Poland, August 1939, and someone is causing a stir among the residents of this Warsaw street, the reason for which we have to go back in time a few minutes to the nearby theatre. There a troupe of actors are rehearsing their latest work, a political satire about the threat of Nazi Germany, though when their Hitler (Tom Dugan) announces "Heil me!" the producer (Charles Halton) has his objections as he thinks the laugh will distract from the serious message. Hence their Fuehrer stand-in strides out into the streets to prove how convincing he can be...
Of course, the makers of this film were not to know how prescient that opening sequence was, as a lot of the reaction at the time centered upon exactly how funny a film tackling Nazis and the war in Europe could really be when millions of people were suffering, even dying, as a result of that. It didn't help that audiences of the day were having further mixed feelings as the movie's luminous star Carole Lombard had died in a plane crash shortly after filming had been completed - on a war bonds fundraiser to boot.
Director Ernst Lubitsch was even forced to defend To Be or Not to Be on the public stage when the lambasting got too much to bear, pointing out that by making fun of the Nazis he was by no means belittling the devastation they were causing, and indeed his implementation of broad humour was as justified as if he had made some sober catalogue of war atrocities. In Britain, we were used to seeing the likes of George Formby and Arthur Askey take on the enemy through the medium of comedy, so were only too pleased to see the Americans do the same, but it took a long time, even after the Second World War ended, for this work to gain its proper acceptance.
Such is the stuff of cult movies, naturally, and watching it now you can see Lubitsch, his screenwriter Edwin Justus Mayer, and his game cast were actually walking a tightrope between a serious depiction of the harrowing effects of the conflict and a brave send-up of a deplorable evil that needed this approach to give some kind of human perspective on the inhuman. You could also see why the plot so appealed to showbiz folks, as it illustrated how entertaining the beleaguered public was just as important to sustaining morale, and placed the performers in an arena where their talent would not only be welcome relief, but able to save lives and get one over on the Nazis.
Jack Benny, already a superstar in the United States from his radio show, was a great choice to play Joseph Tura, the vain stage actor whose marriage to Polish celebrity Maria (Lombard, who claimed this had been her favourite role) is placed in jeopardy when she is tempted by a handsome young Polish flyer (Robert Stack). In a plot unafraid to be complicated, the flyer ends up in the R.A.F., but his squadron accidentally give the names of their friends and relatives to a Nazi spy posing as a benevolent professor (Stanley Ridges), yet the pilot catches on and is sent on a mission back in Warsaw to stop the list of names getting into the wrong hands. Thus the theme of roleplaying is developed, as Joseph has to take on the professor part, and things do become very tense for what was considered a poorly judged spoof, as Lubitsch conveys how much was at stake. Not only are there many big laughs here, you have to admire a work made when it was - imagine if the Nazis had won, and what would have happened to its creators. Music by Werner R. Heymann.