Berlin, Paramount

John Springer Collection/Corbis/Getty Images
Ernst Lubitsch, Gary Cooper, Miriam Hopkins, and Fredric March on the set of Design for Living, 1933

Jean Renoir said of Ernst Lubitsch, “He invented the modern Hollywood.” Orson Welles thought him “a giant…. Lubitsch’s talent and originality are stupefying.” John Ford remarked: “None of us thought we were making anything but entertainment for the moment. Only Ernst Lubitsch knew we were making art.” François Truffaut had his children watch Lubitsch movies so often they knew the lines by heart. A number of his pictures—Trouble in Paradise, Design for Living, Ninotchka, The Shop Around the Corner, To Be or Not to Be—are firmly enshrined in the canon of classical American cinema. Yet despite the veneration for Lubitsch of fellow directors and cinephiles, Joseph McBride feels that “Lubitsch’s name has largely been forgotten” and his reputation is sadly in need of recuperation. McBride, one of our foremost film historians, the author of solid, well-informed books on Welles, Ford, Frank Capra, and Steven Spielberg, has taken up the cudgels for his favorite master of sophisticated comedy.

Not that there doesn’t already exist a body of strong writing about the filmmaker, including James Harvey’s dazzling Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, from Lubitsch to Sturges (1987), Scott Eyman’s superb biography, Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise (1993), and William Paul’s thoughtful Ernst Lubitsch’s American Comedy (1983). But these books are all over twenty-five years old. McBride has set out to write not a biography (no need for that, since Eyman’s is so satisfying) but an in-depth “essayistic investigation” of the entire oeuvre:

What has been lacking until this critical study has been a sustained, systematic, fully integrated overview of both Lubitsch’s German and American work. Without seeing his career as a single, unified whole, it cannot be fully understood or appreciated.

His commentary on the recently restored silent German films, many of which are now available on YouTube and DVD, is especially pertinent.

Lubitsch was born in 1892 and grew up in Berlin. His father, a Russian Jewish émigré, ran a tailoring establishment specializing in coats for large women. He was something of a dandy and ladies’ man (a prototype, perhaps, of the filmmaker’s many philanderers), and left most of the day-to-day operations of the business to Lubitsch’s practical mother. Young Ernst, an indifferent student, was enthralled by acting and managed to join the troupe of the great theatrical director Max Reinhardt, who cast him in minor roles—a source of frustration, though he picked up technique and aesthetics by observing Reinhardt.

He also began acting in his own short comic films, such as Meyer from Berlin (1919) and Shoe Pinkus Palace (1916), often playing a clumsy go-getting shop boy named “Sally,” which drew on his family background in retail. While Lubitsch’s parents were secular, assimilated Jews, his onscreen persona read as blatantly Jewish. It was ethnic comedy, a…

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