To Be or Not to Be (1983) — Polish Hams vs. Naughty Nazis

“He’s at the German censorship board trying to convince them that Shakespeare wasn’t Jewish.”

Sitting Duck’s rating: The best Mel Brooks comedy Mel Brooks didn’t write or direct. The only Mel Brooks comedy Mel Brooks didn’t write or direct.

Sitting Duck’s review: Remakes are a tricky beast. Doing a shot for shot copy is a pointless exercise. Barring improved production values, you may as well watch the original. Yet even the most trivial deviations can unleash a deluge of fanboy wrath.

Then there’s something like the 1942 dramedy To Be or Not to Be, starring renowned radio comic Jack Benny, Clark Gable’s wife, and the Unsolved Mysteries Guy. This has its own unique can of worms. Since it was pretty much the only film role where Benny was able to transcend his radio persona, a remake could be seen as disrespectful at best.

There’s also the issue of the Nazis. Despite their warmongering, the popular image of Nazis in the American mind at the time of the original leaned towards comic buffoonery thanks to their militaristic pomposity. This was often seen in the entertainment of the early 1940s, particularly the war cartoons. But once the true horrors of what was going on in the concentration camps went public, this sort of portrayal started to leave a bad taste and quickly fell out of favor. So how do you get around this troublesome issue in a modern remake?

If you happen to be Mel Brooks, you don’t.

The year is 1939 and German forces have been annexing countries without having to fire a single shot. The citizens of Warsaw live with the dread that Poland’s turn is bound to come. About the only way to distract themselves from these morbid thoughts is by attending entertainment venues like the Bronski Theater. Yet even here, trouble brews. Though professional enough not to let it show during the performance, the husband-and-wife headliners Frederick and Anna Bronski (Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft) are currently on bad terms. What’s more, their “Naughty Nazis” sketch gets shut down mid-performance by the Polish government, who believe Hitler would use it as an excuse to launch an assault which they have no hope of repelling.

With this sudden hole in the program, “Highlights from Hamlet” gets used as a replacement. This gives Anna an idea. Having noticed that a young airman in the audience by the name of Lt. Sobinski (Tim Matheson) is enthralled by her, she has an usher deliver him a note telling him to meet her backstage once the To Be or Not to Be soliloquy begins. An audience member leaving in the middle of a performance is a flagrant breech of theatrical etiquette which both enrages and depresses Frederick. When the same thing happens the next night, he becomes convinced that something must be up. But he doesn’t get a chance to mull on it further, as Germany has just launched a blitzkrieg. After a largely one-sided conflict of three weeks, Poland is subjugated. The Bronskis undergo a series of indignities which culminate with their house being confiscated to be used as a headquarters by the Gestapo.

Meanwhile, Sobinski and several other Polish airmen were able to make their way to Britain and form their own wing in the Royal Air Force. During a gathering of the Polish officers with Professor Siletski (José Ferrer), the latter lets slip that he’ll be going into Poland soon. Several of the airmen request that he contact their families to let them know that they’re safe in Britain. Though reluctant at first, Siletski complies. Since his own family made it out of Poland in time, Sobinski asks instead that Siletski contact Anna. Much to Sobinski’s astonishment, Siletski clearly does not recognize the name.

Perturbed by how a supposed Warsaw native like Siletski doesn’t have even a passing familiarity with such a renowned local celebrity, Sobinski reports the conversation to the Intelligence Division. However, what has them concerned is how Siletski is going into occupied Poland with a record of those names. Along with his “accidentally” letting the airmen know of his upcoming trip, this implies that he may be a double agent in employ of the Germans. Though Siletski has just left, he’s taking an indirect route through Scandinavia. Sobinski is therefore assigned with the mission of being airdropped outside Warsaw to intercept Siletski and, if necessary, kill him.

Upon arrival, Sobinski contacts Anna. This also means he meets Frederick, who is not at all pleased by this turn of events. But that’s nothing compared to his reaction to the proposed scheme. Using the costumes and props from the Naughty Nazis sketch, they’ll intercept Siletski and attempt to con him into handing over the list, with Frederick taking on the role of the local Gestapo commandant Colonel Erhardt. Though the scheme ends up going pear-shaped, Siletski winds up dead. But that’s not the end of their troubles. During their conversation, Siletski let slip that a duplicate of the list is to be sent to Berlin for record purposes. Not only that, but the real Colonel Erhardt (Charles Durning) will be expecting to meet with Siletski.

First things first. If you go in expecting a typical raucous Mel Brooks comedy, you are going to be bitterly disappointed. So don’t. That doesn’t mean the production is completely devoid of these elements. But the storyline sticks rather close to the original film (though leaning more heavily on the comedic end of the dramedy spectrum), with much of the dialogue being identical.

Let’s start off with the one aspect where the remake is undeniably weaker than the original. In the 1942 version, the theater in question performs serious plays. So Hamlet is very much in place there. However, the theater in the 1983 version offers revue-style entertainment. Considering Brooks and his well-known love for Broadway, this isn’t too big a surprise. Unfortunately, this means that the use of Hamlet that is an integral part of the storyline feels alien here. Perhaps that’s the point, but it’s still jarring.

Fortunately, the rest of the film near equals or exceeds the 1942 version. Most notable is the different treatment of the female lead. I won’t beat around the bush. Lombard’s portrayal of the character gets slut-shamed hard. To say that modern audiences might find this uncomfortable would be an understatement. The remake dials this back considerably. What’s more, Bancroft’s take on the character is more wanton, making the slut-shaming that does occur appear more in proportion.

Likewise, the original film had this weird aversion to using the word Jew. It was especially awkward during the quotation of the, “Hath not a Jew eyes?” speech from The Merchant of Venice. As you might imagine with a film that involves Mel Brooks, no such reluctance is applied.

There’s also how the action sequences are applied. In the 1942 version, the big action piece centered around Sobinski getting airdropped into Poland near the beginning of the second act. For the remake, the focus occurs during the climax, when the troupe attempts to bluff their way into the airport so that they can escape Poland. This emphasis makes for a much more satisfactory viewing experience.

And though not part of the film proper, who could forget The Hitler Rap?

In conclusion, remakes like this that can match the original are a rare breed. So we should treasure those which exist.

Didja notice?

  • “Sweet Georgia Brown” in Polish!
  • Bomber innuendo
  • The boy with the Jewish family hiding out in the theater’s basement is portrayed by the co-stars’ son Max, who would grow up to be the author of World War Z
  • Of the three lines that would be used in the Broadway musical version of The Producers (“Heil myself!”, “What he did to Shakespeare…”, and “Break a leg. I broke my leg.”), the first two were in the original 1942 film
  • The address where Sasha’s apartment is located is at 51 Kubelski Street. This is a nod to Jack Benny, whose birth name was Benjamin Kubelski
  • The Brick Joke in the end credits

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