Despite not being directed or written by Mel Brooks, To Be or Not to Be has all of the flourishes Brooks’ followers expect. Goofy song and dance routines, running slapstick gags, witty one-liners, and Brooks himself in no less than five different roles.
The movie likely would have been green lit with only a single statement: “Mel Brooks plays Hitler.” Even though the famed comedian portrays the Nazi leader for only a few minutes, it is a golden opportunity to leave the film on a high note.
The entire movie concerns a small Polish theater group struggling to infiltrate the recently established Nazi stronghold in Poland to protect the leaders of the Polish underground. Being mere actors, their plan goes completely awry. For every success, for every quick thinking maneuver, another side of their plot completely collapses under its own complexity.
To Be or Not to Be is enormously funny, undoubtedly the work of Brooks’ along with the respect of the 1942 original. There is a softer, serious side, something that would have likely not have worked with Brooks behind the lens. Instead, Alan Johnson handles directorial duties, his first effort after serving as choreographer on The Producers and Blazing Saddles.
This is the first Hollywood effort to show homosexuals being persecuted by the Nazi regime in addition to the Jews, and there is a somber black & white set piece of German soldiers marching down the streets as the theater actors look on. A bombing run early in the film, with air raid sirens blaring, is handled carefully. The humor is saved for the interaction with the Nazis, including Christopher Llyod as a hilariously stiff Nazi officer who doesn’t know much of anything.
Starring alongside his wife Anne Bancroft, Brooks is allowed to focus and flourish in his many roles. He plays an actor who is generally terrible on stage, yet finally finds his rhythm in these high-pressure situations. It is wonderful to watch him work freely without the stress of managing the camera, and it makes To Be or Not to Be one of the better pieces Brooks was ever associated with.
Unfortunately, Fox apparently has little care for the film, releasing it in the Mel Brooks Collection alongside stunning transfers like History of the World Part I. To Be or Not to Be has been given attention, and unfortunately, it is of the processed kind. DNR is a likely culprit here, causing pink flesh tones and an unnatural, digital grain structure, what is left of it. While opening shots simply appear soft, when the camera pans to the crowd and everyone’s face takes on a waxy appearance, something is obviously amiss.
Soft lighting is used, causing blooming that is obviously intentional, not an encode problem. Red push is a small issue, and tends to bring out some minor artifacting. Black levels are fine, typically rich and deep with no noted crush. Definition, even of the environments, is minimal. Bancroft wears various furs throughout the film, and none of them reveals any distinctive strands of hair.
Stock footage used to signal the start of the war is free of any criticisms given where it came from. The source for the movie itself is flawless, sporting no notable damage. Edge enhancement is also not noted. This one will probably never look great, but with the amount of digital tinkering going on here, there is little doubt this should look better.
A DTS-HD effort preserves the musical numbers wonderfully, with a clean level of fidelity. A slight bleed into the surrounds is also a nice touch.
Some surround use is a bit of a surprise, right from the start actually as the audience begins cheering and clapping. The effect is satisfactory. Rain later likewise delivers the same effect. When bombs begin dropping, falling dirt and debris can be heard from all angles.
The stereo channels carry a small amount of separation for a bit of dialogue and door knocking. On that same note, the dialogue does carry a bit of a hollow, aged feel, although it is not offensive or distracting.
Brooks and Bancroft: A Perfect Pair is a 15-minute making-of as surviving cast and crew reminisce about the project. How Serious Can Mel Brooks Really Get? is a short three-minute promo from the ‘80s for the film. Likewise, three interview sections (Brooks, Bancroft, and Charles Durning) are pulled from that same source.
An isolated score is uncompressed (DTS-HD), and a trivia track can run along with the film. Trailers included on other discs in this set remain.