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To Be or Not to Be Reviews

A masterpiece of satire and one of the more controversial films of its day, TO BE OR NOT TO BE is a brilliant example of how comedy can be as effective in raising social and political awareness as a serious propaganda film, while still providing hilarious entertainment. The film begins in Poland, 1939, where Joseph Tura (Jack Benny), a tremendously vain Polish actor, and his wife, Maria (Carole Lombard), a conceited national institution in Warsaw, are starring in an anti-Nazi stage play that subsequently is censored and replaced with a production of "Hamlet." Maria has taken a fancy to a young Polish fighter pilot, Sobinski (Robert Stack), who is called to duty when Germany invades Poland. In England, he and his fellow pilots in the Polish squadron of the RAF bid farewell to their much-loved mentor, Prof. Siletsky (Stanley Ridges), who confides to them that he is on a secret mission to Warsaw. Sobinski, however, begins to suspect that Siletsky is a spy and flies to Warsaw to stop him from keeping an appointment with Nazi colonel Ehrhardt (Sig Rumann)--an appointment that will destroy the Warsaw underground. There, Sobinski enlists the aid and special talents of the Tura's theater group to save and protect the Resistance. A satire built around a rather complex spy plot and directed with genius by Ernst Lubitsch, TO BE OR NOT TO BE lampoons the Nazis and paints the Poles as brave patriots fighting for their land, for whom Hamlet's question "To be or not to be" takes on national implications. Released in 1942, in the midst of America's involvement in WWII, the film drew a great deal of criticism from people who felt that Lubitsch, a German (though he left long before Hitler's rise), was somehow making fun of the Poles. TO BE OR NOT TO BE is also remembered as the last screen appearance for the dazzling Lombard, who, just after the film's completion, was killed in a plane crash while on her way to Hollywood for a war bonds spot on Benny's radio show. TO BE was a perfect and brash finale to Lombard's great comic genius, especially because of it's examination of play-acting. Was there ever as playful a spirit on a movie set as Lombard? The film came from an idea by Melchior Lengyel--as did NINOTCHKA. Mel Brooks's remake of the story was released in 1983, with Brooks and Anne Bancroft playing the leads. While not as good, it's a perfectly watchable, if unecessary, tribute to the original, with Bancroft faring better than Brooks.