Posts Tagged ‘Woody Allen’


An author’s intent, an actor’s fragile ego, a genial shambles and cruelty to testicles 

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Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Casino Royale (1967). Directed by Val Guest, Ken Hughes, John Huston, Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish, and Richard Talmadge. Screenplay by Wolf Mankowitz, John Law, and Michael Sayers, from the novel by Ian Fleming. Additional screenplay contributions by (take a deep breath), Woody Allen, Val Guest, Ben Hecht, Joseph Heller, Terry Southern, Billy Wilder, and Peter Sellers. Starring David Niven, Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress, and Orson Welles. 131 minutes. ** 1/2

Casino Royale (2006). Directed by Martin Campbell. Screenplay by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, with Paul Haggis, from the novel by Ian Fleming. Starring Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Madi Mikkelson, Judi Dench, and Giancarlo Giannini. 144 minutes. *** 1/2.

Other Known Versions: Seen by us but not reviewed for this essay, “Casino Royale,” episode of TV-anthology series Climax! (1954), starring Barry Nelson as “Jimmy” Bond and Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre.

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The James Bond films have become so cemented in their formula for success that their various inevitable ingredients sometimes make them seem less like individual stories than the same story, told and retold with only a few particulars changed. Such elements as the enemy stronghold that blows up in the action climax, the empty badinage with poor pining Miss Moneypenny, the give-and-take with his weapons master Q, the ordering of a martini (shaken not stirred), the final scene where Bond ignores a congratulatory message from his superiors in order to pursue celebratory sex with the rescued lady of the day, the McGuffin that often involves hijacked nuclear weaponry, and (most relevant to today’s examples), the gambling match with the villain where Bond beats the bad guy at the game he is enough of a cad to cheat at, are such series mainstays that they all appear, with only minimal variation, in most of the franchise’s outings. It’s more surprising, overall, when a Bond film chooses to omit one, let alone several.

Sometimes, the newest Bond film seemed less a separate entity than a de facto remake of the Bond film before it (as with The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker).

Under the circumstances, any talk of remakes seems so superfluous that it’s almost startling to note that the series has already known two complete sets.

One involved a twisted saga of the disputed rights to Bond and his supporting cast,  some of whom were concocted by a screenwriter who wrote a spec script for Ian Fleming. A couple of rancorous major court cases led to a settlement that ultimately deprived the main movie series of Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the recurring villain who had dominated the Sean Connery era and who became the model for the Austin Powers villain, Dr. Evil. It was this very situation that led to Thunderball being remade, also with Connery, as Never Say Never Again.

The same consortium responsible for that one, hoarding its one treasure like a certain ex-hobbit mutated into Gollum by years of exposure to the ring of power, later tried to make the same basic story a third time, with yet another Bond reprising his role. They didn’t get backing again, but you really can’t blame them for trying.

And then there’s this, relic born of the one Bond novel adapted for television before the movie series, the same one that Howard Hawks once considered filming with Cary Grant. (‘Twas not to be, but seriously, consider Cary Grant as James Bond, and sigh.)

Casino Royale, which was not included in the package deal procured by the Broccoli family, was first filmed in 1954 as a not especially-distinguished episode of a TV anthology series, featuring an American “Jimmy” Bond who needed to win a card game against a Le Chiffre affiliated with french socialists. Copies of that production were lost for decades, but were eventually located and released on VHS (where this reviewer saw it, though it was also included as a DVD extra with the 1967 version).  I can report that it features Barry Nelson as a not-especially charismatic Bond and Peter Lorre as a Le Chiffre who doesn’t lend the play much more than his bored presence. It does, however, hew to the premise of Ian Fleming’s first Bond story, which has the super secret agent obliged to prevent the bad guy from winning a game of Baccarat that will replenish the funds he has embezzled from the Soviets.

