Vintage Cable Box: “To Be Or Not To Be, 1983”

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“Listen, if I don’t come back, then I forgive you for anything that happened between you and Lt. Sobinski.  But if I do come back, you’re in a lot of trouble!”

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To Be Or Not To Be, 1983 (Mel Brooks), 20th Century Fox

The story goes that Mel Brooks sought out the widow of Ernst Lubitsch to get her blessing with regard to a remake he wanted to produce for 1941’s Jack Benny classic, To Be Or Not To Be.  Lubitsch’s widow approved, and Brooks chose Alan Johnson (celebrated choreographer of many films including The Producers from 1968 and director of the notorious Brooksfilms flop, Solarbabies) to direct the film.  I can only assume Brooks decided not to direct because he wanted to focus on producing a faithful remake of a film with potentially controversial subject matter, and stay true to the dramatic material. In fact, this movie (and The Twelve Chairs) is as close to drama as Brooks would ever permit.

Brooks (with wife Anne Bancroft) play Frederick and Anna Bronski, reknowned actors (world famous in Poland!) and owners/operators of the Bronski Theater in Warsaw.  Despite warnings of imminent German incursion, Bronski reasons the show must go on; including a politically satirical musical number featuring a buffoonish Hitler (played by Bronski).  The Ministry of Information threatens to shut down his theater if he doesn’t remove the offending material.  Frustrated, he relents.  Meanwhile, Mrs. Bronski conducts a romantic affair with a brash, young Polish Lieutenant Sobinski (Tim Matheson) during Bronski’s center-piece, Highlights From Hamlet, in which he destroys Shakespeare with his hammy performances.

Soon after, the German war machine rolls into Poland.  Sobinski tells Anna he must leave immediately and connect with the Royal Air Force in England.  The Germans shut down Bronki’s theater, confiscate their possessions (including their home), implement gas rationing, and start rounding up dissidents and enemy agents.  The Bronskis reluctantly start hiding Jews in their basement.  Anna’s homosexual dresser, Sasha, opens his modest apartment to the Bronskis.  The brave Sobinski discovers that a respected member of the underground, Professor Selitski (José Ferrer), is a double-agent for the Germans.  Selitski acquires a list of Polish Underground members.  Sobinski is ordered by the British to paratroop back into Poland and kill Selitski.

Anna, in spite of her obvious infidelity, persuades her husband and his troupe of actors to help Sobinski.  First, Bronski must impersonate Colonel Erhardt in order to obtain the list from Selitski.  After Selitski is dispatched and the list is destroyed, Brooks masquerades as Selitski for the benefit of Colonel Erhardt (hilarious scene-stealing Charles Durning) and his bumbling assistant, Schultz (Christopher Lloyd).  Sobinski devises a plan to steal an aircraft and fly the Bronskis, the theater troupe, and all of the Jews (cleverly disguised as clowns) in hiding out of Warsaw to safety in England.

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This is such a fun film I have to admit I enjoyed it much more than the Jack Benny original that inspired it.  Film lovers in my age bracket respond more to Brooks than Benny.  Jack Benny, while a hilarious entertainer, was not in constant rotation on cable television in those days.  Even today (like Ernie Kovacs), it’s difficult to find a good portion of his surviving material.  When I was a kid, Mel Brooks was the king of comedy, and when To Be Or Not To Be debuted on cable, The Movie Channel ran a retrospective of his films.

What impresses me the most about To Be Or Not To Be (above the remake’s requisite respect for the original) is the very thin line the film negotiates between hilarity and pathos.  As an actor, this is Brooks’ strongest performance of all his movies.  In fact, all of the performances (particularly Bancroft) are on equal par.  These are a group of committed and energetic actors giving their all, and putting on a wonderful show.

