And who knew Jack Benny (until I saw this film I never realized he'd even BEEN an actor) could be this good in a movie? He plays a Pole with an American accent, but nobody's perfect -his timing, his execution is perfection. He is hilarious (and so is Lombard and the rest of the cast) in a film in which the underlying theme is the horror of war.
TO BE OR NOT TO BE, directed by the great Ernst Lubitsch, is set in 1939 Poland. The tricky plot concerns a troupe of actors, headed by Josef Tura (Benny), which puts on nightly performances of Shakespeare and other classics even as the Nazis mass on the border. The running gag and reason for the title, is this: every evening Tura does excerpts from Hamlet (!?) and as he begins the "to be or not to be" soliloquy he is always interrupted mid-phrase by a member of the audience, usually a young airman or soldier, excusing himself and making his way out of his seat and up the aisle.
What Tura doesn't know, but later begins to suspect, is that the flyer (played by a very young Robert Stack) is on his way to his wife Maria's - played by Carole Lombard - dressing room. Not that there's much going on in that dressing room except plenty of flirting, a bit of hand holding and a hug or two. Still, how dare this young upstart disrupt Tura's soliloquy?
The pained looks on Benny's face as this continues to happen over and over are hilarious. And Lombard is wonderful as a flirtatious wife who will carry said flirtations only so far but has a great deal of fun in the meantime.
Once Hitler's troops cross the border and the invasion is under way, the theater is shut down and everyone is thrown out of work. Almost immediately there are Nazis everywhere, as the Polish government falls and the populace tries to adjust.
The character of Robert Stack is part of a Polish flying squadron which is soon on its way back to England to reconnoitre. Once in England, Stack and his fellow flyers meet a respected Polish professor named Siletsky. This guy has ingratiated himself into the confidence of the English and is on his way back to Poland on a mission involving his work with the Resistance. The soldiers innocently give the professor names of friends and family members to contact in Poland, most of them part of the underground. Siletsky is not only to happy to make a list of the names, he reassures the men he will contact them all and make sure they are well.
Of course, it is almost immediately apparent that Siletsky is a traitor heading back to Poland to help the Nazi cause. Once the English realize it, just hours after the professor's plane has taken off, they send a volunteer - Robert Stack - on a following plane, to land in Poland, contact the resistance if possible, find the professor and kill him.
From here on in you have to see the film to follow all the convolutions and plot points which, if I tried to explain them would only make your head spin. Suffice to say that Stack makes it back to Poland and winds up being hidden by the Turas in their little apartment. The actors group together, round up the professor inside their old theater and he is killed. Maria Tura gets picked up by the Gestapo.
Jack Benny must impersonate professor Siletsky (the Nazis don't know he's dead) - oh didn't I mention that Benny and the professor look enough alike to be brothers? - in order to save Maria. The Nazis, at first, are fooled. The scene in the Gestapo commandant's office is so darkly funny. Tura, pretending to be Siletxky (are you following me here?), flatters the commandant (Sig Ruman) by revealing that he, Earhart, is known in certain important circles, as Concentration Camp Earhart. Tricky business, yes, but it truly is funny in context because Earhart is such an incompetent buffoon and Benny with a kind of steely good humor, makes it all work. It is farce, after all.
Once Tura's ruse begins to unravel (a very funny scene that involves a great deal of chutzpah, a fake beard and a mustache), the rest of the actors show up, all playing various Nazi types, the plot thickens and, hunted by the real Nazis, the group must flee Poland.
It's all madness heaped upon hilarious madness, with some moments of seriousness thrown in. (Shylock's famous speech from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, spoken by Felix Bressart as Greenberg, one of the few Jews in the troupe "...if you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? If you wrong us, do we not revenge? The speech is meant to purchase time for an escape.) The actual FINAL escape of Tura, his wife and their band of merry men takes place later as they use Bronski, a fellow actor (played by Tom Dugan) with a remarkable resemblance to Hitler, to help commandeer a plane.
As I said, it's all madness. A madness that didn't go over well with the 1942 audience. But the film is now, pretty much, considered a comedy classic.
The film was remade, in 1983 by Mel Brooks as a starring vehicle for himself and his wife, Anne Bancroft. (He played the part of Tura whose name was changed to Frederick Bronski, she played Anna Bronski, changed from Maria.)
The film, in color, is pretty good, though the funniest bit comes in the first reel and nothing much that happens later touches the hilarity of Brooks and Bancroft singing SWEET GEORGIA BROWN in Polish. Though as I said, the film works well for Mel and his cohorts. We brought my thirteen year old daughter (at the time) to see it and she loved it. We had a great time.
But I consider the Jack Benny the true classic version. If you see them both, side by side, I should imagine you'd know what I mean. Benny's version has a special quality that the Brooks version lacks. Though the Brooks film is, of course, more manic. (I wish he'd filmed it in black and white.)