Bronski Beat in Lubitsch's Polished Comedy
First up it has to be said that "To Be or Not to Be" is a wickedly funny movie which sees great performances from both Jack Benny and Carole Lombard, who sadly died at the age of just 33 before it's release. But at the same time it is a movie which seems to take an age to get going as it goes through one comedy set up after another, all important to the final story but at the same time almost over confusing things. Yet when you get past these humorous set ups as the characters are introduced you then get a wonderful comedy built on classic confusion and farce as you have a troop of hammy actors trying to stop a German spy from getting information to the German Hierarchy.
The year is 1939 and Joseph (Jack Benny) and Maria Tura (Carole Lombard) are part of a group of performers looking to perform in a German Parody in a Warsaw theatre. But not only are they blocked but Hitler and his forces invade Poland changing the way of life for these performers. And it also means that Lieut. Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack - Airplane!) who carries a torch for Maria is sent to England as part of the Polish air force. Whilst in England he becomes suspicious of Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges) who he suspects is a German spy and before he knows it Sobinski is back in Warsaw alongside the Tura's and their fellow performers trying to stop Professor Siletsky from passing on secret information to the German hierarchy.
So as already mentioned "To Be or Not to Be" takes some time to get going and delivers almost a series of false starts as it sets up the various characters. We enter the movie with Hitler taking a solo stroll down a Polish street, yet we soon discover it's not Hitler but an actor who is actually part of a play who so disgruntled that the producer doesn't think he looks like Hitler decides to see if the public are fooled. It's an amusing initial set up and purposefully confusing because we then watch the play in rehearsals but we don't actually know this till the actor playing Hitler says "Heil myself", one of many amusing lines which fill the movie. B
But then things change and we have the actors in a production of Hamlet and this leads to us getting to know Joseph and Maria Tura as well as Lieut. Stanislav Sobinski who is in love with Maria. And whilst all very amusing as Joseph is so focused on his own performance that he has no idea that Sobinski is trying to court his wife Maria, it then jumps again as we then get introduced to Professor Siletsky.
Now to be honest this series of set ups is fun and does a reasonable job of establishing several elements which are pivotal for the main storyline but it does seem to take an age before it gets to the main storyline. And what is that main storyline well it's all about Professor Siletsky being a spy and Lieut. Sobinski along with Joseph and Maria Tura as well as their fellow actors trying to stop him from passing information to the German hierarchy. And as such you have Joseph pretending to be Siletsky along with a series of other Germans as things get more and more confusing and comical as he gets deeper and deeper into trouble.
The irony is that after all the set up the actual main storyline is in fact quite simple and entertainingly so because it's all about delivering the laughs from the contrived circumstances. It has almost an element of the keystone cops as the various actors dress up as Germans, masquerading as officers and obviously in one case Hitler. And of course the messier it gets the funnier it becomes as Joseph ends up impersonating Professor Siletsky whilst the Germans actually know Siletsky is dead.
At the centre of all of this and the reasons why "To Be or Not to Be" works is the enjoyable performances and they include those such as Felix Bressart as Greenberg and Sig Ruman as Col. Ehrhardt. But "To Be or Not to Be" is very much a movie which belongs to Jack Benny and Carole Lombard whose comic timing is just wonderful especially Benny whose performance as the hammy Joseph Tura is wonderful, simply wonderful. But Carole Lombard is not outdone as whilst oozing loveliness through out also delivers plenty of one liners to equal Benny.
What this all boils down to is that "To Be or Not to Be" is a wonderful example of how much fun older movies are by keeping things simple and relying on elements of farce and one liners. It does take a while to get all the pieces into place but when it does you will just enjoy the constant flow of humour be it the intentional hammy Joseph Tura or an actor impersonating Hitler. And a big reason why it all comes together is that the comic timing of Jack Benny and Carole Lombard is first rate.