To Be Or Not To Be (1942) – Ernst Lubitsch

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The recommendations from Bringing Up Baby from the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book features Jack Benny and Carole Lombard in this satirical romp that takes on the Nazis!

Benny plays Joseph Tura, a bit of a high-strung actor, while Lombard plays his wife Maria. The two along with their theater group, who very much want to put on a satirical play, in their home country of Poland, called Gestapo. The censors feel however that Hitler may not approve. That is only the beginning as Maria begins an affair with a pilot Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack), and as war breaks out, the theater group goes into action in their own way, with theatrics, sets, costumes, and pointed shots at Nazism.

When one takes into account that this was released in 1942, before the end of the war was even in sight, before some of the atrocities were yet to come to light, it not only comes across as a funny film, but a very brave film for taking on Nazis in their own way.

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Benny, and his fellows, find themselves posing as Nazi officers and professors as they get caught up in murder, intrigue and espionage. All while Tura is simply trying to figure out not only what is going on in the war, but with his wife as well, and why does one man (Sobinski) keep walking out of his performance of Hamlet at the same time??

There is darkness here, the Nazi threat was very real at the time of the film’s release… how could anyone possibly think about making fun of it?!?… and there are some truly hilarious moments as the actors take on multiple roles to save their own skins and confuse their enemies.

This is the first real film I’d seen Jack Benny in, the only other thing I knew about him was that he was one of the mice in the old Warner Brother cartoon, The Mouse That Jack Built. Sure, he seemed funny, but I thought Warner Brothers cartoons were pretty entertaining.

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Watching Benny ham and quip his way through the film, while Lombard charms, is a lot of fun, and I may have to seek out other roles…

The moment I most loved was when Benny realizes he doesn’t have the beard on his face that he thinks he does, and when he reacts to Sobinski leaving his performance as well as Hitler wandering around Poland before war breaks out.

The film is a lot of fun, and is now, quite rightly, considered a comedy classic, though at the time, its reception wasn’t quite s generous.

It’s rather amazing how that happens with some films, that they flop at the time, but then they endure, captivate, and become iconic.

Next up on the Great Movies – 100 Years of Film book is another one I have not heard of, but looking forward to seeing it, Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets.

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