To Be or Not to Be (1983) / Comedy-War
MPAA Rated: PG for language and mild sexual humor
Running time: 107 min.
Cast: Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft, Tim Matheson, Jose Ferrer, Charles Durning, James Haake, Christopher Lloyd, Ronny Graham, Estelle Reiner, Zale Kessler, Jack Riley, Lewis Stadlen, George Gaynes, George Wyner
Director: Alan Johnson
Screenplay: Ronny Graham, Thomas Meehan
Review published May 6, 2005
To Be or Not to Be is a remake of the 1942 Ernst Lubitsch/Jack Benny classic from 1942, updated to be a little broader and sillier, although far less relevant or daring than it was back in the middle of World War II. Although many will confuse this for a Mel Brooks (History of the World Part I, High Anxiety) movie, particularly because it stars Brooks alongside his actress wife Anne Bancroft (Agnes of God, Love Potion No. 9), he is just an actor along for the ride, although the role does play to Brooks' strengths as a vaudeville comedian. It doesn't really add much to the original film, sometimes seeming like a carbon copy, although the tone feels much looser and full of more emphasis on laughs, instead of the original's more subtle touches.
Brooks and Bancroft play Frederick and Anna Bronski, a husband and wife team who lead an acting ensemble in Poland of 1939. Their big hit of their show is entitled, "Naughty Nazis", but they are forced to put and end to this skit when the real Nazis invade Warsaw, and put the entire city under siege. Frederick goes on stage with the famed soliloquy from Hamlet, "To Be or Not to Be", which Anna uses as her opportunity to invite hunky bomber pilot Andre Sobinski (Tim Matheson, Animal House) backstage for some fooling around. While away, Sobinski later unknowingly asks a Nazi imposter named Professor Siletski (Jose Ferrer, The Big Brawl) to deliver a cryptic message to Anna, which makes him suspicious that she may be involved in the Polish underground. However, Siletski soon develops a yearning of his own for Anna, complicating the issues in terms of allegiance and love, as she must pretend to be interested in him in order to discover and destroy the list of names of the underground rebels before it ends up in Nazi hands.
Brooks had covered similar territory way back in The Producers, where he spoofed the Nazis in a musical entitled, "Springtime for Hitler". Brooks believed that the best way to defeat evil is to lampoon them until no one could take them seriously anymore, and if that included dressing up as Hitler to make him look small and silly, he was all for it. Also like The Producers and the best of Brooks' filmography, To Be or Not to Be centers around the world of show business, and exploits much of the funny goings-on that take place behind the scenes, where the performances are greatly affected by what they perceive in the outside world and vice versa.
While not nearly as broad in the comedy as the films Brooks would create himself, this film does show that he can be funny and classy at the same time, although he would still continue to take the low road in increasing fashion after this film, much to the detriment of his career. Also a main strength is the quality of the supporting cast, who all exhibit electric chemistry together, with some very amusing performances by Charles Durning (Oscar nominated for his role here) and Jose Ferrer. The scoring by Brooks' favorite John Morris (Silent Movie, Young Frankenstein) also adds to the sweeping and romantic feel of the movie, working well in between the comedic elements.
To Be or Not To Be may or may not please fans of Mel Brooks comedies, but it does still showcase his talent as a comedic actor, although much of his trademark sight gags and slapstick are vastly toned down. Fans of the original movie might be curious, and any who just enjoy an old-fashioned comedy of errors may find some enjoyment in this zesty, energetic romp. Not a classic, but it does entertain for the duration.
©2005 Vince Leo