In which two of the funniest screen personalities of all time take one of history’s least funny subjects. Who achieves greatness, and who never rises above kitsch?

Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro.

To Be Or Not To Be (1942). Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Written by Melchior Lengyel and Edwin Justice Mayer, from an original story by Ernst Lubitsch.  Starring Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack, Stanley Ridges, Sig Ruman. 99 minutes. ****

To Be Or Not To Be (1983). Directed by Alan Johnson. Written by Ronny Graham and Thomas Meehan, from the story by Ernst Lubitsch and 1943 screenplay by Melchior Lengel and Edwin Justice Mayer. Starring Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft, Tim Matheson, Charles Durning, and Christopher Lloyd. 107 minutes. ** 1/2

Other Known Versions: Unseen by us, Maan Gaye Mughal-E-Azam (2008), Bollywood film starring Rahul Bose and Mallika Sherawat. (It does not deal with the Nazi era, but applies the plot structure to a period of civil unrest in India.)

*

A troupe of popular stage performers suffering through the Nazi occupation of Warsaw suddenly finds itself the only force standing between the invaders and the Polish underground. Circumstances force the married lead players into escalating heights of desperate acts of theatrical improvisation in the face of the enemy, as they struggle to retrieve and destroy a valuable list of freedom fighters before it falls into the hands of the Gestapo. The wife finds herself lusted after by powerful men who have the power to grant her favors in exchange for her sexual compliance or exile her to a concentration camp as punishment for refusing. The husband finds himself trapped in the lion’s den, pretending to be someone he’s not, and struggling to fool a brutal occupier with barely adequate lies that could fail at any time, thus leaving him vulnerable to torture or imprisonment or worse. All this takes place as their marriage teeters on the brink,  thanks to the husband’s discovery that the wife, who sometimes feels invisible in the face of his own monstrous ego, has had frequent illicit meetings with a dashing young admirer. In the end, their lives depend on an even more desperate stratagem to get them out of Poland before the Nazis find out what they’ve done and have them shot.

It doesn’t exactly sound like the basis for comedy.

And yet, in the two versions of To Be Or Not To Be, it is: although the four decades that passed between the original and the remake alter the precise nature of the laughter in remarkable ways.

The original was written when the evils committed by the Nazis were current events, well-known in outline to the rest of the world but not yet appreciated to their fullest depths (there are prominent references to concentration camps, but not to mass extermination.) The third Reich was not considered a fit subject for comedy, although Charlie Chaplin had already released his merciless and passionate Hitler lampoon The Great Dictator (1940); critics and audiences were lukewarm or hostile, and Jack Benny’s own father stormed out of the theatre in a rage at the sight of his beloved son in a Nazi uniform. The remake, by contrast, was made fifteen years after its star, Mel Brooks, elicited belly laughs by including a joyous Nazi musical, “Springtime for Hitler,” in his riotous comedy The Producers (1968). Audiences had processed the idea that these profoundly evil people could also be seen as profoundly absurd people, without diminishing or denying their crimes, and screen portrayals of stupid or comical Nazis had become so common by then that they were almost a cliche…perhaps too much of a cliche, as it’s difficult to watch Mel Brooks perform a production number in Nazi regalia during the 1983 version and not immediately wonder whether he hadn’t already gone as far with this particular juxtaposition as he possibly could. (Broadway would someday show that he hadn’t.)

The most obvious difference between the two perspectives is best summarized by words Woody Allen had a schlock producer played by Alan Alda speak in his film Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989): “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” This line is sometimes presented today as genuine received wisdom, by parties who want us to know why certain terrible events are too fresh in our minds to be joked about, but can be fine comedic fodder if you first show the decency to wait fifty or seventy or a hundred years. (Hence the presumed upcoming boom in Triangle Shirtcoat Factory Fire humor.)  The people who treat the axiom as if it makes sense somehow fail to notice that Allen put the words in the mouth of a pretentious jackass who produces nothing but pap, or that Allen’s own character, his mouthpiece, mocks it with unremitting scorn. The truth, difficult as it might be for purveyors of decency to accept, is that worthwhile jokes can be made about anything, very much including the things that should not be joked about. Lenny Bruce brought the house down with a joke about the JFK assassination before the President was in his grave. The satirical newspaper The Onion produced a brilliantly hilarious issue about the 9/11 tragedy before the dust had completely settled on Manhattan. Chaplin’s Dictator was about atrocities still taking place, that he saw with a clarity that still cuts like a knife today. Of course worthwhile (and not just “sick”) jokes can be told about tragedies still fresh, as the proper received wisdom should be, “Comedy is Tragedy Plus Perspective.”  The more wit is applied to the perspective, the more brilliant the comedy. And it just so happens that the contemporary relevance of the 1942 version, a mere footnote to most audiences who view it today, can nevertheless be sensed. The movie still has the air of joking about things that should not be joked about…whereas the 1983 version feels distressingly safe despite the prominence of its well-meaning efforts to bring the Nazi persecution of both Jews and Homosexuals to the forefront. It’s the work of people who have reduced Nazi aggression to shtick.

