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Keaton and Lubitsch

In response to:

Vote for Keaton from the October 9, 1980 issue

To the Editors:

Since Dwight Macdonald has always been one of the best-informed and most stimulating writers on film, it gives me no pleasure to correct him—his essay on Buster Keaton [NYR, October 9]—on the matter of Chaplin’s influence on Lubitsch.

The Lubitsch touch” predates A Woman of Paris by several years, being freely available in the contemporary satirical comedies, often on marital themes, with which Lubitsch made his reputation in Germany. Even after he became internationally famous because of his historical epics, he made Die Bergkatze, a dazzlingly witty satire on military ethics. Since that was not a subject likely to appeal in Germany at the time, it was not popular and hence not shown abroad. When Lubitsch arrived in Hollywood he was known solely as a director of historical films: what is possible is that after seeing Chaplin’s film he decided to return to the genre in which he was happiest—but since only four months separate the release dates of A Woman of Paris and The Marriage Circle, it is probable that the latter was already in the planning stage. If Lubitsch never contradicted the view that he was influenced by Chaplin, it could be that he was one of those mentioned by Mr. Macdonald as being in awe of his reputation.

Incidentally, in this country Keaton’s superiority over Chaplin has been accepted by critics and audiences (Chaplin no longer draws full houses; Keaton does) for at least ten years. One reason, not mentioned by Mr. Macdonald, as I point out in my forthcoming cinema history, is that Keaton utilized both the limitations of silence and the spacial qualities available to the camera, whereas Chaplin understood neither.

David Shipman

London, England

Dwight Macdonald replies:

I agree that Lubitsch directed many comedies before he migrated to Hollywood in 1922 but not that a) they “made his reputation in Germany,” or b) that “the Lubitsch touch” predated A Woman of Paris, or c) that “after seeing Chaplin’s film he decided to return to the genre in which he was happiest,” or d) that Lubitsch’s The Marriage Circle “was already in the planning stage” when he saw A Woman of Paris.

According to Herman G. Weinberg’s authoritative The Lubitsch Touch: A Critical Study (Dover, 1977), Lubitsch directed thirty-two comedies in the years 1914-1922.

a) But such reputation as these comedies made for him was not because of any “Lubitsch touch.” In 1914-1917 they were all one-reelers with titles like Miss Soapsuds, His New Nose, and The Mixed Ladies Chorus. Weinberg describes them as “slapstick.” They grew longer in 1918-1920 but the titles remained, one might say, untouched: The Oyster Princess, The Toboggan Cavalier. Mr. Shipman’s Die Bergkatze (1921) does indeed sound touched: “This antimilitarist satire was a favorite of H.L. Mencken,” Weinberg writes. But by then Lubitsch’s reputation had already been made, in Germany and the world, with a series of historical dramas starring Pola Negri that began with Carmen in 1918 and climaxed with Passion (Madame Dubarry in Germany) in 1919 and Deception (Anna Boleyn) the following year. Weinberg describes Passion as a movie “which not only established the German film industry as a world contender and inaugurated the glory of Ufa but also consolidated the reputation of Lubitsch as the foremost European director of the period. [It was] the first important foreign film shown in the US.”

b) If the above isn’t persuasive as to the dating of the Lubitsch touch, perhaps Mr. Weinberg’s comments on page 60 will be:

To Eisenstein, A Woman of Paris was the most remarkable production of the movies up to that time…significant in its power to stimulate.

And so, Lubitsch, enraptured with the psychological subtleties and economy of statement with which Chaplin made out of a little story a landmark film, followed the dictum of Emerson: “The best proof of artistic reverence is emulation.”

Although making no attempt to recapture the gray melancholy of Chaplin’s incisive film, he learned from it how to utilize in comedy the allusive art of nuances and subtle indications. In The Marriage Circle Lubitsch subtracted irrelevancies from the field of vision, as Chaplin had done, and presented his characters in the light of clear day. Whereas Chaplin had made a drama with glints of comedy, Lubitsch now made a comedy with glints of drama.

In short, Lubitsch had found his touch.

c) Lubitsch wasn’t inspired by Chaplin’s film “to return to the genre in which he was happiest” because, as noted above, this would have been not the slapstick farces but the historical dramas in which he had made his big breakthrough in 1918. Indeed, he went to Hollywood because Mary Pickford wanted him to direct her in such a film. After rejecting Dorothy Vernon of Haddon Hall (her choice) and Faust (his), they compromised on Rosita (1923), a picturesque Empire period affair with Spanish atmosphere. Though America’s sweetheart didn’t much take to Lubitsch—“He’s a director of doors!” she exclaimed, unsweetly. “Nothing interests him but doors!”—Rosita was a big hit at the box office. So, if he hadn’t seen A Woman of Paris, the genre to which Lubitsch would have “returned” would have been “serious” drama. Luckily he did see Chaplin’s film and was diverted onto a new track on which he made the comedies by which he is remembered today.

d) Mr. Shipman argues finally—a little desperately, one imagines—that “since only four months separate the release dates of A Woman of Paris and The Marriage Circle, it is probable that the latter was already in the planning stage.” But four months was then Lubitsch’s average production time. In 1924 he released three films: The Marriage Circle (February 3), Three Women (October 5), and Forbidden Paradise (November 16).

I’m pleased to learn that in England “Keaton’s superiority has been accepted by critics and audiences…for at least ten years.” Both intrinsically and because it supports my sad conclusion that Keaton was an artist not without honor save in his own country.

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