Starring: Jack Benny, Carole Lombard, Robert Stack
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Running Time: 99 mins
To Be Or Not To Be is an American film about a Polish theatre troupe who become embroiled in a scheme to foil a German spy in Warsaw during the early years of World War Two.
Not only is To Be Or Not To be a fantastically funny movie, but it’s also one of the most vibrant depictions of wartime Poland that I’ve seen on the big screen. Of course, it’s a very light-hearted Hollywood take when compared with the grim reality of what happened, but this film uses its setting to great effect in telling a captivating and thoroughly entertaining story.
There’s a lot to love about To Be Or Not To Be, but most of all, the performances from all of the cast are absolutely brilliant. Jack Benny in particular is absolutely hilarious, with an almost Groucho Marx-esque energy to his chaotic yet still effortlessly charismatic performance.
But beyond Benny, all of the performances are fantastic here, from the biggest roles to the smallest. And as well as the sterling work of the cast, the fact that the characters are so enjoyable in To Be Or Not To Be comes down to the splendid screenplay, which is full of fun-loving farce, but that isn’t the whole story.
The opening stages of the film are pure farce, establishing the various characters in deliciously entertaining fashion – and even setting up a few running jokes that prove so satisfying later on in the story.
Things do take a more dramatic turn, however, when the German invasion of Poland comes about, and there is a ten to twenty minute period where the focus is far less on laughs, and far more on the characters and story.
In the case of most comedies, taking such an abrupt shift from all-out hilarity to an often sobering depiction of the Polish plight during World War Two would be both jarring and frustrating, but you already love the characters here so much from the hilarious opening stages that you really care about what happens to them.
As a result, even when the movie has its more serious face on – which lasts for a fair period of time as it begins to establish the various characters and stakes surrounding the plot to foil a German spy in Warsaw – it’s a thoroughly engaging watch, and never loses the enormous charisma that it started out with.
After a darker middle period, the film returns to pure farce in its second half, with an utterly hilarious closing act which sees more and more characters bundle on top of one another in a deliriously convoluted yet always enormously entertaining comedy of errors.
The fact that To Be Or Not To Be doesn’t take itself too seriously at times but still has a more earnest heart is what makes it such a likable and engaging film throughout. It’s the kind of movie where you come for the laughs, and stay for the captivating and thoroughly enjoyable storytelling. So, that’s why I’m giving To Be Or Not To Be an 8.0 overall.