The Setup

Joseph and Maria Tura (Benny, Lombard) or Frederik and Anna Bronski (Brooks, Bancroft) are the lead actors of a theatrical troupe in 1939 Warsaw. (From this point on, in discussing plot elements common to both films, we’ll use the names the characters possess in the original and thus spare both essayist and reader the tiresome necessity of mentioning both versions every time we compose sentences that reference both versions. They are otherwise the same people. Assume it as given.)

Both Joseph and Maria are, to different extents, ego monsters. Maria wants to wear a slinky evening gown on stage in a scene where she’s supposed to play a concentration camp inmate. Joseph imagines himself a great Shakespearean and can be trusted to milk Hamlet’s soliloquy, which makes that a perfect time for Maria to rendezvous with Lt. Andre Sobinski, a young pilot who adores her (Stack in the first, Matheson in the second). The worsening international situation causes the cancellation of (in the 1942 film) a satirical play attacking Hitler; or (in the 1983 film) a comedy sketch about Hitler presented as part of  a nightly revue.

The aborted Hitler sketch is in both films a splendid example of a plot element that functions equally well as exposition (providing them with all those Gestapo uniforms and one actor who can pass for Hitler), and story (the first stroke of their misfortunes)…nothing we should underestimate given that we live in an era when exposition often arrives with a thud.

Hitler invades. Sobinski escapes to England, where he joins the Polish Squadron and encounters Professor Siletski (Stanley Ridges / Jose Ferrer) a much-respected savant who “lets slip” to the fliers that he’s returning to Poland on a secret mission and compiles a list of their family members, ostensibly in order to pass on messages. But he soon reveals that he’s never heard of the Turas, a virtual impossibility for any residents of Warsaw. Clearly Siletski wanted the names to fuel retribution killings by the Gestapo. On orders from British intelligence, the flier parachutes back into Poland, to stop Siletski before he can pass on the names…but his arrival does not go unnoticed, Siletski has actually arrived in Warsaw ahead of him, and so he has to enlist Maria and then Josef to stop him.

Their various desperate improvisations force the male Tura to first confront Siletski in the guise of the local Gestapo chief, Colonel “Concentration Camp” Ehrhardt (or Erhardt, depending on the film), and when that backfires, to play another version of the same scene fooling the real Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman) with his own version of Siletski.

Comparing The Performances

Carole Lombard’s Maria Tura is a luminescent creation who sells the story’s conceit that no man, anywhere, can possibly spend thirty seconds in her company without immediately falling head-over-heels in love with her. Her flirtation with the young pilot is a kittenish crush, driven by a mutual attraction that – as if never less than 100% clear – she never for a moment intends to sully with any actual sex. This is a woman who loves her husband unconditionally but appreciates being romanced by a dashing young hero as long as it never really comes to anything; as it has the moral weight of a daydream, her shock when that pilot comes to believe that she actually does intend to leave her husband for him is genuine.

The role is unfortunately less persuasive in 1983 when she’s played by Anne Bancroft; yeah, yeah, I know, Bancroft was a great actress and a beautiful lady who could exude sex when she wanted to, and whose comic timing was every bit the equal of Lombard’s. But by 1983 she came off as the kind of woman you don’t fall in love with until after you’ve bought her dinner and conversed with her for a while, whereas Lombard was every bit the bombshell capable of making men stupid on sight. (Of course, as with any observation having to do with ineffable questions of sexual attraction, your mileage may vary. Male or female, you might have hot screaming fantasies about Sig (“Concentration Camp Earhardt”) Ruman for all I know.)  For this viewer, at least, the helpless reaction the character evokes in men she doesn’t know makes a lot more sense with Lombard than it does with Bancroft, and functions as a distracting, distancing element in the 1983 version.

