It was Charlie Chaplin's unerring instinct for social satire that first brought home to Hollywood the comic possibilities of the Nazi philosophy. "To Be Or Not To Be," with the late Carole Lombard, is much in the same vein. Like the "Dictator," it succeeds in making us laugh at the most horrifying reality of our age; like the "Dictator" it applies the vigorous technique of slapstick to the logical absurdities of Nazism; like the "Dictator" it is slightly carried away by good intentions into a lapse of maudlin didacticism, aline to the spirit of the whole.
Fortunately, the lapse in "To Be Or Not To Be" comes close to the beginning--may, in fact, have resulted from padding necessitated by Miss Lombard's untimely death--and does not substantially mar the comic effect of the film.
Plot is secondary in the work of satire and this one, such as it is, revolves around the device of mistaken identies. The choice was a good one, for it borrowed a trick too conducive to humorous situations to have been exhausted by either Shakespeare or Hollywood. By means of it, Jack Benny can play everyone from a Polish actor to Hitler himself; that he remains very much Jack Benny throughout, only enhances the satire.
Perhaps unconsciously, the travesty of "To Be Or Not To Be" is double-edged, poking fun at Hollywood itself. For, while taking over the externals of the immemorial horse-opera, the director substitutes rough burlesque for melodrama, Keystone cops for Gestapo villains. No expose of the stock movie-formula could be more complete; no ridicule more richly deserved.