Decades before Roberto Benigni was romanticizing the Holocaust and Mel Brooks was supposedly courting Nazi controversy on Broadway, Ernst Lubitsch made To Be or Not to Be, a tart little comedy about the Nazi invasion of Poland which, a few glitches aside, was all the more daring for having been made during the war itself, when its outcome was hardly certain. Unfortunately, Brooks remade the film in his own manner some 40 years afterward, substituting most of Lubitsch's wit with his brand of shtick - not as awful as it could have been, but definitely not a patch on the original.

To Be or Not to Be opens in 1939 on the eve of war, with a Warsaw theater troupe rehearsing a satire called Gestapo, which has been ordered shut down by the government, for fear of offending Hitler. The troupe's stars are Maria and Joseph Tura - a self-absorbed flirt and a preening ham who wouldn't know acting if it smacked him in the face - who couldn't be less interested in the outside world, until it comes crashing in. Maria (Carole Lombard, all smoky elegance) is carrying on an affair with handsome pilot Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack, shockingly fresh-faced and clear-voiced), while Joseph (a nimbly verbal Jack Benny) seems almost more perturbed by the fact that Sobinski walks out on his Hamlet soliloquy every night than the fact that he's doing so to meet backstage with Maria.

Continue reading: To Be or Not to Be (1942) Review