Charles Durning bothered this viewer as Ehrhardt, mostly because he wasn’t Sig Ruman. (A remake is often easier to take, for lovers of a classic original, when it’s a substantial re-imagining; a film where many scenes are just acted more broadly invites more scornful comparison.) His immense physical bulk permits some inspired business involving his attempt to perch on the side of the desk. He also unfortunately mugs more, which is saying a lot. He adds an unnecessary, obscene hand gesture to the line, “What he did to Shakespeare, we’re doing to Poland.” Christopher Lloyd is an improvement as Schultz; he doesn’t get any more to do than the 1942 Schultz did, but he is a recognizable actor to us and thus better at setting up the regular abuse his character receives. Tim Matheson is nowhere near as effective in his role as Robert Stack. Jose Ferrer is effective enough in his.

The big problem is really the transformation of Jack Benny’s Tura to Mel Brooks’s Bronski. Brooks can act, but when performing shtick he prefers to go for the rafters. Benny was renowned for his timing and can still achieve huge laughs without a word, just by the fatuous “dramatic” pause he takes before reciting Hamlet’s soliloquy. It’s a much funnier performance than the one we get from Brooks, who doesn’t trust the material and all-too often underlines all the places where he expects us to laugh.

The Bigger Problem: The Odd Narrative Choices of the 1983 Version

Nor is that the only distancing element that damaged the 1983 version. The opening production number of “Sweet Georgia Brown”, sung in Polish, is charming enough…but then you have the characters speaking in Polish when the movie needs them speaking in English. To transition to the desired tongue, the movie could have utilized the device that previously worked to fine effect in, among other places, Judgment at Nuremburg (1961) and The Hunt For Red October (1990), which is to say introducing the authentic foreign language and then fading into a translation, which then persists for the rest of the movie.  The 1983 To Be Or Not To Be makes it a joke, presenting a godlike narrator who interrupts an argument between Brooks and Bancroft to announce that in the name of sanity, the rest of the movie won’t be in Polish. Both leads look relieved and then complete the scene in English. To use a line oft-spoken by one of the original film’s supporting characters, it gets a great laugh. But it also tells the audience, Don’t worry about anything that follows. It’s not real. It’s just Mel Brooks doing more Nazi shtick. The “great laugh” turns all of the story’s dancing on the edge of the precipice into a comedy routine. This is an even deeper mistake because the remake, armed with the benefit of hindsight, adds a band of Jewish refugees and a sympathetic homosexual to the list of people imperiled by the Nazis…touches which are absolutely artistically defensible, but collide with the film’s hellbent determination to remain disposable froth.

The remake adds too many cheap jokes, among them the moment when Bronski almost breaks a leg when somebody wishes him good luck by saying, “Break a Leg!” Even worse than that is the introduction of a stage manager named Sondheim, who will of course within minutes be asked to send in the clowns. Oh, I get it. Ha, ha, ha. Nor is that the only ridiculously telegraphed joke: when Anna’s flamboyant gay dresser is chased into the theatre during a show by Gestapo agents who want to deport him to a concentration camp for the crime of homosexuality, and we cut to Bronski on stage performing a production number that is an ode to the most beautiful lady of them all, we know it’s only a matter of time before…yes…that dresser shows up on stage and in drag in a desperate attempt to avoid his fate. Again: oh, I get it. Ha, ha, ha.

Well-intended though it is, the jiggering with the story adds another serious logical problem. The 1942 version of the climactic escape makes something approaching sense. There, the troupe dons their old Nazi uniforms in order to infiltrates a Reich gathering at the theatre, in order to stage a failed assassination attempt, introduce their Hitler as the real one, and “for security reasons” get themselves aboard a motorcade to the airport. It’s a risky and desperate gambit, but it has the benefit of simplicity, and you can imagine it working.  The 1983 version complicates this elegant and entirely acceptable story device with the astoundingly convenient coincidence that has this very troupe hired to entertain for the Nazis at their old theatre, and the moral imperative to bring the Jewish refugees along. This is accomplished by dressing the Jews in burlesque clown uniforms and making them part of the show on stage, before they join the troupe in marching down the center aisle between rows of hysterically laughing Nazis.  But for the frozen panic of one old woman, and the deft stratagem used to cover it (the only good part of the repurposed climax), this works exactly as planned.