(Thus leading to the pithy observation that while other Bond villains had grandiose ambitions, like extorting billions with nuclear terrorism, cornering the world heroin market, starting World War III, or wiping out most of humanity in order to establish a despotic rule over the survivors, this guy is motivated by nothing more than getting his hands caught in the till. In all filmed versions of Casino Royale,  Le Chiffre’s poor money management has gotten him into debt with the wrong people and he wants only to cover his own ass. It’s almost possible to feel sorry for him. In essence, he’s a somewhat more competent version of William H. Macy’s put-upon car dealer from Fargo.)

As in Ian Fleming’s novel, Bond wins the game, only to find himself captured, tied to a chair, and tortured at length by Le Chiffre: a scene that figures prominently in both the movie versions to follow, and which features something relatively rare in the Bond films: 007 completely helpless, and almost broken. It is one of the few scenes that make it into both the 1967 and 2006 versions, a key point of congruence in two productions that are otherwise as different from one another as two motion pictures can be.

The 1967 Version: A Genial Shambles

When the sixties spy craze was at its absolute peak and Bond in particular was a genuine pop culture phenomenon, possessing the rights to a Bond novel not procured by the Brocollis represented a grand opportunity that the makers of the spoof wished to exploit in grand style. They made all the smart opening moves, first by distinguishing their version from the series starring Sean Connery by deciding in advance by planning a farce with only limited fidelity to the Fleming novel. They also cast David Niven, Fleming’s own original choice as the best possible actor to play his character, and in one of the lead female roles Ursula Andress, who had made a splash (ha-ha) as the hot girl in the swimsuit emerging from Bahamian waters in Dr. No, and who is here given dialogue directly referencing her fate in that original film.

They had an explanation for the differences in their Bond written into the screenplay. Their Bond is an aging gentleman, retired from spying, dedicated to a vow of celibacy, and utterly resentful of his namesake replacement, who he calls “that sexual acrobat who leaves a trail of dead beautiful women like so many blown roses behind him.” It turns out that Niven’s Bond was such a force for good that the Brits and their various allies thought that the absence of a James Bond, any James Bond, so destabilizing to the world order that somebody named Bond had to remain active at all times.

This happens to be the exact same theory that some fans still embrace to explain the periodic replacement of the leading men in the regular series. That’s right. James Bond as Job Title was invented here, and it certainly beats the somewhat geekier theory, also popular, that James Bond is a Time Lord who stays young by “regenerating” like the protagonist of Doctor Who.

Circumstances compel him to take over the job previously held by M (here played by John Huston, who isn’t around for long), and support a training program that installs other Bond surrogates in trouble spots throughout the world. Beyond that, the plot defies description, largely because there isn’t one. This Casino Royale wanders all over the map, with plotlines initiated and then dropped, important characters introduced and then dropped, and the many scenes of sixties sexual innuendo (with entire mobs of sixties beautiful women) interposed with scenes that not only fail to make sense but were apparently never intended to make sense. Any attempt to describe the story will inevitably arrive at the phrase, “for no reason whatsoever.” Much of it is very funny, though it needs to be said that a lot of it is just as irritatingly tiresome.

If its contempt for coherent narrative reminds modern-day viewers of Monty Python And The Holy Grail, another film that (somewhat more successfully) feels like it was being made up on the fly, be apprised that one of the 1967 Casino Royale’s early sequences, involving the determinedly chaste Bond’s unnerving night at a castle populated entirely by aggressive young women in heat, was cited by the Pythons a s a direct inspiration for their use of pretty much the identical situation in their film, where the sweaty celibate was played by Michael Palin and the name of the edifice became Castle Anthrax.

It is difficult to tell how much of the chaotic plotting was originally intended, but one of the factors that contributed to it was a very troubled production, caused in no small part by conflict between Peter Sellers (here playing one of the replacement Bonds, a card player whose real name is Evelyn Tremble) and Orson Welles (here playing Le Chiffre). Sellers, who was never the easiest man to work with, took an instant dislike to Welles, exacerbated when Princess Margaret visited the set and fawned over Welles while ignoring Sellers. (It didn’t help that Sellers had just been trying to impress one and all with detailed stories of his friendship with the woman.) Welles responded in kind, deriding Sellers as an amateur.

