Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

To Be or Not to Be


This is a re-make by Mel Brooks of a 1942 comedy of the same name. In fact, it uses pretty much the same script, with only a few changes here and there. The original starred Jack Benny, of all people, and Carole Lombard, who died just after filming it. This one stars Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft. The original was directed by Ernst Lubitsch … and Mel, I love ya, pal, but you’re no Ernst Lubitsch. And you’re certainly no Jack Benny.

Which doesn’t mean Mel is bad by any means, or that this film is no good. They’re just as different as Benny and Brooks. The story takes place in Poland in 1939, prior to and after the Nazi conquest. It concerns a theater troupe and deals with Nazis in a serio-comic way, much like Chaplin did in The Great Dictator. It was a departure for Jack Benny to play a role where he dressed up as a Nazi, and given the times, the film was not a critical success. In fact, a lot of people were deeply offended, even angry. This was not the light, witty “Lubitsch touch” people had come to expect. This was spoofing the unspoofable. And yet, time and history have been on the director’s side, and the film is now viewed as a classic.

Brooks, on the other hand, had already had great success with “Springtime for Hitler,” and for him to play a ham actor was typecasting of the highest order. The comedy is broader, as it has to be to accommodate Brook’s particular talents. As for myself, it’s impossible not to like a film that begins with Mel and Anne singing and dancing to “Sweet Georgia Brown” in Polish. And it’s not possible for Anne Bancroft to do anything in a film that I don’t like. I’m content to just look at her, and if she acts, and if it’s comic acting, so much the better. But if you decide to watch just one of these films, see the Lubitsch.