Our first cable box was a non-descript metal contraption with a rotary dial and unlimited potential (with no brand name – weird).  We flipped it on, and the first thing we noticed was that the reception was crystal-clear; no ghosting, no snow, no fuzzy images.  We had the premium package: HBO, Cinemax, The Movie Channel, MTV, Nickelodeon, CNN, The Disney Channel, and the local network affiliates.  About $25-$30 a month.  Each week (and sometimes twice a week!), “Vintage Cable Box” explores the wonderful world of premium Cable TV of the early eighties. 

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NEW EPISODE! “Corporate Whores … and Press-titutes”

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Recorded March 12, 19, April 17-28, 2016.

With David Lawler, Andrew La Ganke, Eve Kerrigan, Denny Spangler, Bronwyn Knox.

“My Computer” (Prince) by Prince (from the 1996 album, “Emancipation”), “Yo Bill” (David Lawler) by David Lawler with vocals by Alex Saltz, The Dylan Ratigan Show (an American television program on MSNBC hosted by Dylan Ratigan), “Hail To The Chief” (James Sanderson), Fatman On Batman” (a web series hosted by Kevin Smith), “Pope” (Prince) by Prince (from the 1993 album, “The Hits/The B-Sides”), “Purple Rain” (Prince) by Prince and The Revolution, “The Beautiful Ones (Prince) by Prince and The Revolution, “Diamonds and Pearls” (Prince) by Prince and The New Power Generation.

The Vampire Economy

Artwork by Bronwyn Knox.

BONUS PODCAST! “Dance Your Cares Away!”

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Everybody’s scared. I pretend to be brave, but I’m scared as Hell. I do not want the Eagles of Death Metal to perform in these continental United States, at least the lower 48, the contiguous States. I don’t mind if they perform in Hawaii, or Alaska, or all of our subjects, The Virgin Islands, Samoa, Puerto Rico.

Rudy Giuliani recently blamed the creation of Isis, or ISIL, on Barack Obama. His logic is that because, this is his words: “If we had not taken our troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, ISIS never would have emerged,” Giuliani said Monday during an appearance on Fox News.

Americans seem to be extremely confused and don’t know how to handle their anger at these latest tragedies. I went to the good ole Wikipedia and looked up a list of terrorist attacks in the year 2015, and the list was quite extensive, from January 2nd up to now – the day before the attacks in Paris, 43 people died and 240 people were injured in Beirut, and Wikipedia is referring to the aggressors as “Islamic State” (which sounds somewhat generic) or ISIL. There are other terrorist groups, such as Boko Haram, something called Al-Shabaab, Ansar Al-Islam, and many more.

I made a joke the other day on a friend’s post where I said, basically – “Well, if we really wanted to feel safe, we should set up these Syrian refugees in “camps” of a sort … oh … never mind.” People liked the joke, actually, because I was making a point that, perhaps 40 or 50 years ago, our government would’ve had no compunction about taking people we deemed to be enemies, such as the Japanese, relocate them and put them into Interment Camps, right? I don’t care that they’re American citizens when I’m talking about safety and security, okay? If we’re at war, we have to get serious – when the war is over, we’ll buy you a brand new house and a brand new car, but for right now – you’re an enemy by proxy – this is the logic. Enemies-by-proxy. I know you’re good people. I know you wouldn’t kick puppies in the street. I know you don’t beat your children. For years, we heard the stories about how horrible it was, people, wholesale up-ended and taken to places with barbed-wire. Yes, I know it was a tragedy, but now in the wake of these terrorist attacks and what appears to be an influx of Syrian refugees, displaced, looking for greener pastures, I’m not saying I condone the practice, but I understand the logic. People like to lie to themselves and say, “oh our Country would never do that.” Surprise, we did! Look at how we treated alleged Communist sympathizers for 40 years. Not even card-carrying Commies, just people interested in the ideas. Look at what we did to them.

If it gets terrible enough, for this country – we are another 9/11 away from becoming complete out-and-out Nazis, I believe this.

Audio clips:

Dana Andrews from “Twilight Zone” season 4, episode 10, “No Time Like The Past”

Dennis Hopper from “Twilight Zone” season 4, episode 4, “He’s Alive”

Brigitte Gabriel CNS News