1980s, 3/4, Alan Johnson, Comedy, Review

To Be or Not to Be (1983)

To Be or Not to Be (1983) - IMDb

#7 in my ranking of Mel Brooks’ filmography.

This is one of those movies I grew up with, it having been a key cornerstone of my father’s small VHS collection. This is probably the Mel Brooks movie I’ve seen the most, and like many films from my childhood, I haven’t seen it in years. The movie was instantly recognizable and new all at once, and while it is a remake of an Ernst Lubitsch film of the same name from 1942 (a film I’ve seen once many moons ago and remember little of), I’ve always seen it as its own creation. It’s also the one movie that Brooks has a role in that he didn’t direct that I associate with him most fully, having handed off the directing duties to Alan Johnson, the choreographer Brooks had worked with on musical numbers all the way back to The Producers while retaining the producer credit under his Brooksfilms production company.

In Poland in the earliest days of World War II, the Bronski theatrical company tries to keep things moving along, ignoring the world-shattering events happening outside their doors in favor of simply entertaining their audience. Led by the husband and wife acting team, Frederick (Brooks) and Anna (Anne Bancroft, Brooks’ wife), they can only keep the world out so long before the Polish Foreign Office sends an official to end their production of a bit called “Naughty Nazis” that pokes fun at Hitler, in order to not offend the German chancellor and give him grounds to invade Poland. Not that Hitler really needed offense because he rolls right over the border shortly thereafter, and the theatrical troupe is suddenly trying to operate under Nazi occupation.

During one of the final performances, a young Polish airman, Lieutenant Andrei Sobinski (Tim Matheson), after having sent dozens of roses to Anna, gets invited backstage and the two begin a very chaste love affair without Frederick’s knowledge, brought to a sudden close when Sobinski must flee to England to join the Polish arm of the Royal Air Corps. In England, he discovers that the Voice for a Free Poland, Professor Siletski (Jose Ferrer), is actually a German spy who has collected names from the Polish underground with every intention of giving up those names to the Gestapo once he arrives in Warsaw the next evening. Airdropped into Poland, he finds shelter with Anna, and we have our mixture of dramatic and comic setups. On the one hand there’s a ticking clock on finding a way to get the list of names from Siletski, and on the other hand there’s Sobinski hiding away from the SS in Frederick’s own bed.

The plot develops into a plan to trick Siletski into giving up the list to the actors and then giving useless names to the local SS Colonel Erhardt (Charles Durning). This involves a series of disguises for Frederick that take his acting ability to its furthest, all without an audience, providing Frederick with both opportunity for amusement and pathos as he reflects on the danger he keeps getting himself into and out of. In between all of this is Anna, catching the eye of every German officer and spy and using her appeal to help advance the overall plan. As it makes it to its finale, with the troupe of actors making their way to England using the skills of their pilot friend, there’s tension and even a nice Highlight from The Merchant of Venice for Lupinsky.

The movie really is a combination of drama and comedy, but the drama is what holds most firmly. There are definitely funny bits throughout ranging from character-based humor to stuff that edges more into the outrageous, like the announcer at the beginning of the film saying that the rest of the film will be in English instead of Polish with Brooks and Bancroft reacting to the sound or Lupinsky (Lewis J. Stadlen) doing a Star of David over his chest like a Catholic doing a cross. Most of it is a smaller type of comedy, though, and I can see how that would disappoint fans of Brooks’ more typical output. The one person who consistently edges into that type of comedy is Durning as Erhardt and Christopher Lloyd as Schultz, the colonel constantly on edge at being found out by higherups that he tells jokes about the Fuhrer, a role for which he was nominated for an Oscar, and Schultz always loyally following orders that Erhardt blames him for going badly.

Where I think the movie succeeds where Brooks more recent output had failed is that its actually a story. Essentially just replicating the original film by Lubitsch while finding room for Brooks and Bancroft to have some fun, it’s an enjoyable film with obvious affection for its characters and the ability to find levels of pathos for major and even some minor characters while delivering laughs from time to time as well. On top of the functional story is funny stuff. Wipe away the funny stuff, and you still have something. However, the funny stuff is there and it’s nice to have for sure. This may not be Brooks’ finest hour on film, but it’s a rather delightful take on familiar material.

Rating: 3/4

5 thoughts on “To Be or Not to Be (1983)”

  1. This one was always the odd one out for me in Mel Brook’s filmography. I went in expecting madcap comedy and got a drama with some light comedy tossed in.

    I don’t dislike it but it ran into the expectations vs reality. It’s like when Bill Murray or Robin Williams plays a dramatic role, just not what you expect.

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    1. I do wonder why he gave the directing duties to Johnson. Was it just trying to give a chance to a long-term collaborator to step up? Did Brooks simply hire someone he knew he could control to do the bulk of the directing work but allowing him the ability to effectively direct on decisions he felt like he needed input?

      I wonder if the change in tone from his sillier outings to this more sedate film fed into the decision to hire Johnson (who only directed one other movie) instead of Brooks doing it himself.

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    1. Yeah, everything I’ve heard is that directing is hard enough, but directing and starring leaves you completely drained. Could very easily have just been an effort to push off work since he was probably pretty set on starring alongside Anne.

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