But it shouldn’t. Indeed, it introduces a gaping logical flaw that makes the rest of the story impossible.

In the 1942 version, the troupe is not part of the show on stage and therefore won’t be missed by anybody in the theatre when they leave. In the 1983 version, the entire troupe escapes during a show without any of the guffawing Nazis ever noticing what they should notice, which is that the stage is suddenly empty and that the show has ended without so much as a curtain call. How does this work? At least, in The Blues Brothers (1980), when Jake and Elwood fled their concert carrying all the gate receipts, they left their band playing on stage, so it would be a few minutes before anybody realized that the lead singers had vanished…and even then, the cops, vengeful country music band, Illinois Nazis and Princess Leia still realized right away that the objects of their respective vendettas were pulling a fast one. But the motley gang of the 1983 To Be Or Not To Be left nobody behind. Explain how they got as far as four blocks without the airport being notified and you’re a better man than I am.

Finally, and unbelievably given how much the remake otherwise hews to the original, it inexplicably drops the blackest joke in the classic 1942 film and replaces it with a moment of almost unbearable kitsch. In the 1943 version, the troupe disposes of the Nazis piloting the plane by calling them back into the cabin, where the hatch is now open, and having the false Hitler bark the order, “Jump!” The two pilots happily oblige. It not only gets the biggest laugh in the film, but functions as its most searing indictment of the Nazis, as people willing to do anything including destroy themselves without question if their Fuhrer commands it. The 1983 version simply drops this in favor of a more conventional climax in which the protagonists are nearly captured at the airport. It all, unbelievably, comes down to a not especially suspenseful action climax in which the escaping plane accelerates down the runway just ahead of pursuing Nazis, while Anna Bronski’s pampered little dog races alongside it trying to hop aboard at the last minute. This is not just an inadequate replacement for a classic moment. It is a spasm of mindboggling awfulness. Even audiences who loved the remake booed that scene.

Footnote Facts

Jack Benny never again made another film as good as the 1942 To Be Or Not To Be. For the rest of his career, he derived comic mileage from mocking another, The Horn Blows At Midnight (1945), which though a financial failure that signaled the end of his movie stardom, was nowhere near as awful as he would paint it, forevermore. He would always be at his best on radio and television, playing his own long-lasting comic persona, a ridiculously petty, stingy, and conceited version of himself.

Carole Lombard left the set vocal about finding her work on To Be Or Not To Be the happiest and most enjoyable experience of her acting career. How sad, then, to report that it would turn out to be her last film before her death in a plane crash. She did not live to see its release. Today, it’s probably the most often seen of all her films,though her name remains coupled to Clark Gable’s as common shorthand for a certain kind of old-time Hollywood glamour.

The original film’s portrayal of a “Concentration Camp Ehrhardt” as a dangerous fool who, whenever embarrassed by circumstances, immediately shifts blame to his underling by angrily shouting, “Schultz!” may have launched a little mini-meme all by itself. Billy Wilder’s classic POW-camp comedy/drama, Stalag 17 (1953),  featured a Sergeant Schultz who pretended avuncular affection for his American captives but took great pleasure in oppressing them. Popular sitcom Hogan’s Heroes, wrong-headed for more reasons than we have desire to go into here, featured a significantly more harmless Sergeant Schultz whose buffoonish commandant also covered up embarrassments by angrily shouting his name.

The Jewish refugees of the 1983 version include, in an unspeaking role, a young boy played by one Max Brooks, son of the married leads. This is the same Max Brooks who later carved out his own bloody niche with the worldwide best seller World War Z.

Mel Brooks reprised his most reliable shtick, making musical hay of the Nazis, with the hit Broadway musical (and its subsequent film version, and no doubt future Remake Chronicles subject) The Producers.

The Verdict

1942 version, a terrific film that deserves its reputation as one of the greatest film comedies of all time. 1983 version, a flawed and messy re-creation that plays many of the same notes but never manages to achieve the same music.

* * *

And, now, the wife weighs in.

Commentary by Judi B. Castro.

