About To Be Or Not to Be
To Be or Not to Be is a 1942 comedy film directed by Ernst Lubitsch, about a troupe of actors in Nazi-occupied Warsaw who use their abilities at disguise and acting to fool the occupying troops. It was adapted by Lubitsch (uncredited) and Edwin Justus Mayer from the story by Melchior Lengyel. The film stars Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack, Felix Bressart, Lionel Atwill, Stanley Ridges and Sig Ruman.
The title is a reference to the famous "To be, or not to be" soliloquy in William Shakespeare's Hamlet. To Be or Not to Be was released two months after actress Carole Lombard was killed in an airplane crash.
The movie chronicles the adventures of a Polish theater company before and during Nazi occupation, especially those of the resident ham, Josef Tura and his wife, Maria. The film opens with the seemingly impossible appearance of Adolf Hitler in Warsaw (this is before the 1939 invasion). We discover that this is a local actor, Bronski, who is playing Hitler in a new work satirizing the Nazis (the play's highly realistic sets and costumes will be crucial later on). After Bronski halted rehearsals by improvising, "Heil myself!", his resemblance to Hitler was called into question, so he took to the streets to prove himself. This fails when a young girl asks him for his autograph.
The action then shifts to later that night. While rehearsing the new play, the theater company has also been performing Shakespeare's "Hamlet", with Maria as Ophelia and Tura in the title role. Bronski commiserates with his friend and colleague, Greenberg, about always being the ones to "carry a spear," instead of having starring roles. Greenberg reveals it has always been his dream to perform Shylock, especially the famous "Hath not a Jew eyes?..." speech.
Meanwhile, Maria is inspecting a bouquet of flowers she has received, the fourth bunch in as many days, from a handsome young pilot named Lt. Stanislav Sobinski. Sobinski sends a note asking for permission to finally meet Maria, and she agrees, telling him to come to her dressing room when her husband begins his "To be or not to be..." speech, so they can be sure of privacy. Maria is very attracted to Sobinski when they meet, and the two apparently begin an affair.
A few days later, at another performance of Hamlet, Sobinski again walks out during Tura's speech (this has clearly become his and Maria's "thing"). Sobinski by now assumes that Maria will leave her husband, give up acting, and come live with him on a farm, but before she can explain that she only wanted a casual fling, her maid rushes in, saying Germany has declared war on Poland. Stanislav leaves to join the fight and the actors take shelter under the theater as bombs begin to fall.
A montage and voice-over show us Hitler conquering Poland, and tell us that the Polish division of England's Royal Air Force is fighting to free its mother country. We cut to this very division, where Lt. Sobinski and other young pilots are singing a rousing song with a resistance fighter named Prof. Siletsky. Siletsky intimates that he will be returning to Warsaw soon, and joyous at the chance to contact their families, the pilots write down addresses for the professor to visit. Sobinski asks Siletsky to give Maria the message "To be or not to be", but his suspicions are aroused when Siletsky, who claims to have lived his whole life in Warsaw, does not know who the famous Maria Tura is.
Sobinski tells his superiors, who send him to Warsaw to warn the resistance about Siletsky. Sobinski is unable to contact them but does manage to reach Maria, who passes the message on in his stead. Immediately after, she is stopped by two Nazi soldiers, who have been ordered by Siltesky to bring her to his hotel. Siletsky delivers Sobinski's message and invites Maria to dinner, hoping to recruit her as a spy for the Nazis. She pretends to be interested and goes home "to change her clothes." Just before she arrives at her apartment, Tura returns and Maria, Tura and Stanislav end up in a three-way conversation in which Maria and Stanislav try to figure out what to do (kill Siletsky, they conclude), and Tura tries to figure out what on Earth is going on. In the end, Tura proclaims that he will kill Siletsky.
Later that evening, Mrs. Tura returns to the professor's room and pretends to be attracted to him. Just as they kiss, there is a knock at the door. It is a Nazi officer (whom we recognize as actually one of the members of the acting company). He informs the professor that he is wanted at Gestapo headquarters, but actually escorts him to the theater, which has been hastily disguised with props and costumes from the play.
