One of the funniest movies of all time is on television tonight: Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 “To Be or Not to Be,” starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard as a theatrical couple in Nazi-occupied Poland who use their acting skills on behalf of the Resistance. Benny is the hammiest Hamlet ever to wear tights, and Lombard is absolutely delicious as his straying wife. (TCM, 8 p.m.)
There’s more meaning in the title than a steal from Shakespeare, as the actors recognize the menace and choose to “take arms against a sea of troubles” – the Nazis. And those arms are all the tools of their craft. It’s a tutorial on the theater itself, an all-around delight, and as powerful – in its Lubitschian way – as any piece of anti-Nazi propaganda.
Mel Brooks remade the film in 1983, with himself and Anne Bancroft in the starring roles. Brooks is O.K., but he’s no Jack Benny. Meanwhile, the Big Lipowsky prefers the Brooks version – but what does he know?