Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Film Review: To Be or Not to Be (1942)

Carole Lombard and Jack Benny play Polish actors
who hoodwink the Nazis in To Be or Not to Be
For the most part, the Second World War was one of the worst things that ever happened to the movie industry, but in a few cases such as this, the interminable battle actually produced fodder for some good films. This hilariously comedy stars Jack Benny and Carole Lombard as Polish actors fighting to save the resistance movement in Europe. Director Ernst Lubitsch, who also made such hits as Ninotchka and The Shop Around the Corner, was at the height of his powers portraying central Europe with a lovingly human hand and at the same time making the social commentary uproariously funny.

The gem of a plot goes something like this: Before the war Warsaw's premier acting company was lead by husband-and-wife team Maria (Carole Lombard) and Joseph Tura (Jack Benny)--the former being more talented than the latter, despite what his  tremendous ego leads the latter to believe. Just prior to the Nazi invasion, Maria becomes friends with a young pilot in the Polish Air Force. Afraid of her husband's jealousy, she tells the pilot to meet her backstage while Joseph is performing Hamlet's "To Be or Not to Be" soliloquy, much to the chagrin of Joseph, who cannot understand why someone would walk out on him while doing that famous speech.

When Poland gets overrun the young pilot escapes to Britain and joins the RAF in order to continue the fight against the Nazis.While in London he encounters a Nazi double agent who has information that could bring down the resistance movement for all of Poland. Eager to see the plan thwarted, the young pilot must then get to Warsaw, warn the underground, and intercept the incriminating papers before it's too late.

Back in Warsaw, the pilot immediately seeks help from Maria, and she and the rest of the actors must utilize all their wiles to outsmart Germany's finest. With only her feminine charms, a hammy husband, a few Nazi costumes, a Jewish Hitler look-alike, and bit actor who dreams of doing Shylock's speech, can the9/1y really pull it off? Of course! But watching them do it is 9/10ths of the fun. The last 10 minutes of the film especially are pure comedic gold, guaranteed to bring on an asthma attack from laughing.

This film is truly Carole Lombard's swansong. She would die just a few months after this movie in a tragic plane crash while on a a USO tour, but leave us with one of her best performances ever. As Maria Tura, Lombard gives a performance where her character may be too smart for her own good, micromanaging her husband and half a Nazi regiment before she gets in over her head. Though a good comedian, Jack Benny wasn't much of an actor, and in some scenes his understated self-deprecating style seems to be rubbing too hard against a fourth wall that was meant to be invisible in this movie. Other than that, however, the rest of the performances are very enjoyable.

I give this movie an 8.5 out of 10, a delightful and sometimes suspenseful romp about ordinary people banding together to outsmart the Nazis.

 To Be or Not to BeTo Be or Not to Be (buy it on DVD)

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