Three Screen Comedies
Ernst Lubitsch’s American Comedy
To Be or Not to Be
Ernst Lubitsch was the most American of European directors—and the most European of American ones. Like so many Hollywood tycoons, Lubitsch saw the movies as a good opportunity to make money. Like the European film makers, he saw them as an art form and, though he did not write scripts, was distinctive and dominating enough to deserve the title of auteur. (Samson Raphaelson, the scenarist of most of Lubitsch’s best films, said that he “roused [writers] to outdo themselves, and at the same time contributed on every level and in ways that I cannot measure or define.”)1
Lubitsch, the son of a prosperous Berlin tailor, began by performing in cabarets at night while working as a bookkeeper in his father’s clothing store by day. By 1913 he was playing a Jewish character called Meyer in a series of popular film comedies, and he soon became a director. But the patent “Lubitsch film” really came into being when he left his European career behind (he had made low comedies, domestic tragedies, satires, historical dramas, and Egyptian spectacles) and went to Hollywood in 1922. With The Marriage Circle the next year, he started his cycle of worldly sex comedies, those jazz operettas that combined European culture and charm with American impertinence and speed. Almost all of them are set in Paris or Vienna or some mythical Anthony Hope-type kingdom in which the princesses are keen on the latest gadgets and the cutest boys. (Lubitsch’s most sexually aggressive and most up-to-date heroine, the eighteenth-century czarina—based on Catherine the Great—of Forbidden Paradise, bobs her hair and rides off in a fancy motorcar.) “If you don’t let me marry [the man I love],” Princess Anna threatens her father in The Smiling Lieutenant, “I’ll marry an American!” Shock. Horror. Capitulation. But the joke is, of course, on the pompous king, and the man she marries (Maurice Chevalier, who starred in four of Lubitsch’s five musicals) might as well be an American, he’s so hearty and brisk. At the beginning of Trouble in Paradise, the countess tells the baron, “You know, when I first saw you, I thought you were an American,” and, immensely flattered, he says, “Thank you!”
Many of the pictures about love and sex that Lubitsch made in the Thirties start well after other Hollywood films end up, when the play of courtship has been succeeded by the hard work of marriage, and the principals are beginning to fidget and look around. Fickle husbands, restless wives, and yearning lovers are teased for their weaknesses, but with tender complicity. As Pauline Kael says in her graceful introduction to the scripts collected in Raphaelson’s Three Screen Comedies, “The cynicism about love isn’t disillusioning—the cynicism intensifies the lovers’ feelings of helplessness.”
Lubitsch’s characters can do anything but be ordinary. They’re the royalty of lovers, teasing and extravagant in their courtship. The celestial Trouble in Paradise begins with two love-struck pickpockets lifting objects from each other at the supper table, a combination strip-poker game and contest of supernatural skill (Miriam Hopkins hands Herbert Marshall his watch, saying sweetly, “It was five minutes slow, but I regulated it for you”). In Heaven Can Wait, a young man asks his cousin’s fiancée to elope with him: “When Romeo and Juliet ran away from home, they didn’t stop to say goodbye. When Leander swam the Hellespont to his beloved, he didn’t bother with a suitcase. When Tristan falls in love with Isolde, they have to sing for three and a half hours. All I ask you to do is hop into a cab.” When she hesitates, he literally carries her off, in front of a family-stuffed drawing room.
