Readers Write In #501: Classics on YouTube #3 – To Be or Not To Be (1942)

Posted on October 9, 2022


By ​Vijay Ramanathan

Note: YouTube’s vast repository includes a multitude of wonderful movies in many languages – some hidden gems, and some that are hard to find elsewhere. In this series of articles, I will share some of my favorite classic movies freely available on YouTube, along with a brief analysis. The videos are not posted by me, and I do not benefit from anyone viewing them.

Directed by Ernst Lubitsch from a script by Mechior Lengyel and Edwin Justus Mayer, To Be or Not To Be is a cracking satirical comedy that takes aim at Hitler, the Nazis and their invasion of Poland in World War II. Woven in are elements of a rib-tickling screwball comedy, a tense espionage drama, and a nail-biting escape thriller.

Jack Benny is at his hilarious best as Joseph Tura, a star theater actor in Warsaw. Joseph’s penchant for hamming it up is unstoppable, and Benny essays the role perfectly. Carole Lombard delivers one of her finest performances as Joseph’s wife, Maria, who is an equally big stage star, and thus, an object of Joseph’s envy. Joseph is perpetually insecure – about his stardom, his acting skills, and his relationship with Maria. Maria, for her part, is forever trying not to get overshadowed by her husband. Benny and Lombard’s on-screen chemistry elevates this movie several notches. There are a boat-load of laugh-out-loud scenes but the one where an audience member walks out on Joseph during his Hamlet soliloquy takes the cake. Indeed, actors’ vanity and their insecurities are a constant source of comedy in this movie.

Lubitsch deftly handles the shifts between comedy and drama. Nothing feels jarring. The narrative never stalls. There is hardly a gag that’s forced in just for the sake of it. The dramatic and suspenseful scenes have a light touch. It’s a fine balance that Lubitsch maintains wonderfully throughout the film.

Released just a few months after the US entered World War II, To Be or Not To Be is a brave and brilliant satire. Pitch-perfect performances by Benny and Lombard, and Lubitsch’s skillful direction make this movie a must-watch.

You can watch this classic Hollywood movie for free on YouTube at: