To Be or Not to Be
Classic '40s anti-Nazi comedy has some violence.
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To Be or Not to Be
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A Lot or a Little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that To Be or Not to Be is a classic black-and-white 1942 black comedy that's an odd, entertaining mixture addressing the Nazi dread engulfing 1940s America and the need for a good laugh just around the time America entered World War II. The setting is Poland of 1939, at the time Hitler's army marched in and shot everyone in its way. Famed director Ernst Lubitsch works with comic actress Carole Lombard and comedian Jack Benny, who deftly send up Nazi rigidity, self-regard, and violence. Nazi atrocities are acknowledged in passing, mostly as punchlines for jokes about shootings, violence against Jews, and retribution against Underground rebellion members. There's no overt sexual content, only innuendo that will go over the heads of most kids. A well-known, married actress entertains a handsome young lieutenant in her dressing room. It's never revealed if their relationship is consummated, although she takes pains to hide it from her husband. The actress is invited to the hotel room of a Nazi spy, who tries to recruit her. He serves her champagne and seems to have sexual plans for her. A spy for the Germans is killed and his body is seen sitting in a chair. Polish patriots risk their lives to fight Nazis. Comedy is used to disguise real WWI peril, but parents can use the film to discuss the actual horrors of that era.
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What's the Story?
In TO BE OR NOT TO BE, Josef Tura (Jack Benny) and his charming wife Maria (Carole Lombard) are self-absorbed actors, the toasts of pre-World War II Warsaw, Poland. They rehearse a satire about fascists in neighboring Germany, unaware that the 1939 Nazi invasion of Poland is days away. This interrupts Maria's flirtation with a fan, a handsome young Polish lieutenant (Robert Stack.) Bleak times ensue. The Nazis close the theater and evict the couple from their apartment. The lieutenant, now based in London and flying for the British Royal Air Force against the Germans, discovers that a Polish professor posing as a patriot is actually working with the Nazis to destroy the Polish resistance. The lieutenant returns to Warsaw and enlists Maria and Josef to help stop the professor from delivering damaging information to the enemy. Josef, Maria, and the entire acting troupe use their acting skills to best the Nazis.
Is It Any Good?
Director Ernst Lubitsch brings his renowned sophistication and wit, called the "Lubitsch Touch," to this wartime comedy about side-by-side bravery and brutality during World War II. The underlying message is that evil is out there and we all have a duty to fight it. To Be or Not to Be reminds us that petty jealousies and matters of ego must be abandoned at times of crisis, and that the arts can play an important role in helping us understand and fight oppression and unfairness. The movie pleads for empathy, understanding, and tolerance of differences. An actor recites lines from Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice: "If you cut me do I not bleed?" The sentiments are as relevant for when Nazis were killing Jews and other "undesirables" as for today, when "others" continue to be targeted for prejudicial treatment.
The movie can seem a bit jokey. A man, Jewish but not identified as such, tells an over-the-top actor, "What you are, I wouldn't eat." Ham, of course, isn't kosher. Lombard gleefully delivers some of the film's best lines. In a proto-feminist moment, Maria complains that her husband takes up all the air in the room. "If I go on a diet, you lose the weight. If we ever had a baby, I'm not so sure I'd be the mother." Trying to charm her way out of agreeing to spy for a flirtatious gestapo colonel (Sig Ruman), she pretends to be considering his offer, then responds with a smile, "But what are we going to do about my conscience?" The movie was released two months after Lombard died in a plane crash raising money to support the American war effort.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about the way that comedy in To Be or Not to Be is used to address a horrific moment in world history. Do you think humor sometimes makes it easier to think about the terrible things human beings do to each other? Why or why not?
At times Maria seems to be going along with the idea of spying against Poland for the Nazis because it would make her life easier. How do we know that she isn't planning to betray her country?
Maria seems to be having a flirtation, and maybe an affair, with a young lieutenant. Why might she think it's okay to betray her husband but not okay to work with brutal Nazi murderers? Do you think it's fair to believe that a person who makes one bad decision always makes bad decisions?
- In theaters: March 6, 1942
- On DVD or streaming: March 1, 2005
- Cast: Jack Benny, Carole Lombard
- Director: Ernst Lubitsch
- Studio: Warner Home Video
- Genre: Comedy
- Character Strengths: Courage, Empathy
- Run time: 99 minutes
- MPAA rating: NR
- Last updated: July 27, 2022
Our Editors Recommend
Brief violence and lots of tension in top-notch classic.
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