Monday, June 2, 2014

Movie Review: To Be Or Not To Be (1983)

Since Hollywood keeps serving up loads of crap, and since the best talent and effort comes from cable television these days, you have to go back into the past to find decent movies to review.

From 1983 comes To Be Or Not To Be.  Mel Brooks produces, stars in, but does not direct this updated version of a 1942 Jack Benny movie of similar name and plot.  Brooks plays Frederick Bronski, a bad Polish actor whose theater gets caught up in the fear and chaos of newly occupied Poland in late 1939.  A key difference between Jack Benny's version and Mel Brooks adaptation is one of grave consequence.  In 1942, few in the United States had any notion of the horror engulfing Jews, homosexuals, political dissenters, Jehovah's Witnesses, Freemasons, and others pulled into the Holocaust.

Brooks' version has to balance dark comedy against utter darkness.

Starring alongside Brooks is Anne Bancroft, best known for her role as a predatory seducer in The Graduate, here playing Bronski's wife Anna.  The alluring Italian star (despite the very American sounding stage name) was Mel Brooks' wife for over 40 years.  Her chemistry with Brooks in once sense forms the foundation of the film, their unquestionable adoration for each other saturates every scene containing the both of them.  It does, however, undermine a crucial subplot.

Tim Matheson plays a young Polish pilot, Lieutenant Sobinski, who falls for Anna Bronski.  Anna Bronski never seems to decide if it is lust or love she feels for Sobinski.  At any rate, he flees to London after teh invasion.  There he learns that Professor Siletski (Jose Ferrer) has obtained a list of Polish Underground members that he intends to deliver to the Gestapo.  Matheson is convincing as the lovestruck dalliance of Anna Bronski. Bancroft, as great as she is in other areas, does not convince anyone that she has any feelings for him, lust or otherwise. And it's not really necessary anyway, because the film itself deals with more important issues.

Most of To Be Or Not To Be centers around Bronski having to play several roles to ensure the success of the caper, which is stealing the list of Polish rebels. Brooks plays Bronski playing a Gestapo colonel, Professor Siletski, and even Hitler.

The film is funny, sometimes hilarious, but always comes back to the underlying horror of the Holcaust. James Haake plays Sasha, the typical flamboyant gay man often seen in Brooks' films.  At one point, he complains that his inverted pink triangle clashes with everything else he owns (this was a symbol the Nazis forced homosexuals to wear for identification.)  Eventually, the Gestapo arrests Sasha.  Bronski must adapt his scheme to help free Sasha from deportation.

To Be Or Not To Be has a tremendous cast for its time.  Charles During, known best recently as Mississippi governor Menelaus "Pappy" "Pass the biscuits" O"Daniel in O'Brother Where Art Thou, plays a similar role as Gestapo colonel Gerhardt in that he is a harassed man of authority, dealing with pressures, and blaming much on his idiot subordinate.  In this case, the subordinate is "Schultz," played hysterically by Christopher Lloyd who would soon star in Back to the Future.  George Gaynes sounds almost Shakespearean as actor Ravitch, who usually appears on screen either as a Shakespearean character or a fake Gestapo general.  Gaynes would soon forge his own iconic comedic role as Commandant Eric Lassard in Police Academy.

For a Brooks film, there are surprisingly few trademark gags, such as when Bronski orders the character Sondheim to "send in the clowns."  The audience never is allowed to forget that gravity of the subject.  Towards the end, when the actors try to sneak a large group of Jews past the Nazis, one older woman grows too terrified to move until another actor allays the suspicion of the Germans and gets her going again.

Mel Brooks often delivers silliness.  Silent Movie, Spaceballs, and a few other films have no point except to make the audience laugh.  Then, consider a film like Young Frankenstein that satirizes a genre, yet also develops strong and memorable characters.  Brooks at his best, in works like Blazing Saddles, The Producers, and To Be Or Not To Be, jabs at mindless discrimination and persecution using both comedy and a powerful optimism in the human spirit. Evil never learns its lesson in these Brooks movies, but those who join together against the evil always prevail with grace and good humor.

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