actors, Alan Johnson, Anna Bronski, Anne Bancroft, auteur theory, Blazing Saddles, Charles Durning, Christopher Lloyd, cinema, comedies, doubles, Film auteurs, film reviews, films, Frederick Bronski, imposters, invasion of Poland, Jose Ferrer, Life Stinks, Mel Brooks, Movies, multiple roles, musical numbers, Nazis, period-piece, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Ronny Graham, screwball comedies, Spaceballs, spies, The Producers, theatre group, Thomas Meehan, Tim Matheson, To Be or Not To Be, World War II, Young Frankenstein
Pound for pound, there are probably few comedic writer/director/actors with the kind of resume that Mel Brooks has. Even if they haven’t all been winners (and Life Stinks (1991), Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) and Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995) definitely belong in the “Not Winning” category), Brooks has been responsible for some truly indelible, classic films. Try and imagine a world without The Producers (1967), Blazing Saddles (1974), Young Frankenstein (1974), High Anxiety (1977) or Spaceballs (1987)…that’s right: not a pretty picture is it, pal? Achievements as big as those tend to buy you an awful lot of goodwill, after all, and if the last 23 years of Brook’s career haven’t been as great as the first 24 years…well, the guy has kind of earned the right to rest on his laurels a bit.
For my money, Brooks is at his most unstoppable when he’s writing, directing and acting simultaneously (although this didn’t do anything to resuscitate his last three films, ironically enough). I think he’s a great actor but his kind of broad performance type is really only well-suited to his own over-the-top, joke-a-minute writing style. In anything where the jokes don’t come quite so fast and furious, however, such as Screw Loose (1999), Brooks often comes across as a fish-out-of-water. For some reason, that pliable mug of his absolutely flourishes in screwball territory.
To Be or Not To Be, directed by Brooks’ longtime choreographer Alan Johnson (the genius behind the Springtime for Hitler and Puttin’ on the Ritz segments in The Producers and Young Frankenstein, respectively) is a decent, if not revelatory, Brooks vehicle that marks one of the last (small) hurrahs in his career, followed four years later by Spaceballs (the last Brooks film that I truly enjoyed, including the patently awful remake of The Producers from 2005). While Brooks didn’t write or direct the film, writers Thomas Meehan and Ronny Graham would go on to write Spaceballs, making this a bit of a dry run for Brooks Star Wars-parody.
While To Be or Not To Be never quite scales the dizzying heights of previous Brooks’ classics, there are still plenty of genuine laughs to be found here, although nothing really too deep to think about. Technically a remake of a 1942 Jack Benny film, To Be or Not to Be details the attempts by a group of Polish actors and military personnel to identify and do away with a German double-agent on the eve of Germany’s invasion of Poland. Frederick Bronski (Brooks) and his wife, Anna (Anne Bancroft, in a deliriously giddy role) must deal with the spy (played by a virtually unrecognizable Jose Ferrer), asinine Nazi commandants (side-splitting turns by Charles During and Christopher Lloyd) and a randy Polish pilot (Tim Matheson) who wants to free Poland from the Germans and Anna from her stage-clothes, possibly in reverse order.
Although To Be or Not To Be is nowhere near the laugh riot of Brook’s earlier films, it’s probably unfair to assume that it would be. For one thing, To Be or Not To Be tends to be one of Brooks’ plot-heaviest confections (this still isn’t Solaris, mind you, but probably has the most convoluted plot since The Producers), so there’s much less of an emphasis on rapid-fire gags and more emphasis on running jokes and elongated payoffs. To Be or Not To Be is also (technically) a remake, so it suffers from a certain further sense of removal from the rest of Brooks’ oeuvre.
That being said, To Be or Not To Be is still filled with some truly great, hilarious moments. One of Bronski’s shows is called Naughty Nazis and is just as delightful as the ridiculous title would indicate (“A Little Piece of Poland” is a pretty amazing tune) and his Shakespearian “greatest hits” performance, titled “Highlights From Hamlet,” is good enough to get its own full-length. There’s a great running gag about the theatre troupe hiding Jewish refugees in the basement (Bronski’s reaction, upon seeing that “a couple” has turned into “a lot” is classic Brooks) and the bit where Bronski, dressed as Hitler, walks into a British pub and innocently inquires: “Is this England?” is just about as good as silly absurdist humor gets.
The acting, as a whole, is quite good, although Christopher Lloyd and Charles Durning easily steal any scene they appear in. Lloyd, in particular, is absolutely marvelous as Capt. Schultz, the stone-faced Nazi who has zero time for any shenanigans. It’s a wonderful change-of-pace role for Lloyd, something that really surprised (and delighted) me. Truth be told: we could have used a whole lot more Lloyd in the film. Bancroft is obviously hanging a blast playing the ditzy-but-canny Anna and there’s some genuinely nice chemistry between her and Brooks. Matheson is just fine in the kind of fresh-faced-rube role that he routinely pulled-off in his sleep, although his character is never asked to be much more than agreeable, bland wallpaper.
The whole film culminates in a circus-clown inspired escape attempt that manages to be both genuinely funny and truly nail-biting: this heightened sense of real tension was something that felt new for Brooks’ films: even edgy fare like Blazing Saddles, despite its storyline, often felt fairly low-stakes whereas we frequently get the impression (in To Be or Not to Be) that any of these characters could die at any time. That’s not to say that the film is ever grim (or even particularly serious, most of the time) but there is definitely the potential for deep tragedy here.
Ultimately, To Be or Not to Be sits pretty comfortably in the middle of Mel Brooks’ canon. While it’s nowhere near as good as his classics (but really…what is?), it’s certainly no where near as dire as his (to this point) final three films were. I’ll probably always consider Spaceballs to be Brooks “final” film, but To Be or Not To Be wasn’t a terrible lead-up to it.