Picks and Pans Review: To Be or Not to Be

No; to remake or not to remake, that is the question. Ernst Lubitsch, the Berlin-born director who became a success in Hollywood in the ’20s, first made this film in 1942. Starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard, it was a broad farce about a Polish actor and actress who end up fighting the Nazis. Benny was an underappreciated film comedian, and Lombard was a wry, gorgeous actress who was impossible not to like. There wasn’t anything profound about the movie, but it was funny and possessed the naiveté of many wartime productions. Now Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft have redone the movie, with Tim (Animal House) Matheson in the old Robert Stack role as a heroic Polish pilot and Alan Johnson making his directorial debut. Johnson is best known for staging musical numbers in previous Brooks films (including Springtime for Hitler in The Producers). So it’s not surprising that the highlight of this movie is its opening sequence, in which Brooks and Bancroft do a spiffy vaudeville version of Sweet Georgia Brown, all in Polish. As for the rest, there’s some standard Brooks shtick, a lovely performance by Bancroft, and Charles Durning and José Ferrer playing oafish Nazis. There’s also a nice, if obscure, tribute to Benny: In one scene there’s a “Kubelski St.” (Kubelsky was Benny’s real name). But little has been added to the Lubitsch version. People who haven’t seen the ’42 film should find this one funny enough. Those old enough to remember the war will also remember the days of priorities. They may well ask, “Is this film necessary?” (PG)

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