Sellers was also desperately upset that Casino Royale was a silly comedy, as he’d wanted to play Bond straight – as is evident during the baccarat scene, where much of Tremble’s baiting of Le Chiffre could almost be transposed to a serious Bond film without alteration. As for Welles, it appears to have been his idea to have Le Chiffre regularly stop the game to perform elaborate stage magic at the table – again, for no reason whatsoever — behavior that would less than kindly looked upon at pretty much every casino I’ve ever known. It fits here only because nothing else in sight makes sense.

The two men ultimately refused to act in any scenes together, a snit that the film covered by pretty much never showing Sellers and Welles in the same shot at the same time, even during the card game. Their direct conversations at the gaming table are conveyed by close-ups and the backs of heads. Later, the “torture” of the faux-Bond by Le Chiffre is conducted with Le Chiffre an absent figure mocking the Sellers character by remote control, and torturing by methods that include (what seems to be) a wood-chipper in his chair and an orchestrated hallucination that includes marching men in kilts and a cameo appearance by Peter O’Toole, for (all together now) no reason whatsoever.

Eventually Sellers was either fired or allowed to storm off the set for good, with most of his scenes unfilmed. This included a great deal of necessary connecting material, which is a key reason why he rushes off to rescue Vesper Lynd and is next seen unconscious as Le Chiffre’s prisoner, with no actual scene where he is caught; he refused to film one. A number of his other scenes, including the one where he treats Ursula Andress’s leg as a piano keyboard, and the one where he hops into a race car, were not scripted parts of the film, but joking around on the set, reshaped as narrative.

One early cut of the film actually resorted to using a cardboard cutout of him during the climax, to cover his absence; it was replaced with other junk footage.

So the shamblicious nature of the narrative, ultimately filmed by six different directors and written by a small army of astoundingly distinguished film writers who seem to have been working during production to shape a film that had already spiraled out of control, was in large part a desperate improvisation, to cover for a star who was originally supposed to be a much more substantial player, and was unavailable for much of his intended screen time. What remains is, to an unclear extent, a film stitched together out of spare parts and desperate improvisation as the folks behind the production gave up on any pretense that any of this could ever make sense, even within the context of a silly comedy.

Some of the pieces are insanely brilliant, among them an extended sequence which has Mata Bond (the daughter of Bond and Mata Hari, played with substantial comic chops and what seems to be deep personal enjoyment by Joanna Pettet), on assignment in Berlin running around gloomy German Expressionist sets while still (for no reason whatsoever) wearing the same jewel-encrusted indian dancing costume she was introduced as wearing in an ashram (or whatever) several scenes earlier. Some are messed up, like Mata subsequently changing her accent and personality for no reason whatsoever. Some are just strange, like Sellers dressing up as Adolf Hitler for no reason whatsoever.  And some are just insane, as in the big action climax where old-west cowboys and indians invade the casino for no reason whatsoever, George Raft (who got star billing for less than sixty seconds on screen) shows up and dies for no reason whatsoever, a murdered character played by William Holden is revealed to have faked his death for no reason whatsoever, the Frankenstein monster shows up for no reason whatsoever, a chimp grins at the camera for no reason whatsoever, and main bad guy Woody Allen – who has been fed a nuclear potion – hiccups his way to the massive explosion that kills everybody for no reason whatsoever.

The movie is a mess, but a genial one, dull at times but hilarious at others. It was popular enough to emerge as the third biggest hit of its year.

And its fidelity to the source material amounts to this: A guy using the name of James Bond plays a game of baccarat with a guy named Le Chiffre to prevent him from replacing embezzled funds. Le Chiffre retaliates by kidnapping the girl, Vesper Lynd. Bond is captured trying to rescue Lynd and endures a brief interval of testicle torture (here presented in the most cartoonish manner imaginable).  Then Le Chiffre is killed, which only seems to resolve everything, leading to a false ending before the other shoe drops and the action resumes.

