One of my fondest delusions--that Mel Brooks was bound to be funny when the subject of Adolf Hitler came up--has been shattered by "To Be or Not to Be," which opens today at area theaters. After all, there was "Springtime for Hitler" at the center of Brooks' "The Producers" and the "Hitler on Ice" preview at the end of "History of the World, Part I," not to mention 25 years or so of scattered, ad-lib ridicule as a monologuist or talk-show guest. But the film only succeeds in establishing a remarkable new low in remakes.
Brooks might have brought a special comic flavor to Ernst Lubitsch's remarkably capricious romantic farce. It concerns a Warsaw theater company in occupied Poland that conspires to foil a Nazi collaborator and then flees the country under the gullible noses of buffoons from the Gestapo. In fact, the script's blithely disdainful treatment of the Nazis was considered a strike against it by a number of critics at the time. One line in particular, preserved in the remake, was frequently deplored for being tasteless and insensitive: the hero, a vain actor obliged to assume the identity of a collaborator, must endure the criticism of a Gestapo officer who remarks that what he does to Shakespeare is similar to what the Germans have done to Poland.
"To Be or Not to Be" doesn't cry out for reenactment, but if you're rash enough to tamper with the original, it becomes necessary to take a few things into consideration, like the passage of 40 years and the differences in comedy styles between Jack Benny and Mel Brooks, and revamp accordingly. Oblivious on both scores, Brooks embarks on an unnecessary remake and then fails to tailor the material adequately to a 1980s perspective or his own performing strengths.
Indeed, he's scarcely bothered to tailor it at all. The credited screenwriters, Thomas Meehan and Ronny Graham (who also has a bit role as a stage manager named Sondheim, setting up the updated groaner "Sondheim, send in the clowns!"), contribute some perfunctory embellishments to the text, but by and large the Brooks "To Be or Not to Be" is a verbatim reenactment of the Edwin Justus Mayer screenplay that Lubitsch shot in 1942. Indeed, it seems shameful not to credit Mayer as the principal writer on the remake, because he must be responsible for about 90 percent of the scenes played and words spoken, estimating conservatively.
Brooks and Anne Bancroft assume the roles originated by Benny and Carole Lombard (it was her last film, and her tragic death gave the 1942 release an extra undercurrent of grimness). The names have changed from Josef and Maria Tura to Frederick and Anna Bronski, but they're the identical characters: a popular theatrical couple whose marital discontents--Maria/Anna is encouraging a dashing young suitor, a Polish air force pilot played by Robert Stack in the original and Tim Matheson in the remake--are transcended by patriotic duty and life-or-death peril.
Brooks and Bancroft have an amusing entrance, performing a gibberish-Polish rendition of "Sweet Georgia Brown," but once they segue into English, it's all downhill. Bancroft, looking cheerful and flirty, contributes an acceptable reprise of the Lombard role, but Brooks is left desperately exposed, blustering and floundering in a role which, incredibly, hasn't been adapted from Benny's low, deadpan key into Brooks' high, hysteric key.
I've never seen Brooks at such a loss for a performance. It's as if the filmmakers didn't have time to make any changes in the original. In fact, the director, Alan Johnson, a Brooks associate who choreographed production numbers ("Springtime for Hitler" included) in his earlier movies, seems to have been under orders to imitate every camera set-up in the Lubitsch picture. It's a strange way to make your film-directing debut, and what results is a klunky, tacky-looking color reproduction of the original.
Still, maybe it would have been worse if Meehan and Graham had invented a bundle of new stuff. That "Sondheim" gag isn't exactly sparkling, and neither is a line like, "Let's face it--without Jews, fags and gypsies, there would be no theater!" The only new character is James Haake as Bancroft's dresser, Sasha, an ostentatiously effeminate gawk exploited for gay jokes on one hand and bogus anxiety on the other, since he's threatened with official persecution. These hypocritical uses merge when Sasha, referring to the pink patch that identifies him as a homosexual, remarks, "I hate it! It clashes with everything!"
A few supporting players provide fleeting consolations, notably Charles Durning as the Gestapo colonel (such a preposterous switch on Sig Rumann's original that you simply acquiesce in the silliness); Christopher Lloyd as his henchman; George Gaynes (the TV actor who pursued Dustin Hoffman's Tootsie) as a commanding member of the acting troupe; and Estelle Reiner as a droll wardrobe mistress. In fact, there's a pretty funny cast squandered in the course of this calamity. No telling what they might have done if the boss had found something suitable.