To Be Or Not To Be Review

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Egocentric ham actor Joseph Tura is persuaded to impersonate both Professor Alexander Siletsky and Gestapo officer Colonel Ehrhardt after exiled pilot Lt. Stanislav Sobinski enlists the help of Tura's vivacious wife Maria to prevent a plot to compromise the Polish underground.


Ernst Lubitsch had always abhorred jokes about blindness until he saw W.C. Fields's It's a Gift and that realisation that serious subjects could be funny underpinned this vituperative black comedy.

   Sig Rumann's boast, `So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt?', must rank as the most subversive joke of the entire Second World War. Yet, it was closely followed by his earlier quip, `What he did to Shakespeare, we are now doing to Poland', which so shocked some members of Lubitsch's cast and entourage that they suggested its removal. But the only dialogue that was cut from this courageous farce thriller was the question `What could happen in a plane?', as the answer had been made all too chillingly clear by Carole Lombard's tragic death on a bond-selling rally less than a month after the picture wrapped.

   Having prompted Charlie Chaplin to make The Great Dictator, producer Alexander Korda must take some credit for ensuring United Artists's backing for this contentious project. Lubitsch had originally considered making it a comeback vehicle for Maurice Chevalier and Miriam Hopkins, but his preference soon switched to Jack Benny and he dropped Hopkins after she began lobbying to have her role boosted. However, Carole Lombard was only cast in the face of opposition from her husband, Clark Gable, who not only objected to the screenplay, but who also (in true Tura fashion) disliked Lubitsch's habit of flirting with his wife.

   However, it proved a happy production, despite Benny's occasional bouts of anxious inferiority and Miklos Rosza's refusal to compose the score. But a storm of protest greeted its release and Lubitsch was forced to defend his film against accusations of trivialising both Poland's plight and the German threat. Insisting that he had depicted Tura's troupe as resourceful and united in their reckless heroism, Lubitsch countered claims that his Nazis had been mere cartoon buffoons by stressing their potential for evil that had been established in the opening footage of a blitzed Warsaw.

 But, like most satire on a supposedly taboo topic, this masterpiece could only be fully appreciated with the passage of time. Remade in 1983 by Alan Jonhnson starring Mel Brooks with a tenth of the wit.

A masterpiece satire around the Second World War is more likely to be appreciated now after some distance.