To Be or Not to Be (1942 film)

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To Be or Not to Be
Theatrical release poster
Directed byErnst Lubitsch
Screenplay byEdwin Justus Mayer
Ernst Lubitsch (uncredited)
Story byMelchior Lengyel
Produced byErnst Lubitsch
StarringCarole Lombard
Jack Benny
CinematographyRudolph Maté
Edited byDorothy Spencer
Romaine Film Corp.[1]
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
  • February 19, 1942 (1942-02-19) (LA)[2][3]
Running time
99 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$1.2 million[4]
Box office$1.5 million (US rentals)[5]

To Be or Not to Be is a 1942 American comedy film directed by Ernst Lubitsch, starring Carole Lombard and Jack Benny, and featuring Robert Stack, Felix Bressart, Lionel Atwill, Stanley Ridges and Sig Ruman. The plot concerns a troupe of actors in Nazi-occupied Warsaw who use their abilities at disguise and acting to fool the occupying troops. It was adapted by Lubitsch (uncredited) and Edwin Justus Mayer from the story by Melchior Lengyel.[6] The film was released one month after actress Carole Lombard was killed in an airplane crash.[7] In 1996, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."[8][9]


The well-known stars of a Warsaw theater company, including "ham" Josef Tura and wife Maria, are rehearsing Gestapo, a satirical play. That night, when the company performs Hamlet, with Josef in the title role, one actor, Bronski, commiserates with colleague Greenberg about always being spear carriers. Greenberg, implied to be Jewish, reveals he's always dreamed of playing Shylock in The Merchant of Venice.

Maria receives an admiring letter from Lieutenant Stanislav Sobinski; she invites him to visit her in her dressing room that night when Josef begins his "To be, or not to be" speech. Soon, the government issues orders to cancel Gestapo in order to avoid worsening relations with Germany. The following night, Sobinski again walks out during "To be..." to meet Maria, infuriating Josef. Sobinski confesses his love to Maria, assuming that she'll leave her husband, and the stage, to be with him. Before Maria can correct him, news breaks out that Germany has invaded Poland. Sobinski leaves to join the Polish division of the Royal Air Force (RAF), and the actors hide as Warsaw is bombed.

Sobinski and his fellows meet the Polish resistance leader Professor Siletsky. Siletsky will return to Warsaw soon, and the men give him messages for their loved ones. However, Sobinski becomes suspicious when Siletsky doesn't know of Maria Tura. The Allies realize that Siletsky knows the identity of Polish airmen's relatives, against whom reprisals can be taken should he tell the Nazis. Sobinski flies back to warn Maria; however, Siletsky has Maria brought to him by German soldiers and passes on Sobinski's message to her. He invites Maria to dinner, hoping to recruit her as a Nazi spy. Just before she arrives home, Josef returns and finds Sobinski in his bed. Maria and Sobinski try to figure out what to do about Siletsky, while Josef tries to understand his wife's relationship with the pilot. Josef proclaims he'll kill Siletsky.

A company member in Gestapo disguise summons Siletsky to "Gestapo headquarters", the theatre. Josef pretends to be Gestapo Colonel Ehrhardt. After giving Josef the list of Polish resistance fighters' loved ones, Siletsky becomes suspicious and mentions Sobinski's message for Maria and that "To be or not to be" signals their rendezvous. A surprised Josef uncontrollably reveals himself. Siletsky pulls a gun on him and tries to escape but is shot and killed on the theatre's stage by Sobinski. Josef disguises himself as Siletsky and goes to Siletsky's hotel to retrieve an extra copy of Siletsky's list. There he finds Maria, who was unable to leave without Siletsky's approval, and Captain Schultz, who has come to take him to meet with Ehrhardt.

Josef successfully passes himself off as Siletsky and names recently executed prisoners as the leaders of the resistance. The next day, Ehrhardt, who believes Siletsky convinced Maria to join the Nazi cause, informs her that they found Siletsky's corpse in the theatre. Unaware of this, Josef telephones Ehrhardt still masquerading as Siletsky and comes to meet with him. To expose Joseph as an impostor, Ehrhardt leaves him in a room with Siletsky's dead body. Josef has an extra fake beard, shaves off Siletsky's beard and applies the fake beard. He then goads Ehrhardt into pulling it off, convincing him Josef is the real Siletsky. Unaware of Josef's successful scheme, several actors disguised as Hitler's safety squad arrive, yank off Josef's fake beard, and pretend to drag him out. Everyone is safe but now cannot leave Poland on the plane Ehrhardt had arranged for Siletsky.

