5 June 2009 | bkoganbing
The Lubitsch Touch Or The Brooks Touch
Rather than a satire of a film classic like Frankenstein or a genre of films like the western was done in Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks chose for the one and only time to do a remake of an already very funny film with the classic To Be Or Not To Be. 40 years later the Brooks remake has lost none of the laughs from the original, in fact Brooks could now talk about things unmentionable when Hollywood was under the Code.
The 1942 original film that starred Jack Benny, Carole Lombard, and Robert Stack in the roles that Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft, and Tim Matheson play here, was a sophisticated comedy that was not well received when first out, many thought the Nazis were no subject to joke about during wartime. Over time it gained acceptance as yet another of the masterpieces that Ernest Lubitsch did over his career. It may have been Jack Benny's best big screen performance. It was also Carole Lombard's farewell performance.
Benny's comedy was droll, Brooks's humor hits you with a sledgehammer. Still the different approach works out in this remake. Anne Bancroft is more than a good substitute for Carole Lombard, in fact she's as funny in this as Lombard ever was on the screen.
Many years ago one of my supervisors knew Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft and he told us at work that her image as a great dramatic actress, whose two career roles are in The Graduate and The Miracle Worker was a total fabrication. Mel Brooks he said was as zany a man in private as he was in film. But he also said that Bancroft was even zanier than he was and had few times to display that in public. In that sense the two were a perfectly matched couple. My supervisor said he lived in the same building as they did in Greenwich Village and got to know both of them.
Mel Brooks got to show the effect of the Holocaust to come on gays in one of the first films to acknowledge that publicly. One of the touching performances in the supporting cast is by James Haake as Sascha the dresser for Bancroft who gets a one way ticket to a concentration camp, but the trip gets put on hold permanently by his friends in the theater. Charles Durning also does well as Gestapo head in Warsaw who gets constantly bamboozled almost like World War II era film Nazis by Brooks's ingenuity and his theater troupe who give the best performances of their lives. And we can't forget Jose Ferrer adding yet another ethnic group to his repertoire as the Polish traitor Siletsky.
If you're not a fan of Mel Brooks you will become one after you see any of his films. And this review is dedicated to the late Robert Peregoff, one of my supervisors at work who provided me the insights I got into the Brooks-Bancroft screen and life partnership.