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With: Jack Benny, Carole Lombard, Robert Stack, Felix Bressart, Lionel Atwill, Stanley Ridges, Sig Ruman
Written by: Written by Edwin Justus Mayer, based on a story by Ernst Lubitsch, Melchior Lengyel
Directed by: Ernst Lubitsch
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 99
Date: 02/15/1942

To Be or Not to Be (1942)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Hammy Hamlet

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Ernst Lubitsch indulged in a bit of wartime duty with this classic, carefully mixing his usual brand of sophisticated humor with a bit of bittersweet. Jack Benny stars as Joseph Tura, a Polish actor playing the most unlikely Hamlet in the universe. While onstage, his "to be or not to be" speech cues a young soldier (Robert Stack) to visit Joseph's wife (Carole Lombard) in her dressing room.

It's a great setup, but things fall apart when the Nazis attack Poland. The theater troupe finds itself in a deliriously sticky plot, which has Tura disguising himself and his wife playing into the hands of a Nazi sympathizer.

That Lubitsch can balance all this with the same grace and fervor is only a small testament to his genius. Yet because of its upsetting subject matter, To Be or Not to Be is not usually the Lubitsch I reach for when I'm in the mood for a smart comedy. Chaplin did a slightly better job on a similar topic two years earlier with The Great Dictator.

Warner Home Video released this classic, originally produced by Alexander Korda, on DVD in 2005. Their quality is superb; extras include two wartime shorts, one by MGM and one with Jack Benny, both with patriotic perspectives.

In 2013, the Criterion Collection took over with beautiful DVD and Blu-ray editions. The Blu-ray includes a 2K digital restoration with an uncompressed monaural audio track. It looks and sounds great by any standards. Film historian David Kalat provides an informative commentary track. There's a 45-minute silent movie, Pinkus' Shoe Palace (1916), which features Lubitsch in an acting role, and was one of his early directorial efforts. We also get an hour-long French documentary from 2010 on the life and career of Lubitsch, and two radio shows. The liner notes booklet includes an essay by critic Geoffrey O'Brien and a 1942 New York Times op-ed by Lubitsch.

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