To Be Or Not To Be (1942). Directed by Ernst Lubitsch. Written by Melchior Lengyel and Edwin Justice Mayer, from an original story by Ernst Lubitsch.  Starring Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack, Stanley Ridges, Sig Ruman. 99 minutes. **

To Be Or Not To Be (1983). Directed by Alan Johnson. Written by Ronny Graham and Thomas Meehan, from the story by Ernst Lubitsch and 1943 screenplay by Melchior Lengel and Edwin Justice Mayer. Starring Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft, Tim Matheson, Charles Durning, and Christopher Lloyd. 107 minutes.  **

Other Known Versions: Unseen by us, Maan Gaye Mughal-E-Azam (2008), Bollywood film starring Rahul Bose and Mallika Sherawat. (It does not deal with the Nazi era, but applies the plot structure to a period of civil unrest in India.)

Wow.  I have just completed watching both versions of TBONTB and while that may have contributed to the raging migraine that delayed my half of this blog, I can’t say I didn’t have a pleasant time.

I’m sure Adam has gone over the basics, and then ripped apart the little changes that Mr. Brooks (I am sure the writers had little say) felt were necessary for his more modern audience, neither version really tipped my scales.

The 1945 version has actors in a contemporary piece, doing what was controversial for the time.  The 1983 version has actors playing history for schtick and just falling flat.  I was however reminded of why “cheese” is used when passing gas. (See Ehrhardt’s favorite joke).  I also rediscovered my contempt for overblown humor (ie. the ongoing overemphasis in the Brooks version) which has always made me feel as if the filmmakers had little regard for my ability to follow the plot or even the simplest of jokes.

As to the casts of each film , with only one exception, they truly gave it their all.  I adore Christopher Lloyd’s  “Schultz”, but I’ll take Robert Stack as the young flyer over Tim Matheson any day.  I can’t compare either leading lady without feeling a bit brutish.  Carole Lombard was THE comic queen with the beauty and brains to match, I only wish we could have been privileged to see more.  Anne Bancroft was a major theatrical threat, talent, brains, beauty and acting ability that proved itself all the way to the Oscars, her downfall here was following her husband’s lack of subtlety.

Finally, our leading men.  The underplayed Jack Benny and the overblown Mel Brooks.  Now, I am not a Benny fan, not even slightly into the old TV bits, but here he wins hands down.  Conversely, I am a Brooks fan and here I find all the Brooksian schtick unappetizing.  When Brooks allows others to do his work, a subtler hammer is wielded.

So, which film comes out on top of this particular romp fest?  Neither.  I declare a tie with a need for a rematch to be held sometime in the next 20 years.

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Comments
  1. KLW says:

    I’ve kept this tab open in Firefox for a week now so I would remember to write a response to your great analyses of these two movies.

    I happened across the Jack Benny/Carole Lombard version about 15 years ago and was surprised at how excellent it was. As a baby boomer Jack Benny had always seemed hokey to me. I was surprised to see his performance. I’ve always thought Carole Lombard was a lost treasure, so I was not surprised to see her excel here.

    Remakes are always a challenge since, theoretically, they are updating a good story for modern sensibilities. Unfortunately, I thought that the Mel Brooks version wasn’t updating the story as much as Brooksifying it. Brooks is never one to let a quip just happen; you have to drill it into the audience’s brain as though they were ignorant of what is funny. He’s not the only comedian to do this (I can think of several modern comics who apparently studied under Brooks) but his style actually moves the remake into schtick and out of comedy, in my opinion. Still, it was not as bad as it might have been. The supporting cast was excellent as you’ve both mentioned.

    I’ll be looking to see if this movie is made again. It’s about time, don’t you think?

    • Worse things can happen, today, than Mel Brooks getting ahold of it. Imagine, let’s say, Adam Sandler getting hold of it. (Not that he’s incapable of making good movies…but he’s dumped on classics before. MR DEEDS will be eviscerated here someday.)

  2. Doc says:

    We agree, for the most part. Brooks takes an excellent film and pretty much turns it into an extended burlesque sketch – but that may be merely the effect the performances had on me, particularly that of Charles Durning, an otherwise excellent actor. I have to disagree on Christopher Lloyd (also an excellent actor). Lloyd performance is wooden, a throw-away in what is essentially a waste of a perfectly good Christopher Lloyd.

    I’m reminded of Oliver Hardy’s performance philosophy, here. Mr Hardy never thought of himself as a comic or comedian – he always thought of himself as an actor who happened to be performing in a comedic role. I think the performances that fail, here, fail because the performers forget that they’re actors and instead try to play it for laughs. Either they or Brooks don’t trust the material to do the work for them.

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