Tura pretends to be Col. Ehrhardt of the Gestapo, but Siletsky sees through the ruse. He tries to escape, but is shot and killed by Sobinski on the stage of the theater, after which Tura returns to the hotel disguised as Siletsky in a fake beard and glasses, to destroy the information about the Polish resistance that Siletsky has in his trunk. Unfortunately, he's met at the hotel by the real Col. Ehrhardt's adjutant, Capt. Schultz, and taken to meet Ehrhardt himself! Luckily, Tura manages to pass himself off as Siletsky and learns during their meeting that Hitler himself will visit Poland the next day.
The next day, the real Siletsky's body is discovered in the theater. Ehrhardt sends for Maria to tell her, but she is unable to warn Tura in time, and he arranges another meeting with Ehrhardt, again posing as Siletsky. When Tura arrives, Ehrhardt sends him into a room with Siletsky's dead body in it, hoping to frighten him into a confession. Ad libbing like a pro, however, Tura shaves off Siletsky's beard and then attaches a spare fake beard that he was carrying in his pocket. He then calls Ehrhardt into the room and manipulates him into pulling Siletsky's now-fake beard off. This seems to prove that the real Siletsky was actually the imposter, but just as Tura is about to make his escape, the other actors (sent by Maria and again in Nazi costume) storm into Ehrhardt's office, yank off Tura's false beard and pretend to drag him away to prison. This does get Tura out of Gestapo headquarters, but now he cannot leave the country on the plane Ehrhardt had arranged for him, and it's only a matter of time before the actors' ruse is discovered.
Now the actors make their boldest gambit of all. The Nazis put on a show at the theater to welcome Hitler (the soldiers perform), and Sobinski and the actors sneak in, again dressed as Nazis. Prominent among them is Bronski, initially without his Hitler mustache from the play. The actors hide in the powder rooms until Hitler arrives and takes his seat, and then, as the Nazis are singing the German national anthem inside, Greenberg suddenly appears from the ladies' room and charges toward Hitler's box. This distracts the Fuhrer's guards long enough for Bronski, now wearing a Hitler mustache, to emerge unnoticed from the men's room and pretend to have come out of Hitler's box surrounded by his "entourage."
Playing the head of Hitler's men, Tura demands to know what Greenberg wants from the Fuhrer, and Greenberg finally gets his chance to deliver Shylock's famous speech, infusing it with all his love for Poland and his hatred of the Nazis that have subjugated it. He ends with a ringing "if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?!" and Tura orders his "officers" to take Greenberg away. He also recommends that Bronski/Hitler leave Poland immediately, and all the actors march out, get in Hitler's car and drive away.
Meanwhile, back at her apartment, Maria is waiting for the actors to pick her up on their way to the airport. They all intend to leave on Hitler's plane, but Col. Ehrhardt shows up and tries to seduce her (offering extra butter rations and a beautiful bracelet he confiscated only that week). Ehrhardt is utterly floored, however, when the door opens and Bronski walks in disguised as Hitler. He's come up in place of Tura, who's lost his fake mustache and can't leave the car (the real Nazis driving it will realize he's a fake). Equally shocked, Bronski simply turns and walks out in silence, but Ehrhardt immediately thinks that Maria is having an affair with Hitler and that he has just been caught trying to steal the Fuhrer's girl! It's the perfect opportunity for Maria, who dashes after Bronski calling, "Mein Fuhrer, Mein Fuhrer!" and escapes with the other actors.
All the actors take off in the plane. They easily dispose of the real Nazi pilots--Bronski simply orders them to jump out of the plane (at about 10,000 feet!) and the mindlessly obediant pilots instantly leap to their deaths. Sobinski flies the plane to England, where Bronski causes a little surprise when he parachutes into a farmer's bale of hay in his Hitler costume and makeup, but the actors are soon revealed as heroes. Asked what reward he'd like for his service to the Allies, Tura hems and haws, but Maria quickly answers in his stead, "he wants to play Hamlet."
In the movie's final scene, Tura is once again on stage as Hamlet and reaches the moment of "To be or not to be." He eyeballs Sobinski in the audience as he begins the speech, but both men are struck dumb when a new young man gets up and heads backstage! THE END
To Be or Not to Be was remade in 1983 by Mel Brooks. See also: To Be or Not to Be (1983 film).
A Broadway stage version written by Nick Whitby and produced by the Manhattan Theatre Club, New York City, started previews on September 16, 2008 and opened on October 14 at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. The limited engagement runs to November 16. The director is Casey Nicholaw, with principal cast including Peter Benson, David Rasche, Peter Maloney, and Jan Maxwell.
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