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.”)
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 …
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That Uncertain Feeling May 31, 1984