Even the servants of these witty people love the beau geste, even when there is no one to see it. At the opening of The Love Parade, Maurice Chevalier’s valet lays the table for a champagne supper (there are a lot of them in these movies); as he does, he sings a peppy little song about the delights of the evening to come; and on the last “La-la!” does the magician’s trick of whipping the cloth away. Servants and masters, nobility and upstarts coexist in an aristocracy of merit. The suave pickpocket of Trouble in Paradise, indignant at his rich employer’s refusal to denounce the chairman of the board as an embezzler, bursts out: “I see! You have to be in the social register to keep out of jail. But when a man starts at the bottom and works his way up—a selfmade crook—then you say, ‘Call the police!’ ”
Lubitsch’s ironic tone is most audible in his musicals. In the conventional American musical comedy, characters exuberantly break into song and dance to express feelings so strong they can’t speak prose or sit still. The traditional duet symbolizes a romantic’s fondest dream—my lover knows the melody in my heart! But Lubitsch uses songs—the leads don’t dance, except in a ballroom—to maintain distance and to comment on the action. In his intimate chamber musicals, the characters often talk their songs, giving them the formal, precise quality of rhymed dialogue rather than an outburst of soul. Far from being swept away by emotion, Chevalier will turn to the camera to demand, “What Would You Do (in a case like that)?” or to complain, “Nobody’s Using It Now.” The most ardent love song of Monte Carlo ends with Jeanette MacDonald wriggling ecstatically among her satin pillows while Jack Buchanan, whom she despises but whose voice she doesn’t recognize, serenades her on the telephone.
Reading a screenplay is generally about as satisfying as looking at a pretty girl’s X-ray, but the Samson Raphaelson scripts in Three Screen Comedies (Trouble in Paradise, The Shop Around the Corner, and Heaven Can Wait) made me laugh and smile more than a lot of movies do (of course, that may be because I’m unreeling the films in my mind as I read). The screenplays let us appreciate Raphaelson’s wit at leisure, and also give evidence of Lubitsch’s ruthless judgment—several lines and scenes are left in that he cut from the finished versions, and none of these is necessary to the plot or very funny.
The best thing in the book, though, is “Freundschaft,” Raphaelson’s memoir of his years with Lubitsch. It casts Lubitsch as the sort of character actor one would expect from the films and from his photographs (a short, stocky man with wild, dark hair, always gesturing emphatically with his cigar or framing it in a mischievous grin). He was as lacking in pretension as “a king or a peasant,” Raphaelson says, and adds, “I could not conceive of a beautiful woman in her right mind hesitating if she had to choose between, for instance, Gable and Lubitsch.”
On the last day he spent with Lubitsch, Raphaelson must have felt that he’d dropped through a rabbit hole in one of his own scripts. Four years earlier, in 1943, when Lubitsch had had a heart attack and was thought to be dying, Raphaelson had written a brief, emotional tribute. Now, as he said goodbye, Lubitsch told him brusquely that he had been shown the premature obituary and “I liked what you wrote, Sam. I really appreciated it.” Raphaelson was horrified that his hurriedly written piece had been seen by his most exacting critic.
This from the man who, time and again, through the years, when I had drudged over a scene and he had read it, would say, “Sure it’s good. But good isn’t enough—you know that. For us, it has to be terrific.” And here he “liked,” he “appreciated.” It was sinister. It was ironical. The man hated me.
“It’s only the first draft!” the poor writer cried, and as the two faced each other warily, the same thought occurred to each of them: We can polish it!
They spent the next few hours arguing, rewriting, expostulating as Lubitsch played with his fantastic present—the right to edit his obituary. And then—for although the scene could have come from one of his films, Lubitsch was not, in fact, one of his maniacal comic characters—he graciously refused it. As Raphaelson said goodbye once more, Lubitsch conceded that the first draft had a spontaneity and sincerity that the final one lacked, and ended by talking the dazed writer into going back to the original (“Promise me, Sam, that you won’t change a single word“). A few months later, Raphaelson did publish the article and, true to his promise, changed nothing, not even the last sentence: “I am sorry I was never able to say some of this to him while he was alive.” The collaboration ended on a terrific note after all, one that even Lubitsch, in his long career, had never struck: a joke between the quick and the dead.
