogue when they aren't performing, remaining in the background during the meetings of the troupe and while helping with the escape plan at the end.
  • 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.
  • Gilligan Cut: Bronski learns that his house is being turned into Gestapo headquarters:
    Frederick Bronski: They cut off my gasoline, closed my bank account, took my stickpin, took my pinkie ring, and the top of my gold cane, but they are not, I repeat, not taking my house! Never!
    [Smash Cut to Bronski holding suitcases in his house]
    Frederick Bronski: Got everything?
  • The Greatest Story Never Told: Bronski impersonates Ehrhardt to get the list from the mole, and then impersonates the mole to convince Ehrhardt that the list is useless, as the names on it are all people who Ehrhardt had already executed. Upon getting back home, he laments that he just pulled off the greatest performance of his career, and only he was able to truly appreciate it.
  • Hide Your Lesbians: Defied; Sasha is flamboyantly Camp Gay, and the film notably deals frankly with the fact that the Nazis persecuted homosexuals as well as Jews.
  • If I Do Not Return: Subverted when Frederick, disguised as the mole, has to go to Gestapo Headquarters in a suicide mission and talks to his wife maybe for the last time:
    Frederick Bronski: Listen, sweetheart, if I don't come back, then I forgive you for anything that happened between you and Lt. Sobinski.
    [He opens the door to leave, but turns back]
    Frederick Bronski: But if I do come back, you're in a lot of trouble!
  • Image Song: "For Hitler." See Music Video, below.
  • In the Original Klingon: When told Bronski is trying to convince the Nazi censors that William Shakespeare wasn't Jewish, the costume lady remarks, "Shakespeare wasn't Jewish?! Huh, go figure."
  • Pun: The stage manager is renamed Sondheim, and a novelty act called "Klotzki's Clowns," entirely so that Brooks can at one point exclaim: "Sondheim! Send in the Clowns!" However, it becomes a Chekhov's Gag later as the clowns are crucial in the plan to smuggle a number of Jews out of Poland at the film's climax.
  • Large Ham: No one in this version can come close to Brooks himself, though Charles Dunning makes the best competition.
  • 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. It bears more than a little resemblance to The Producers' Springtime For Hitler — in fact, screenwriter Thomas Meehan went on to co-write that film's stage adaptation, and the "Heil myself!" Running Gag and a discussion of why actors don't wish each other "good luck" are near-direct lifts from this film.
  • 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 managing to rescue the old couple right from under the noses of the Nazi audience.
  • Music Video: The film spawned a video of Brooks (as a rapping, break-dancing Hitler) entitled "The Hitler Rap."
  • 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!
  • N-Word Privileges: Mel Brooks, as usual.
    Bronski: If it weren't for Jews, fags and gypsies, there'd be no theater!
  • Once Done, Never Forgotten: Ehrhardt's joke about Hitler getting a pickle named after him. Bronski even plays a little Kick the Dog with Ehrhardt about it.
    Bronski (pretending to be Hitler): Aren't you the one who make the joke about... my becoming... a PICKLE?!
  • Overly Narrow Superlative: Frederick Bronski is world famous... in Poland.
  • 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. And sanity.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Bronski sneaks a dozen Jews who were hiding in the theater basement out of the building while it's literally packed with Nazis by dressing them in clown outfits and have them pop out of a clown car and walk out the front door. When two of them have a panic attack because of all the Nazis around, Sasha saves the day by donning an SS cap, publicly accusing them of being Jews, and escorting them out at the point of a swastika themed "Bang!" Flag Gun!
  • Running Gag: "Can't you see this man is wearing a false beard?"
  • 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?
  • Take That!: In-Universe. After the Gestapo seize his house and convert it into their new headquarters, Frederick and Anna gather up what belongings they are allowed to take and leave... but not before Frederick checks around to make sure he is alone, then gives the newly-hung portrait of Hitler on the wall a good shove with his cane, knocking it askew.
  • Those Wacky Nazis: And given that Mel Brooks is involved, the wackiness goes up to eleven.
  • Translation Convention: Lampshaded: The film begins with Frederick and Anna singing and arguing in Polish; a narrator (as the Bronskies look up to see where the voice is coming from) proclaims "For the purposes of clarity and sanity, the remainder of this film will NOT be in Polish!" The actors take a breath and relax, then proceed in English.
  • Wham Shot: During Bronski's meeting with the professor, at one point he turns his swivel chair around and both the audience (and the professor) see that it's labeled property of the Bronski theater, instantly blowing the deception and causing a moment of tension for the audience as the professor (successfully) tries to bait Bronski by casually insulting his talent while Bronski remains unaware that he's been exposed.
  • What You Are in the Dark: Played for quiet drama. Frederick comes back from successfully impersonating Prof. Siletski at Gestapo Headquaters and collapses with relief into a chair:
    Frederick: I did it... I did it! I gave the greatest performance of my life... (chuckles softly) And nobody saw it.
  • Yes-Man: Christopher Lloyd as Schultz.
  • 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. While wearing clown makeup.
    Bronski: There were three of them! Are they Jews or rabbits?