The Germans stage a show to honor the visiting Hitler. The actors slip into the theater dressed as Germans and hide until Hitler and his entourage take their seats. As the Germans sing the Deutschlandlied, Greenberg suddenly appears and rushes Hitler's box, causing enough distraction to allow the actors to infiltrate the real Germans. Acting as the head of Hitler's guard, Josef demands to know what Greenberg wants, giving the actor his chance to deliver Shylock's speech, ending with "if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?!" Josef orders Greenberg to be "taken away". All the actors march out, including Bronski disguised as Hitler, get in Hitler's cars and drive away.

At her apartment Maria waits for the company to pick her up, but Ehrhardt arrives and tries to seduce her. Bronski enters costumed as Hitler then walks out speechless, which makes Ehrhardt believe she's Hitler's mistress. Maria runs after Bronski, and Ehrhardt shoots himself out of shame.

The actors take off in Hitler's plane, and Sobinski flies to Scotland. When Joseph is asked by the press what reward he would like for saving the underground movement, Maria asserts that he wants to play Hamlet. While performing, Josef is gratified to see Sobinski sit quietly in the audience at the critical moment of his soliloquy. But as he proceeds, another handsome young officer gets up and heads noisily backstage.



Lubitsch had never considered anyone other than Jack Benny for the lead role in the film. He had even written the character with Benny in mind. Benny, thrilled that a director of Lubitsch's caliber had been thinking of him while writing it, accepted the role immediately. Benny was in a predicament as, strangely enough, his success in the film version of Charley's Aunt (1941) did not interest anyone in hiring the actor for their films.

For Benny's costar, the studio and Lubitsch decided on Miriam Hopkins, whose career had been faltering in recent years. The role was designed as a comeback for the veteran actress, but Hopkins and Benny did not get along well, and Hopkins left the production.

Lubitsch was left without a leading lady until Carole Lombard, hearing his predicament, asked to be considered.[10] Lombard had never worked with the director and yearned to have an opportunity. Lubitsch agreed and Lombard was cast. The film also provided Lombard with an opportunity to work with friend Robert Stack, whom she had known since he was a teenager. The film was shot at United Artists, which allowed Lombard to say that she had worked at every major studio in Hollywood.


The initial reception of To Be or Not To Be was marked by public apprehension due to its satirical depiction of the Nazis. Reviewers at the time criticized the use of such a serious and palpable threat as a basis for comedy. However, modern-day critics have since come to regard the movie as one of Lubitsch's notable achievements. According to Jack Benny's unfinished memoir, published in 1991, Benny's father initially left the theater in disgust at seeing his son in a Nazi uniform in the film, but Benny eventually convinced him to return. Subsequently, his father not only embraced the movie but watched it an astounding 46 times.[11]

The same could not be said for all critics. While they generally praised Lombard, some scorned Benny and Lubitsch and found the film to be in bad taste. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote that it was "hard to imagine how any one can take, without batting an eye, a shattering air raid upon Warsaw right after a sequence of farce or the spectacle of Mr. Benny playing a comedy scene with a Gestapo corpse. Mr. Lubitsch had an odd sense of humor—and a tangled script—when he made this film."[12] The Philadelphia Inquirer agreed, calling the film "a callous, tasteless effort to find fun in the bombing of Warsaw."[13] Some critics were especially offended by Colonel Ehrhardt's line: "Oh, yes I saw him [Tura] in 'Hamlet' once. What he did to Shakespeare we are now doing to Poland."[13]

However, other reviews were positive. Variety called it one of Lubitsch's "best productions in [a] number of years...a solid piece of entertainment."[14] Harrison's Reports called it "An absorbing comedy-drama of war time, expertly directed and acted. The action holds one in tense suspense at all times, and comedy of dialogue as well as of acting keeps one laughing almost constantly."[15] John Mosher of The New Yorker also praised the film, writing "That comedy could be planted in Warsaw at the time of its fall, of its conquest by the Nazis, and not seem too incongruous to be endured is a Lubitsch triumph."[16]

Carole Lombard dans une publicité encore pour la comédie américaine To Be or Not to Be (1942).(french)
Carole Lombard in a publicity still for the film.

