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To Be or Not to Be (1983)

The Mel Brooks Box Set Collection

Remaking Ernst Lubitsch films is one of the surer ways to fail big. The German director was the greatest maker of sex comedies (see for instance his Trouble in Paradise), with 1942's To Be or Not to Be a less nuanced departure. A film about Polish actors under Nazi rule, it was a middle-finger salute to Hilter & Co., an angry but hilarious raspberry meant to mock all that was going wrong in the world at that time. And if it lacked the Lubitsch touch, it was because his hand was in a fist. At the time it was considered bad taste, though retrospectively some have accused it of being soft — soft would be making the film long after the war was over, which is what Mel Brooks and friends did in 1983. Directed by Alan Johnson, the film follows the Lubitsch original beat-for-beat but misses the music. Brooks stars with wife Anne Bancroft as the "world famous in Poland" Fredrick and Anna Bronski. Trouble in their paradise starts when Anna gets an admirer in Lt. Andre Sobinski (Tim Matheson), who goes to visit her during Fredrick's attempt at Hamlet's great soliloquy, making Fredrick more and more perturbed. War breaks out and Andre leaves the country, while the Bronskis and their troupe suffer under the Nazi oppression. When Profesor Siletski (Jose Ferrer) meets Andre and his gang of fighter pilots, he tells them he's going back to Poland and offers to get messages to their friends and families. All give him messages, while Andre asks him to say "to be or not to be" to Anna, whom the professor doesn't know — which reveals him as a Nazi double agent. When the professor hits Poland hoping to meet Col. "Concentration Camp" Erhardt (Charles Durning), he attempts to seduce Anna, but Andre has also returned to Poland to stop Siletski, and so the Bronski troupe is enlisted to fool the Nazis and keep the resistance a secret. To Be or Not to Be feels like a family film due to its pairing of Brooks and Bancroft. If seen as a family affair, it explains away some of the movie's problems, like the fact that Bancroft is lusted over by every man she meets (something a little more believable when Carole Lombard inhabited the role) twenty years past her prime. That noted, the duo have great charm together, and there are laughs throughout, though Johnson shows no great skill as a director (it's all shot like television). In one great scene, Fredrick pretends to be Siletski and in a bit of actorly ego asks Col. Erhardt if he had seen Fredrick Bronski perform, to which Erhardt says he did and then adds "What he did to Shakespeare, we're doing to Poland." It's also straight from the original, like almost all of the film's best moments. Fox presents To Be or Not to Be in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) with DD 2.0 stereo audio. Extras include a "making-of" featurette (3 min.), profiles of Mel Brooks (2 min.), Anne Bancroft (3 min.) and Charles Durning (2 min.), along with two trailers for this and bonus trailers for other Mel Brooks films. Slimcase; available only in the Mel Brooks Collection.
—DSH



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