“We, in Hollywood, acquire the finest novels in order to smell their leather bindings,” Lubitsch said once. William Paul, who teaches film at MIT, has written an earnest, meticulous book dedicated to proving that Lubitsch’s work is “profoundly meaningful,” but it gives off less of the lovely smell of art than the musty odor of books written for tenure. Its few insights could have been compressed into a much more readable monograph, and its study of several charming movies is continually undermined by the plonking prose. “I must necessarily consider the various contexts, historical and contemporary [tragical-comical-pastoral], in which each film appeared,” Professor Paul announces, tapping his pointer, and continuing in this sober style until he decides to lighten the classroom with a little joke that shows how well he understands American slang (one character is described as a “critic whose interest in his subjects” literary output is surpassed by his interest in how much they put out sexually”).
Lubitsch made twenty-seven films in his twenty-three years in America (I’m counting Desire, which he produced, but did not direct, and not counting That Lady in Ermine, which he began while dispirited and sick—he died eight days into the shooting), but the adjective in Paul’s title really means “Americanized“—more straightforward, earthbound, and sincere. In the nine late films Paul analyzes. Lubitsch adapted his content and his tone to the concerns of the Thirties, a period when the world had not been made safe for flippancy. (Before the Depression, Lubitsch once said, he could have a rich hero who didn’t work and no one would take notice. After it, that fact became the most important thing about him.) Now characters moved out of the bedroom and ballroom and drawing room into the real world—indeed, the real world often reached in and clawed them out. Professor Belinski does not stay on at the English country house in Cluny Brown in order to seduce the prettiest guest (that’s just to make the time pass pleasantly); he’s a penniless Czech refugee with nowhere to go. The Polish actors of To Be or Not to Be have their season disrupted by the suppression of an anti-Nazi play and, later, by the invasion of Warsaw (shown in newsreel footage). And in Ninotchka the Soviet government sends Comrade Greta Garbo on a mission to Paris, where she falls in love, behaves indiscreetly, and in order to secure “bread for our people,” must renounce her lover and return to Moscow. In that movie’s pivotal scene, a tipsy Garbo, radiant in a gown of chiffon clouds, begs an imaginary audience, “Comrades! People of the world! The revolution is on the march, I know. Wars will wash over us, bombs will fall, all civilization will crumble. But not yet. Please, wait, wait. What’s the hurry? Let us be happy. Give us our moment.” (Poignant as that speech is, I think a more painful moment occurs when Garbo’s titled lover, infected with her egalitarian spirit, jovially asks his butler if he’d like to share the wealth. The outraged servant, reminding the count that he hasn’t been paid in two months, says, “The thought that I should split my bank account with you, that you should take half of my life’s savings—that is really too much for me.” The scene is played for comedy, but I remember wincing at that awful, unexpected, specific “life’s savings.”)
With The Shop Around the Corner (1940), Lubitsch for the first time made a comedy about people with more serious problems than finding love and happiness. The workers in the Budapest leather-goods shop realize how lucky they are to have jobs at all: an unemployed girl comes in, practically jumping out of her skin with desperation, and is hired only because she accidentally gratifies a whim of the boss’s; a clerk with a sick wife says, “I’m afraid of the boss. I’m afraid of the grocer, of the butcher—of the doctor.”
In this world, as Paul points out, the ironist is no longer expressing amused superiority but commenting on his own powerlessness. “The other day [the boss] called me an idiot,” says the frightened clerk. “What could I do? So I said, ‘Yes, Mr. Matuschek, I’m an idiot’—I’m no fool!” And adultery is not just a dance or a game. When Mr. Matuschek finds out that his wife is having an affair, he mutters, “Twenty-two years I was proud of my wife. Well—she didn’t want to grow old with me,” and puts a gun to his head. The Shop is, however, one of Lubitsch’s funniest movies, not because of clever lines or plot mechanics, but because of its loving attention to character. With its warmth and fatalism, it’s his most Jewish film as well.
