You would think that only Mel Brooks could merge Shakespeare, a theatre troupe and the Gestapo into hilarious comedy, but TO BE OR NOT TO BE is actually a remake of the 1942 Ernst Lubitsch/Jack Benny comedy of the same name.
Brooks is Frederick Bronski, the leader of a Polish theatre troupe in Warsaw as the Nazis prepare to invade. Legendary in his own mind, Frederick loves to do "Highlights from Shakespeare" angering the purists and boring the common man.
His wife Anna (played by real life wife Anne Bancroft) is constantly battling for billing with Frederick and falls hard for a young pilot named Sobinski, played by Tim Matheson (Animal House). Their backstage trysts while Frederick spouts Hamlet become a nightly affair.
When the Nazis invade, the troupe becomes involved in a complicated and escalating scheme of mistaken identities, impersonations and power plays to stop a spy.
What a cast!
Brooks regulars Ronny Graham, George Rayner and Jack Riley all deliver a ton of laughs, but the movie is completely stolen by Charles During.
Durning plays a Gestapo Colonel with eyes for Anna and an inappropriate sense of humor when it comes to Hitler.
Justly nominated for his laugh out loud performance, Durning's vocal delivery and expressions are a thing of beauty to watch.
Just sit back and enjoy the way Brooks and Durning set up a joke about Hitler and a pickle and then deliver the punch line 30 minutes later to perfection. Durning walks away with the movie.
Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future, Taxi) is terrific as Durning's second in command, trying to find a way to tell the truth without getting himself in trouble. George Gaynes (Tootsie) also shines as a blowhard actor especially good at playing Nazis, as long as he gets his vocal warmup.
For those of us that love Brooks "The Producers", there are plenty of in-jokes and cues to that earlier work, while carving out something much more old fashioned in a screwball comedy. Brooks even manages to sneak in a "Hiel Myself" while impersonating Hitler.
The early 80's approach to the character of a gay dresser seems out of touch with today, but the troupe's allegiance and devotion to him still plays, with echoes of "The Birdcage" abounding.
Brooks didn't direct the film, so it's a bit less "throw everything at the wall" then his own comedies of the 80's, "History of the World" and "Spaceballs". This remains the only film he ever headlined that he did not direct.
It starts slow, but gets funnier as the set up begins to pay off, hearkening back to an older style of comedy that could never be made today.
I couldn't help but think that Tarantino might have got the idea for his "Hitler in a theatre" payoff in "Inglorious Basterds" final act from the very funny and exciting payoff here, that manages to also remind you of "Airplane" in its verbal and physical comedy madness.
Better than I remembered it, TO BE OR NOT TO BE fittingly gets a B.