[Film Review] To Be or Not to Be (1942) and (1983)

To Be Or Not To Be 1942

Title: To Be or Not to Be
Year: 1942
Country: USA
Language: English, German
Genre: Comedy, War
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Melchior Lengyel
Edwin Justus Mayer
Ernst Lubitsch
Music: Werner R. Heymann
Cinematography: Rudolph Maté
Carole Lombard
Jack Benny
Robert Stack
Sig Ruman
Stanley Ridges
Tom Dugan
Felix Bressart
Lionel Atwill
Henry Victor
Charles Halton
Maude Eburne
Halliwell Hobbes
Miles Mander
Rating: 8.2/10

To Be or Not to Be 1983

Title: To Be or Not to Be
Year: 1983
Country: USA
Language: English, Polish, German
Genre: Comedy, War
Director: Alan Johnson
Thomas Meehan
Ronny Graham
Melchior Lengyel
Edwin Justus Mayer
Music: John Morris
Cinematography: Gerald Hirschfeld
Mel Brooks
Anne Bancroft
Tim Matheson
Charles Durning
José Ferrer
James ‘Gypsy’ Haake
Christopher Lloyd
George Gaynes
George Wyner
Estelle Reiner
Jack Riley
Ronny Graham
Zale Kessler
Earl Boen
Rating: 6.4/10

An enthralling and ebullient double bill of two versions of TO BE OR NOT TO BE, Lubitsch’s Black & White masterpiece, also famous for being Carole Lombard’s swan song before a plane crash brought her away from this world at the prime age of 33, and Mel Brooks’ (almost) faithful color remade (although the director title falls on the head of his longtime collaborator Alan Johnson) starring him and his wife Ms. Bancroft.

It is the same story being transcribed under two different palettes, the remake owes its tongue-in-cheek drollness greatly to the screenwriter Edwin Justus Mayer of the 1942 version since many one-liners are copied verbatim, both versions are abounding with witty caricatures of Hitler and his Nazi regime, embellishes a tall order in the wartime Warsaw with conspicuous burlesque, a Polish acting troupe’s collective endeavor to hunt down a German spy and a subsequent flee from war zone to England, during which a crucial tool is that our hero, the ham actor Joseph Tura (Benny) / Frederick Bronski (Brooks), has to playact different characters, from the spy professor, a Nazi colonel and even Hitler himself (in the remake), to bluff his way out; meanwhile he is also vexed by the budding romance between his actor wife Maria (Lombard) / Anna (Bancroft) and a young aviator Lt. Sobieski (Stack) / Lt. Sobinski (Matheson).

But there are also apparent differences which can bear out why Lubitsch’s original is a much better piece of work, taking the opening sequences for example, Lubitsch starts with a voice-over narrating an unusual happening in Warsaw before WWII, Adolf Hitler is spotted on the street, then a following revelation reveals that it is after all an act, Hitler is played by a character actor who tries to test his resemblance by walking among the mass, what a pleasant surprise! But in the remake, Mel Brooks doesn’t adopt this route, instead, he opens with a vaudeville number SWEET GEORGIA BROWN with Bancroft, a fairly impressive stunt but fails to match Lubitsch’s ingenious gambit, later audience will discover, one main reason behind this alteration is that there is no role of the character actor who resembles Hitler in this version, as Brooks himself will disguise as Hitler in the final escape scam, so probably it is a sacrifice to fulfil Brooks’ own ego to enlarge his part as the star.

For most part, the silver-screen magnetism of the original is beguilingly outstrips the remake’s more mundane touch, and being a well-intended fairy-tale, the mundane touch is unfortunately an impediment particularly in the elongated escape plan, the entire operation feels preposterous with the all the chase (don’t let me start on the doggie Mutki’s eleventh-hour jump) and what happens to the real Hitler in the theater, he doesn’t feel absurd when clearly no actors are on the stage to perform? In the original, this passage is fast-paced with a whimsical take of the fake Hitler ordering two pilots to jump off the plane without parachutes, to mock Nazi’s blind obedience.

With all my respect to Brooks and Bancroft, but in the remake, they are just too old for their roles, egregiously jarring is Brooks as young Hamlet in his ridicule titular monologue, seriously? I don’t consider myself as an ageist, but this is more than a farce to swallow. Bancroft is two-and-a-half decades past her prime as a seductress in THE GRADUATE (1967), her comedic bent can never pass beyond the slinky postures. Ok. we get it, it is a family business, let the profit kept within one’s own turf. However, a big thumb-up for the remake to introduce an openly gay character Sasha (Haake), Anna’s dresser, into the plot, in order to carry through the side-splitting wisecrack “how can a theatre survive without Jews, gays and gypsies?”. Also Charles Durning usurps an Oscar-nomination for the remake as Col. Erhardt, but having watched the original first, his farcical rendition feels a shade forced compared with Sig Ruman’s effortless spontaneity.

In the original, the Lombard-and-Benny pair forms a more organic liaison thanks a lot to the retro flair, she is a classic lady with glamour and dignity, he is somewhat childlike but self-consciously over-proud of his acting, their bickering is crammed with spark and tease, even Robert Stack’s handsome pilot is dreamier in the vintage silhouette.

All in all, it might be unfair for the remake to be viewed immediately after the original, but also the double-bill viewing is a telling corroboration of why vintage classics can obtain their timeless appeal, nostalgia aside, they are absolutely one-of-a-kind in their visual tactility, their characters’ mannerism and the streamlined narrative tactics, if you are into it, you cannot get enough of it, as for the remake, maybe it is just not vintage enough, nothing we can do about that, as least for now.

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