To Be or Not to Be (1983)
Starring: Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft, Tim Matheson, Charles Durning, Jose Ferrer and Christopher Lloyd
Director: Alan Johnson
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars
During the Nazi occupation of Poland, the Bronski Theatre Company, led by First-class Hams Dr. and Mrs. Bronski (Brooks and Bancroft), become involved with a desperate attempt to thwart a Nazi double-agent (Ferrer) from revealing the names of resistance fighters to the Gestapo.
"To Be or Not to Be" is probably one of the smartest movies that Mel Brooks has ever been part of. Although a remake of a classic comedy from the 1940s, this is a great movie in its own right, with stellar performances from all the films principals.
Anne Bancroft is particularly wonderful as Anna Bronski, an aging stage diva whose welcoming of amorous attention from a young admirer starts the series of escalating events that places her husband in the position of being the man to save the Polish underground.
Mel Brooks is hilarious as always--his "Highlights from Hamlet" are a hoot, as are his confrontations with the Nazis and observations about their literacy--and Charles Durning and Christopher Lloyd play Nazi SS officers with just the right mix of bufoonery and danger to create the perfect caricature of the self-important, dimwitted psychopaths that filled the middle ranks of the Third Reich.
Although a remake, the new material the film brings to this version is some of the best Mel Brooks has ever been responsible for. I don't think any other film comments as effectively on the destructiveness that Nazis and those like them (such as hardcore Communist and Islamic governments) to the creativity and free spirit and humanity of those who suffer under their boot heels. The final scenes at the Bronski Theatre, where the company and half a dozen Jews that they've been hiding enact an elaborate plan to escape Nazi clutches even as Hitler himself is watching from one of the boxes, in particular bring home the cruelty and lack of soul and compassion in a way that no other artistically themed film has other than "Cabaret". That scene, and the whole undercurrent of how the Nazis kill or pervert artistic expression that runs through the film, is something unique in the Mel Brooks' canon... and it's something that makes this movie a must-see.
For all the great stuff in this movie, there is one major misstep. For whatever reason, the writers, director and probably even Brooks himself felt obligated to include some of the third-wall wackiness that we expect from Brooks--the sort of stuff that was all over "Blazing Saddles" and "High Anxiety" at the very beginning of the movie. But that material is out of place and inappropriate for the comedic tone of the rest of the film. It's funny, but it still shouldn't have been included.