The Shop Around the Corner plays much better than it reads—which is not a criticism of Raphaelson’s wit, but an indication of his restraint. Trouble in Paradise and Heaven Can Wait could have been acted by almost anybody—and the latter was, though Lubitsch’s skill carried it off (James Agee wrote that he could hardly believe it, but the movie had good performances by Gene Tierney and Don Ameche). The Shop’s dialogue is much more naturalistic, leaving room for the shadings of such fine actors as Felix Bressart, who takes out his wallet as if it were a holy relic and tells another clerk in the shop, “On one side I put my wife’s picture, and on the other side my baby. And when I open it, it says [Bressart becomes an infant saying its first word], ‘Papa.’ ”
Indeed, the actors in Shop are so attractive and talented that they make what might have been a depressing story passionate and optimistic. Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart are two clerks who loathe each other at work, but, unknowingly, are in love. (They have been writing each other very idealistic anonymous letters since she placed an ad for correspondence from a cultured young man.) At the end of a violent quarrel, Sullavan spits out a final insult at Stewart—“You little, insignificant clerk!” An ordinary actress, perky and fussy, would have given us no more than the surface irony of that remark, and made us regard her with fond patronage. But Sullavan puts so much intensity into the line that she makes us feel that a girl with such hatred of her position in life must be superior to it. She isn’t a silly little poseur; she’s a dispossessed princess. Similarly, Stewart brings his gently overpowering sweetness and authority to the role of the clerk who wants to improve himself by purchasing a second-hand encyclopedia.
Paul says that the ending of the film represents the couple’s denial of ambition, “a clear sense of loss to the extent that they have both accepted a future as little, insignificant clerks.” This would be so if the leads were played by people who look and talk like people who work in shops, but, as it is, it merely signals the lifting of whatever spell prevented James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan from seeing that the other was in the room. He’s going to have the love of a beautiful, sensitive, determined woman, and she’s marrying the future head of the Budapest Macy’s. A democratic, if deflating, idea has been turned, by force of personality, into another elitist triumph.
Casting also undermines the material of To Be or Not to Be, Lubitsch’s satire portraying Nazis as bad actors and actors as self-aggrandizing Fascists (it contains the notorious line, delivered by a Nazi colonel, “What he did to Shakespeare we are now doing to Poland”).2 Paul calls the male lead “an alazon who could nevertheless stand outside his character and play the eiron” (Jack Benny?). The role of a vain, foolish actor who could nevertheless play the part of a hero needed a flamboyant John Barrymore or Peter O’Toole type, not the prissy, stodgy Benny, who could play an egotist but never a ham. (For all his historical-contemporary analyzing, Paul never tells us if a movie or performance is any good.) To Be or Not to Be has some marvelous things in it (it’s based on a story by Lubitsch and the playwright Melchior Lengyel), but it’s a sluggish, lumpy film, defeated by the miscast Benny and the shrill Carole Lombard. Nor is the script on the level of the work Lubitsch got from Raphaelson or from Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder; he wasn’t able to make more than a nice little pigskin purse out of Edwin Justus Mayer, the author of They Met in Bombay and Masquerade in Mexico.
Still, the combination of naiveté irony, and fear that produced To Be or Not to Be is wholly missed in Mel Brooks’s current remake. A serious comedy about Nazis is probably impossible today—our knowledge of the extent of German atrocities makes a comedian’s revenge seem hopelessly inadequate. At the same time, a convention has arisen of using Nazis as toothless, helium-filled figures of fun—readily identifiable villains, with the swastika and “Heil Hitler” salute taking the place of the handlebar moustache. There no longer exists the middle ground where Lubitsch’s movie was set, with its disconcerting shadings of farce into tragedy, stage blood into genuine gore.
