With the solid farcical underpinning of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 To Be or Not to Be, Mel Brooks’ glossy remake of the original Carole Lombard-Jack Benny starrer is very funny stuff indeed.
Maintaining some of the dramatic core of the original, but played mostly for Brooks-style laughs, the convoluted tale of a Warsaw theatrical troupe that winds up saving the Polish underground during the Nazi occupation does have some potential hurdles to clear. Cute Nazis and roly-poly Gestapo officers hardly have universal lure.
Brooks sustains, with varying success, a full-fledged role as Frederick Bronski, vainglorious head of a tawdry theatrical company whose shows run the spectrum from cheap vaudeville turns to Highlights from Hamlet. Mainstay of the film is a superbly sustained comic performance by Anne Bancroft, as Bronski’s wife, in the real-life Brooks couple’s first tandem co-starring acting job.
Charles Durning is a standout as the buffoonish Gestapo topper and Bancroft’s pseudo-seduction of him, and Nazi hireling Jose Ferrer, are among the pic’s highpoints. Bancroft’s sustained delights are not matched by Brooks, who seems to be trying too hard.
1983: Nomination: Best Supp. Actor (Charles Durning)