In 1943, the critic Mildred Martin reviewed another of Lubitsch's films in The Philadelphia Inquirer and referred derogatively to his German birth and his comedy about Nazis in Poland. Lubitsch responded by publishing an open letter to the newspaper in which he wrote,

What I have satirized in this picture are the Nazis and their ridiculous ideology. I have also satirized the attitude of actors who always remain actors regardless of how dangerous the situation might be, which I believe is a true observation. It can be argued if the tragedy of Poland realistically portrayed as in To Be or Not to Be can be merged with satire. I believe it can be and so do the audience which I observed during a screening of To Be or Not to Be; but this is a matter of debate and everyone is entitled to his point of view, but it is certainly a far cry from the Berlin-born director who finds fun in the bombing of Warsaw.[13][17]

In recent times the film has become recognized as a comedy classic. To Be or Not To Be has a 96% approval rating on the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes with an average rating of 8.7/10, based on 47 reviews, with the consensus: "A complex and timely satire with as much darkness as slapstick, Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not To Be delicately balances humor and ethics."[18] Slovenian cultural critic and philosopher, Slavoj Žižek named it his favourite comedy, in an interview in 2015, where he remarked "It is madness, you can not do a better comedy I think".[19]

Awards and honors[edit]

To Be or Not to Be was nominated for one Academy Award: the Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture.

The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:




  1. ^ To Be or Not to Be at the American Film Institute Catalog
  2. ^ "Motion Picture Daily". New York [Motion picture daily, inc.] February 4, 1942. p. 1 col. 4.
  3. ^ "Variety Feb 18, 1942".
  4. ^ Balio, Tino (2009). United Artists: The Company Built by the Stars. University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 978-0-299-23004-3. p173
  5. ^ "Variety (January 1943)". New York, NY: Variety Publishing Company. June 14, 1943 – via Internet Archive.
  6. ^ "To Be or Not to Be | BFI | BFI". Archived from the original on 2012-07-11. Retrieved 2014-04-08.
  7. ^ "To Be or Not to Be (1942) - Notes". Retrieved 2022-10-05.
  8. ^ "National Film Registry (National Film Preservation Board, Library of Congress)". 2013-11-20. Retrieved 2014-04-10.
  9. ^ "Complete National Film Registry Listing". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2020-05-13.
  10. ^ "To Be or Not to Be". Retrieved 2022-10-05.
  11. ^ Jack Benny and Joan Benny, Sunday Nights at Seven: The Jack Benny Story, G.K. Hall, 1991, p. 232
  12. ^ Crowther, Bosley (March 7, 1942). "Movie Review - To Be or Not to Be". The New York Times. Retrieved January 6, 2016.
  13. ^ a b c Insdorf, Annette (2003). Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust (Third ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 67. ISBN 9780521016308.
  14. ^ "Film Reviews". Variety. New York: Variety, Inc. February 18, 1942. p. 8.
  15. ^ "'To Be or Not to Be' with Carole Lombard, Jack Benny and Robert Stack". Harrison's Reports: 35. February 28, 1942.
  16. ^ Mosher, John (March 14, 1942). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. New York: F-R Publishing Corp. p. 71.
  17. ^ Weinberg, Herman (1977). The Lubitsch Touch: A Critical Study. Dover Publications. p. 246.
  18. ^ "To Be or Not to Be". Rotten Tomatoes.
  19. ^ Film, in; May 25th, Philosophy; Comment, 2017 Leave a. "Slavoj Žižek Names His 5 Favorite Films".
  20. ^ "AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs". American Film Institute. Retrieved 2022-10-05.
  21. ^ ""Lenni vagy nem lenni"". Archived from the original on 2013-04-28.
  22. ^ "'Ser o no ser', la obra de Juan Echanove que satiriza sobre el nazismo y emplea el humor como escudo ante la guerra". 20 March 2022.

Further reading

External links[edit]

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