The 2006 Version: Bond Bleeds

The makers of the mainstream James Bond movies finally acquired the rights to Casino Royale in 1999, midway through Pierce Brosnan’s tenure in the title role.

Of Brosnan, who is not material to today’s discussion, let’s be content to say that he’s proven himself a terrific actor, better than the material he was given as 007 usually merited. The World Is Not Enough was likely his best Bondian outing, although, as usual, your mileage may vary.

The problem was not his, really. The problem was that the cartoonish heroics of the sixties Bond had ceased to impress in an era when other film franchises could compete with and wildly surpass the Bond movies in terms of wild action, sexual intrigue, and over-the-top violence. Worse, the Bond films had become so formulaic that other filmmakers had realized that they could do just as well with characters of their own creation, in films that were otherwise note-by-note recreations; and not in the manner that the imitators of the 1960s managed to present their own raft of respectable but second-tier Bonds, but with outings that easily matched the Bond films in extravagance of action. When James Cameron has made True Lies  and Vin Diesel has been in XXX and Tom Cruise has a thriving Mission: Impossible franchise and Matt Damon has the same with his Jason Bourne movies and Bruce Willis can boast the multiple variations of Die Hard, a James Bond movie no longer qualifies as an event just by showing up; it has to excel, to make us care about it, or it’s just redundant.

The people behind the franchise have been accused of “Bourning Up” the Bond films – this being an actual understood reference now – but the truth is more simple than that. With the 2006 Casino Royale, they stripped the character to his essence, removed the gadgetry, tortured quips and descents into campiness that now render some of the earlier incarnations all but unwatchable, and devoted serious thought as to what makes this guy tick and why anybody would give a damn about anything that happens to him. It re-started the series with a pre-credit sequence detailing Bond’s first kills for the 00 branch, which were not made to look jokey and lighthearted but instead ugly, brutal and sordid. One of them is a thug beaten to a bloody pulp in a bathroom, the other is a traitor shot dead while sitting in a desk chair; there is nothing at all glamorous about either of these kills, nothing to match the comfortable distance of that moment in Moonraker where an ambulance employed in a chase scene speeds past three separate billboards hawking commercial products that helped to underwrite the film.

It is only after the usual title song that we get the over-the-top action sequence that usually begins a Bond film. This one’s a parkour chase in Madagascar, set in and around a construction site where Bond pursues a terrorist-for-hire. This tour-de-force, the reviewer’s personal favorite action sequence in any of the Bond films, is to put it mildly not at all free of silliness; it employs, for instance, Roger Ebert’s famous fallacy of the climbing killer, the guy whose attempts to get away amount to scaling an edifice from which he will eventually have to climb down. It is, much of the time, silly of the heroes to even bother to chase them.  What redeems the sequence is its sheer bravura, the terrorist’s mad ricocheting off walls and girders, and Bond’s success at equaling him with blunt force and superior cleverness. If Buster Keaton had choreographed a Bond chase, it would be this one.

The set piece leads to a bad end for the terrorist and Bond in trouble with M for disgracing British Intelligence, from there to another action sequence in Miami that is almost as spectacular, and from there to the murder of a woman Bond had just callously seduced and abandoned in order to follow a lead. M (Judi Dench, who joined the series during Brosnan’s tenure and is another fine addition) back-handedly praises Bond for not caring, and he actually doesn’t seem to: but the moment is sufficiently well-written and performed to make it clear that Bond is not unaware of the human cost.

That brings him to Casino Royale, the introduction of Vesper Lynd, and the poker game played against Le Chiffre (who, here, is a banker for terrorists, who has invested heavily in the fallout from the act of terrorism Bond foils in Miami). At which point the film does something remarkable for the series, which is to say slow down; it spends almost an hour in the deepening of the relationship between Bond and Lynd and in intrigue at or surrounding the game.

