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Chaplin and Lubitsch

In response to:

Keaton and Lubitsch from the April 2, 1981 issue

To the Editors:

Dwight Macdonald should not try to argue about the Lubitsch touch [NYR, April 2] unless he has seen the German comedies of this director—which he clearly has not, since to substantiate his claim that Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris influenced Lubitsch he quotes Herman G. Weinberg’s “authoritative” The Lubitsch Touch, and Weinberg on these films is laughably inadequate. Indeed, a reading of Weinberg’s text leaves me uncertain as to whether he saw them; and if he did, his memory is faulty at almost every stage.

Seventeen of Lubitsch’s German films are extant, all but six of them comedies. The historical films may have made Lubitsch’s reputation in the world, but it was made in Germany with a contemporary drama, The Eyes of Mummie Mâ—though since he otherwise specialised in comedy he was clearly recognised by his employers at Ufa as an expert in that field. The earliest surviving film directed by Lubitsch, Shoe Salon Pinkus, made in 1916, is satire rather than slapstick, and there are a number of visual jokes which we recognise as the Lubitsch touch. By the time Lubitsch came to make The Oyster Princess (1919)—foolishly cited by Macdonald as “slapstick” on account of its title—he was an adroit satirist, in this case at the expense of both American big business and marital relations. The plot concerns the daughter of an American tycoon who takes it into her head to wed an impoverished European prince: and as John Gillett wrote in the National Film Theatre programme note, “The plot manoeuvres in and out of the bedrooms are both sly and suggestive.”

I saw all seventeen of those films when the National Film Theatre did a complete Lubitsch retrospective in 1979, and I can assure Mr. Macdonald that not only The Oyster Princess and Die Bergkatze are superior to Chaplin’s comparatively childish A Woman of Paris—so are The Doll (1919), Romeo and Juliet in the Snow (1920), Kohlhiesel’s Daughter (1920) and I Don’t Want to be a Man (1921).

David Shipman

London, England

Dwight Macdonald replies:

So 64 percent of Lubitsch’s German comedies (seven out of eleven) have “The Lubitsch Touch” and 100 percent (thirteen out of thirteen) of his American comedies have it, including The Marriage Circle (1924), Trouble in Paradise (1932), Ninotchka (1939), The Little Shop Around the Corner (1940), and Cluny Brown (1946). (This is assuming, for the sake of argument, that Mr. Shipman is right in his judgments and in his history.)

But he isn’t. I showed his letter to my old friend Herman G. Weinberg, whose book, The Lubitsch Touch, I consider authoritative—without Mr. Shipman’s quotation marks. I quote, with permission, from his reply:

Lubitsch told me that if he had not seen A Woman of Paris (he saw it with Paul Bern, his scenarist for The Marriage Circle) that—after disappointing Mary Pickford with his first American film, Rosita, starring her—he would have returned to Germany.

To René Clair, there were two Lubitsches, one before and one after A Woman of Paris. “This masterpiece of Chaplin,” he said, “created a style which inspired Lubitsch; its imprint can be found on his best comedies.”

In its February 4, 1924, review, The New York Times states: “It is unalloyed bliss to watch The Marriage Circle…. In direction, it is not unlike Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris.” The Times reviewed A Woman of Paris on October 2, 1923, and I suggest that Mr. Shipman, for all his reference to the “comparatively [sic] childish A Woman of Paris, read that review, which concludes, after calling it a masterpiece of sophistication: “This film lives and the more directors emulate Mr. Chaplin, the better it will be for the producing of pictures.”

I hope I have quenched Mr. Shipman’s thirst for ill-founded carping and that the NYR editors will decree à l’Anglais: THIS CORRESPONDENCE MUST NOW CEASE.

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