To Be Or Not To Be (1942)

Film Review


Release Date: 6 March, 1942

Studio: United Artists

Directors: Ernst Lubitsch

Starring: Jack Benny, Carole Lumbard, Robert Stack


Benny and Lombard, husband and wife, are famous Polish actors. During a performance of Hamlet, a young and handsome officer (Stack) leaves just as Benny begins the soliloquy, "to be or not to be." Benny is outraged. Benny would be even more outraged if he knew that the officer visited Lombard in her dressing room. A short time later, Germany invades Poland, and the theater is closed. Stack has fled to England with other Polish pilots. They entrust a spy, who is returning to Poland, with secret information. Stack realizes that the man is actually a Nazi spy and follows him to Poland. The spy is killed before he can contact the Nazis. Stack, endangered, contacts Lombard, and she hides him. The plot becomes complex with Benny impersonating the Nazi spy, various Nazis trying to seduce Lombard, and the theater troop appearing as German soldiers. One member of the company resembles Hitler. The resemblance is utilized in their schemes and, ultimately, makes possible their escape to England.


This film, Lubitsch's final masterpiece, pairs comic absurdity with grim reality. Within the melancholic setting of occupied Poland, everybody, Poles and Nazis (except the traitorous Professor Siletsky), participates in the comedy. The cast was chosen flawlessly. On radio, Jack Benny achieved comic greatness; however, on film, he was generally no more than mildly amusing. The character of the Polish actor, tailored to his speaking and acting style, provided Benny with his only great role on the screen. Lombard, whose part is also well-matched to her personality and style, is wonderful. Several character actors, such as Charles Halton, Felix Bressart, and Tom Dugan, have the most prominent and important roles of their careers.