The sexual tension between Bond and Lynd is remarkably adult, for the series, which at its worst saw Roger Moore seducing women half his age with no more than a raised eyebrow and a moron double intendre. By contrast, Lynd and Bond are presented as a pair of intensely guarded people, who acknowledge their mutual attraction right up front but also see through one another with a depth that keeps either from wanting personal involvement. His moment of compassion for her, during a moment of post-traumatic personal vulnerability, feels more real than anything that happened in some prior decades of the series.

The film’s Le Chiffre is not entirely devoid of Bondian silliness either; he has a “malformation of the tear duct” that occasionally causes him to weep blood, a physical condition with absolutely no referent in medical science, given that the integral nature of human anatomy is that any wound that bleeds will eventually scab. It’s there to make him look less than human. In truth, though, his nastiness does not exempt him from human vulnerability, brilliantly revealed during one scene where he and his lover are confronted in their hotel room by assassins sent by one of the terrorist leaders whose funds he misspent. Le Chiffre is reduced to a weeping, terrified mess, helpless as a knife is brandished against a woman he may or may not love, but at least likes enough to sleep with. This does not stop him from reverting to murderous type after he returns to the poker table, or has Bond strapped to that chair, but it gives him a depth no James Bond villain has had, before or since. The man may deserve to die, by the logic of the series, but it’s impossible not to understand that he knows he’s drowning.

His subsequent torture of the captured Bond is also more graphic, more genuinely painful, than anything ever seen in the series before. There is no gimmicky threatened castration of the impeccably dressed hero by laser, as in Goldfinger; no civilized gourmet meal before fight to the death, as in The Man With the Golden Gun.  (Brosnan’s Bond was captured by, and tortured by, the North Koreans for a full year, but his ordeal is shown during the usual a jazzy credits sequence, and has all the emotional impact of a music video.) Le Chiffre just tells the shivering, naked, helpless, and terrified  Bond – brilliantly played by Craig — that there’s  simply no point in  sophisticated torture techniques when it’s downright easy to cause a man more pain than he can possibly stand.  And then he whips Bond’s bare testicles with a knot tied in a heavy rope. There are no saucy quips, no insouciant gestures of defiance; like Le Chiffre only a few scenes earlier, Bond is quickly reduced to a despairing shell.

Following Bond’s subsequent deliverance from that predicament, his long recovery and his decision to abandon his secret agent ways for a life spent with Vesper – who in this context represents more than just a woman he loves, but an actual route back to humanity – makes perfect sense.

This is not the only time the movie Bond ever genuinely loved a woman for what promised to be longer than the interval between one mission and the next; the Bond played by George Lazenby loved, married, and tragically lost Tracy, the leading lady of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The difference, in retrospect, is that it’s a little hard now to see why that Bond fell for Tracy when he’d easily abandoned so many who were just as formidable. It’s easy to see why Craig’s Bond makes the decision he makes in Casino Royale. He’s been hurt, this time, more than he’s ever been hurt before. He already cared for the lady. His heart is open.

That it goes badly, indeed tragically, is just as inevitable. The series does need to continue, after all. But in this context it feels even worse when he angrily sums up his loss by telling M, “The bitch is dead.” At that point, something has clearly died in him too. It’s an emotional origin story, so much beyond the usual Bond material that it almost feels like a different genre. That it was immediately followed by Quantum Of Solace, which sought to continue the story but was because of many failings (not least among them an incompetent approach to its action scenes), one of the worst films of the entire series…a heady statement for anybody who’s seen Moonraker…is not its fault.

As for Craig, this much needs to be said. He is clearly not the most distinguished actor to have played Bond. That would still be David Niven. Nor is he the most iconic. That would still be Sean Connery. But, aided by a screenplay that demands it of him, he gives the all-time finest performance as Bond, ever: but for the few flashes the other actors have been allowed, it is pretty much the only time that the character on screen was ever recognizably and consistently a human being affected and scarred by his violent world. Contrasted with some of the campier outings in the past, it’s understating the case to say that it’s barely recognizable as being about the same character, and more accurate to say that it barely seems to belong to the same genre.

