Was it based on an actual incident? Quite possibly, although its main conceit - of actors immersing themselves as Nazis in order to escape them - is so absurd it almost seems too ridiculous not to be true. It is also the greatest truism that actors remain actors even in real life situations.
In 1942, the war was far from over and the German Reich still far from defeated, in fact well ensconced in occupied Poland. This sublime comedy made by the master of the sly undertone, Ernst Lubitsch, told the potentially ugly story of oppression in the early stages of the war in a very carefully balanced mixture of drama and comedy, from the benefit, it should be said, of being made in a Hollywood studio in faraway USA. One of its notable producers however was Alexander Korda, himself an émigré like Lubitsch, who brought a wizened European experience to the film (as he did later with The Third Man).
For the casting of the main roles in this comedy however, Lubitsch turned to an American vintage, and found it in the wonderfully deadpan form of Jack Benny. A famous stand-up and theatrical comedian, he famously decried most of his film roles (often as part of his act), but here Lubitsch used Benny to brilliantly self-obsessive effect: as Joseph Tura, the star actor of the Lubitski Theatre in Warsaw, he knows he is the star name, not only of the theatre but also of the whole Warsaw theatre scene - at least in his eyes - but is riddled with insecurities about it, most of all from his glamorous wife Maria (Carole Lombard). Not only from the fear of her upstaging him onstage, but offstage too :
MARIA: "When I start to tell a story, you finish it. If I go on a diet you lose the weight! If I have a cold, you cough! And if we ever have a baby I'm not sure I'd be the mother."
TURA: "I'm satisfied to be the father."
His suspicion is ably exemplified in the form of Maria's circle of admirers (male of course), most especially a dashing Polish fighter pilot (Robert Stack), who sneaks out of the fourth row over to Maria's dressing room, during Tura's most famous monologue, "To be or not to be..." - much to Tura's dismay.
This running gag is one of a number of brilliant running gags that point up the farcical absurdity of human behaviour. Another is when Tura, who has already played the occupying Nazi leader in Warsaw, Colonel Ehrhardt, when dealing with the smoothly duplicitous German spy Professor Siletsky (a very convincing Stanley Ridges), has to swap places once Siletsky is out of the way and take his place, and meets the real Colonel Ehrhardt, in the form of the buffoonish looking Sig Ruman (often a memorable comedy foil for the Marx Brothers and many others), whom, to Tura's delight, uses some of the same responses and side remarks that Tura imagined he would say when he himself was playing the part: "So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt!" is to be cried at many points during this film.
Tura himself is very much the leading man, around whom his dauntless supporting cast nevertheless depend. He has plenty of pretenders to this throne however besides Maria, not least Ravitch (the marvellous Lionel Atwill) who has a great stage presence but can't resist going too far and is often having to be rained in by his fellow actors. Then on the other end of the acting ladder there are Greenberg (Felix Bressart) and Bronsky (Tom Dugan), two perennially permanent spear carriers but both with acting ambitions - Bronsky gets what he thinks is the opportunity of a career, to play Hitler! His director (the excellent Charles Halton) has only cast him for a small role and is sceptical of his resemblance to the Fuehrer, but one step into the streets of Warsaw tells a very different story. It is this uncanny resemblance that proves to be the troupe's salvation - and the cause of much comedic intrigue.
Greenberg meanwhile, is the wannabe Shylock waiting for the time to come to play his great part - which he does, in ways no-one ever expected. The company stages an arrest of him attempting to assassinate Hitler (the real one), as he defends his Jewish roots:
"What does he want from us? What does he want for Poland? Why? Why? Why? Aren't we human? have we not eyes, have we not hands, organs, senses, dimensions, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, cooled and warmed by the same winter and summer? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? If you wrong us, shall we not revenge!?"
In the process of this staged assassination attempt, the actors playing Nazis sneak onto the German transports and divert from Germany over to jolly old England. Having made their escape, a grateful British nation honours them - and most especially, Joseph Tura - with their wish to stage Shakespeare, and, you guessed it...Hamlet again. Again Tura returns to the stage to five his great soliloquy, but there are handsome servicemen up to the old tricks again...
Scottish farmers Alec Craig and James Finlayson spot a familiar place coming out of the German plane...
"First it was Hess, now HIM!"
To Be Or Not To Be is one of the best ever farces without straying too far out of its real setting. For what Casablanca did to wartime romance, To Be or Not to Be does for wartime comedy. At the time it was greeted by some as being in bad taste, which is understandable. Humour is so often a subjective experience, and I confess to certain lines that give me unease as well as the treatment of Ruman's Colonel Ehrhardt as a comedic buffoon, when the Nazis at the time were far from funny. Subsequent history however, has proven the film's point (as also with Chaplin's The Great Dictator).
Tragically, it was released after its biggest star, Carole Lombard, was killed in a plane crash on the way to meet her husband Clarke Gable. Both Gable and Hollywood took a long time to recover from the loss of one of the all-time great comediennes, but Lubitsch's film is a worthy epitaph to her glory.