To Be or Not to Be

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
Jump to navigation Jump to search
ToBeOrNotToBe1942 827.jpg

To Be or Not to Be is a 1942 film produced by Alexander Korda's London Films company (though actually shot in America at the United Artists studios), directed by legendary director Ernst Lubitsch, and starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard. Set in Poland 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 (Carole Lombard), wife of that great, great Polish actor, Joseph Tura (Jack Benny), receives the attentions of Polish Air Force pilot Lieutenant Sobinski (Robert Stack). Wanting to meet with him when her husband is not around, she tells him to leave the theater and come backstage while her husband is performing the "to be or not to be" soliloquy from Hamlet. He does this a number of times, and she goes to meet him and see his bomber. The husband almost catches them together, but just then the announcement comes that war is declared. Some time later, Sobinski, operating with the Polish forces in exile, parachutes in to stop a dangerous spy who has information who could destroy the Polish underground. But the spy has already arrived, and Sobinski has to enlist the Turas and their entire acting troupe to help him.

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 unambiguously gay male dresser Sasha, and Brooks' Bronski character takes over the functions of the original film's Dobosh 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.

Tropes used in To Be or Not to Be include:

Turas (disguised as Erhardt): So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt?.

    • Also

Col. Erhardt: SCHULTZ !!!

  • Critical Research Failure: In-universe; 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, Joseph Tura disguises himself as him to further thwart his plans.
  • Dressing as the Enemy: Turas and company does this all the movie.
  • Earn Your Title: Someone nicknamed "Concentration Camp" Erhardt is unlikely to be a good guy.
  • Hitler Ate Sugar: Inverted. Colonel Erhardt is openly contemptuous of his aide's teetotalism and non-smoking, until it is pointed out that the Führer has the same habits.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Both Turas are fairly shallow and egotistical, but pretty much jump at the call to aid La Résistance.
  • Large Ham: It's about actors, so this is inevitable. Joseph 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 Erhardt is pretty hammy.
  • Literary Allusion Title
  • Love Triangle
  • The Mole: Siletsky, although he comes under suspicion by the end of the first scene that features him.
  • Not So Harmless: 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 Joseph 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: With Tura (dressed as Siletski) swiping lines like, "May I say, my dear Colonel, that it's good to breathe the air of the Gestapo again?" from the real Siletski.
    • Or better yet:

Maria: And how is Professor Siletski?
Joseph (as Siletski): Dead. ... (Yawning) Perfectly dead.


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


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.


Bronski (pretending to be Hitler): Aren't you the one who make the joke about... my becoming... a PICKLE?!

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Image Song: For Hitler. See Music Video, below.
  • Incredibly Lame 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!" Need one explain?
  • Lampshade Hanging: 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 be in English."
    • It's more than that. 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. It serves as a weird type of Bilingual Bonus in just how awful the Polish is.
  • Large Ham: No one in this version can come close to Brooks himself.
    • Arguably, Charles Dunning is 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 (bearing not a little resemblance to The Producers' Springtime For Hitler).
  • Music Video: The film spawned a video of Brooks (as a rapping, break-dancing Hitler) entitled "The Hitler Rap".
  • N-Word Privileges: Mel Brooks, as usual.

Bronski: Face it, without Jews, fags or gypsies, there is no theater.

  • Painting the Fourth Wall: 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.
  • 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 Shakespeare into his own "Highlights From Hamlet: "I think I hear the handsome young prince coming now!" Guess who plays the prince?
  • Translation Convention: Lampshaded : See above.
  • 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.