Intelligence Analysis

The 1967 film: an insane, out-of-control farce that, at its best moments, lampoons the silliness of the Bond universe about as well as any film possibly could. It’s more talent than usually appears on screen at the same time, all the more fascinating for the misfire. The 2006 version: a serious take on the same material that contains the best action sequence in the franchise’s fifty-year history, and as close a look into the soul of Bond as we’re ever likely to see. The two movies together: an object lesson on the best way to take a character seriously, and the best way not to.

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And now, the wife chooses to accept her mission…

Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Casino Royale (1967). Directed by Val Guest, Ken Hughes, John Huston, Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish, and Richard Talmadge. Screenplay by Wolf Mankowitz, John Law, and Michael Sayers, from the novel by Ian Fleming. Additional screenplay contributions by (take a deep breath), Woody Allen, Val Guest, Ben Hecht, Joseph Heller, Terry Southern, Billy Wilder, and Peter Sellers. Starring David Niven, Peter Sellers, Ursula Andress, Orson Welles. 131 minutes. **1/2

Casino Royale (2006). Directed by Martin Campbell. Screenplay by Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, with Paul Haggis, from the novel by Ian Fleming. Starring Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Madi Mikkelson, Judi Dench, Giancarlo Giannini. 144 minutes. ***

Other Known Versions: “Casino Royale,” episode of TV-anthology series Climax! (1954), starring Barry Nelson as “Jimmy” Bond and Peter Lorre as Le Chiffre.

Let me get this out of the way first thing.  The 2006 film is a better movie in every way possible, but I still love the 1967 Casino Royale oh so  much more.

Now, I have the hard part, answering the why of the above statement.

The earlier CR is not prettier, grittier, or even close to good story telling.  There are plots and characters left spinning in all directions, and a nonsensical ending that just is. But for all these flaws, it makes me laugh.  Not rolling on the floor holding my belly and crying, just giggles and chuckles that last over the next few hours and days as I remember the silliness.  Yes, even in my middle years, I still crack up over the insanity of the kitchen sink melee and the game of toss.

I could debate over the David Niven vs Daniel Craig, but both are great Bonds.  Craig reinvigorates 007 as a man of action and decisiveness with little humanity or warmth.  Niven plays Bond as a man hurt by his choices, yet emboldened by those same events.  Could Niven have been a good JBond playing it straight?  I believe so, but that market was never tapped since a certain Mr. Connery was busy playing the horn dog version.

Both films attempt to tell a pretty thin tale and both succeed in very different ways.

Villainwise, well come on guys, its Orson Welles playing cards, magic and drugs.  The torture of the mind, so much more elegant than multiple slams to the nads.  Neither is actually much of a baddie.  Both versions are just Ponzi schemers trying to make up losses before they are lost too.  Should I care what happens to these guys?  Not like the old world domination tactics of say Dr. No.  So I say who cares that they get offed before the final scenes?

So, where is the big difference that tilts me back to childhood?  Ahhh…the music.  Burt Bacharach combining with Herb Alpert.  This is what a band parent’s nightmares are made of. I played this stuff day and night for years and claimed I was practicing.  5 years of trumpet solos , guitar riffs, piano banging, and various other attempts usually drifting into some part of this film’s music.  Well, my folks could only blame themselves for letting me see CR so many times.  The theme song is eminently hummable, and the big hit “The Look Of Love”  was heard for years on AM radio (and many weddings I’m sure).  I still love that terrible little mindworm of a theme.

OK, I’ve said it, this film is a childhood fave and as a high school brass playing geek, I adored the soundtrack (and still do!).  Is it a better film deserving of all the praise I can heap upon it.  Hell no!  Its just sheer fun and I will adore it evermore. (But, don’t forget how good the 2006 film is either).


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.)

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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.