Brooks, who has mined the comic-Nazi genre before (in The Producers), demonstrates the Hollywood talent for discerning whatever quality made a work original and valuable and removing it. Lubitsch’s point about actors and Nazis as two sorts of blinkered monomaniacs (indifferently executed, but definitely there) has disappeared; actors and Nazis are now just two sorts of blundering clowns. Charles Durning, as a Gestapo officer, is a slobbering buffoon, and Jose Ferrer is about as menacing as Clifton Fadiman. As the theatrical couple, Brooks and Anne Bancroft are no longer shrieking narcissists, just a zany, squabbling, basically good-natured middle-aged couple. (Bancroft, particularly, acts her rapacious prima donna part with no conviction, so broad in her seduction scenes that she’s practically telegraphing, “I’m just kidding—you know I love my husband.”) Without any passion, whether for hogging the limelight or for exterminating Jews, the movie lollops along, in an atmosphere of flabby self-congratulation that couldn’t be farther from Lubitsch’s discipline and bounce (lots of reaction shots of Brooks’s delighted audiences, two pointless musical numbers so that Brooks can play Fred Astaire).3
Paul works too hard to shoehorn Lubitsch’s films into his thesis. I don’t think Ninotchka ends with a blackout joke (three commissars defect to open a restaurant and one pickets the other two) because “the public world…and especially the capitalist public world of private enterprise, continues in a conflict that makes the social resolution between the two lovers all the more provisional.” Lubitsch obviously wanted to end on an upbeat, funny note—he could have done it with a song in a musical—and had to do it with the character actors because the leads were tenderly embracing. As for the joke’s meaning, rather than its intention, Paul’s reading still doesn’t wash: the three low-comedy Russians don’t inhabit the same world as the divine Greta Garbo. But as Paul shows us, there was much more to Lubitsch than feathers and winks and champagne. Few comic artists have ever made the transition so well from being made in a sane world to sane in a mad one.
Like Jules Feiffer's heroine, Lubitsch liked strong men he could mold. The rowdy Ben Hecht and the savagely cynical Billy Wilder, among others, turned out sprightly, endearing comedies for him. He filmed Lady Windermere's Fan without using a single Wilde epigram, and when he reworked Design for Living, only one line of Noel Coward's was left ("For the good of our immortal souls!").↩
In retrospect, this line is far less shocking than the one given to Comrade Ninotchka, whom we're supposed to regard as a sympathetic character, a nice girl who just needs to learn not to be so serious: "The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians."↩
There is one shocking act in this remake—in the credits. Thomas Meehan and Ronny Graham are named as script-writers in the pre-film titles, though just about all they have added are a few silly anachronisms and, to please the Cage aux Folles crowd, a screaming-queen dresser in a flowered kimono. The names of Lubitsch, Mayer, and the playwright Melchior Lengyel, who wrote the original story with Lubitsch, appear at the end, in tiny print, among the chorus girls and the people who went out for coffee. (To add insult to insult, Lengyel's name is spelled "Melchoir.") You don't, it seems, need German bayonets to eliminate Jews—only Hollywood money.↩
That Uncertain Feeling May 31, 1984
Like Jules Feiffer’s heroine, Lubitsch liked strong men he could mold. The rowdy Ben Hecht and the savagely cynical Billy Wilder, among others, turned out sprightly, endearing comedies for him. He filmed Lady Windermere’s Fan without using a single Wilde epigram, and when he reworked Design for Living, only one line of Noel Coward’s was left (“For the good of our immortal souls!”).↩
In retrospect, this line is far less shocking than the one given to Comrade Ninotchka, whom we’re supposed to regard as a sympathetic character, a nice girl who just needs to learn not to be so serious: “The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.”↩
There is one shocking act in this remake—in the credits. Thomas Meehan and Ronny Graham are named as script-writers in the pre-film titles, though just about all they have added are a few silly anachronisms and, to please the Cage aux Folles crowd, a screaming-queen dresser in a flowered kimono. The names of Lubitsch, Mayer, and the playwright Melchior Lengyel, who wrote the original story with Lubitsch, appear at the end, in tiny print, among the chorus girls and the people who went out for coffee. (To add insult to insult, Lengyel’s name is spelled “Melchoir.”) You don’t, it seems, need German bayonets to eliminate Jews—only Hollywood money.↩