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 staple at the time, though McBride worries at length whether Lubitsch might have been inadvertently feeding anti-Semitic sentiment. I doubt it—certainly no more than Jerry Lewis, Mel Brooks, or Woody Allen did. If you can overcome Lubitsch’s outrageous facial mugging in the broadest silent film manner, these comedies centering around a lusty schlemiel are actually quite fun.
Having become a popular screen presence in Germany, if not quite a star, Lubitsch was at the same time directing movies with other actors. There was the risqué cross-dressing comedy I Don’t Want to Be a Man (1918); the deliriously zany The Wildcat (1921), with its frame adjustments in every geometric configuration; The Doll (1919), in which a young girl pretends to be one to offset the fears of a leery bachelor; Kohlhiesel’s Daughters (1920), a delightful tale in the snow about two sisters, a plain, hard-working one and a pretty, frivolous one (both played by the same actress); and most accomplished of all, The Oyster Princess (1919), revolving around an American millionaire’s daughter who is intent on marriage.
You can see Lubitsch trying out in these films every stylistic camera flourish (getting them out of his system, as it were), as well as employing motifs and plot devices he would incorporate in later films. The Doll, for instance, opens with the director himself putting together, like a magician assembling his props, a cardboard set that will dissolve into a life-size replica—a forerunner of his meta-gestures of actors conversing with the audience (like Maurice Chevalier addressing the camera in the 1929 film The Love Parade). The full-out wacky dance sequence in The Oyster Princess, the “Foxtrot Epidemic,” prefigures choreographed numbers in his and everyone else’s musicals. These silent German comedies are a minor revelation: they may not be masterpieces but they are exuberantly entertaining and inventive.
Lubitsch next tried his hand at a series of historical spectacles, the most satisfying of which was Madame DuBarry (1919), starring the seductively sensual Pola Negri as a factory girl who sleeps her way to the top (Louis XIV, played by Emil Jannings). Its international box office success was followed by Anne Boleyn (1920) and The Loves of the Pharaoh (1922), huge, laboring machines with “casts of thousands,” as they used to say, which earned him the nickname “the European Griffith.”
Though left-wing critics disapproved of Lubitsch’s neglect of socioeconomic and historical factors, opting as he did to focus on the personal conflicts and passions of his regal protagonists, McBride tries to make the case that he was smuggling in liberal progressive ideas. Essentially, Lubitsch was apolitical and oblivious to Germany’s upheavals, preferring to build dream worlds out of his imagination and hone his craft. By the early 1920s he had acquired a mastery of every aspect of film production and could manage big and small budgets and even the most difficult actors—and so he was summoned to Hollywood in 1922 by Mary Pickford, to direct her in a departure for America’s sweetheart, Rosita (1923), in which she played a street singer in Seville who is propositioned by the king.
It is sometimes incorrectly assumed that Lubitsch was part of the wave of German émigré talent fleeing Hitler. In fact he was already ensconced in the American motion picture industry a decade before their arrival. Facing initial hostility from American patriots bristling at employment of “the Hun,” Lubitsch made a quick adjustment to his new country, loving as he did the American spirit of casual optimism and the technical superiority of American film crews, though he never lost his thick German accent.
Of the dozen silent films he made in Hollywood during the 1920s, two stand out as masterpieces: The Marriage Circle (1924) and Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925). In these narratives of conjugal misunderstandings, adulterous temptations, love triangles, self-deceptions, and stoic readjustments to spousal flaws, he refined his visual approach, tamping down the theatrical German Expressionist mannerisms and replacing them with more American, “invisible” storytelling conventions. There were subtle tensions arising from engaged and averted glances, movements toward and away from suitors, in high-ceiling settings that dwarfed the occupants and emphasized their emotional solitude. Intertitles were cut down to a minimum, so as not to interrupt the camera’s telling.
Most important, perhaps, was the sophisticated treatment of male–female relationships. In The Marriage Circle—the film Renoir regarded as commencing the modern Hollywood film—a contented wife’s best friend tries to steal her husband away. The woman’s sexual hunger is stunningly overt, and yet also an occasion for sympathy, with none of the judgmental puritanical attitude found in other Hollywood films of the period. Lubitsch would always evince a tolerance and even affection for human frailty. As Renoir said, “Everyone has his reasons.”
So arose what came to be known as “the Lubitsch touch.” I wish it were possible to write about this great filmmaker without invoking that hoary, reductive cliché, but at the very least it tells us that long before the auteur theory, critics and the public alike appreciated that this director had a personal style that persisted from film to film. Usually the term referred to something naughty: his elliptical touches when it came to couples having sex, the closed door from which one could infer what was happening. As Truffaut said about these ellipses: “In the Lubitsch Swiss cheese, each hole winks.”
Certainly Lubitsch was celebrated for getting around the censors, partly by innuendo, partly by setting almost all his films in Europe, where morals were assumed to be looser (those Continentals, what can you expect). But the Lubitsch touch also had to do with respecting the audience’s intelligence, not spelling everything out. I like what the film critic Andrew Sarris said:
A poignant sadness infiltrates the director’s gayest moments, and it is this counterpoint between sadness and gaiety that represents the Lubitsch touch, and not the leering humor of closed doors.
For someone who had perfected silent movie grammar, taking it to a point of “pure Cinema” (as Hitchcock, a Lubitsch fan, approvingly termed it), one would think the introduction of sound might have posed problems, but Lubitsch again adjusted. If anything, the addition of sound helped him develop his most urbane comedy, by allowing him to emphasize the disparity between the stated and the unexpressed. Though his films were critical successes and highly influential within the industry, they rarely scored big at the box office. He was able to keep making them because even when they lost money, they brought the studio prestige. Still, Harry Warner feared they might be too intelligent and worldly, going over people’s heads, and finally Lubitsch departed Warner Brothers for Paramount, where he found a more congenial home for his European reconstructions. As he famously quipped, “I’ve been to Paris, France, and I’ve been to Paris, Paramount. I think I prefer Paris, Paramount.”
At Paramount he launched a series of five musical comedies, starting with The Love Parade (1929) and concluding with The Merry Widow (1934), which usually featured Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald. He is often credited with initiating the musical genre; his biggest contribution may have been liberating it from a revue structure and integrating musical numbers as part of the story. The best of the series was the last, The Merry Widow, but by that time, in the midst of the Depression, audiences were tired of films about queens and millionaires in Lubitsch’s mythical kingdoms. McBride speculates on what this middle-class Jewish boy was doing making so many pictures about English aristocrats and Mittel-European royals: Was this a form of social climbing?
Lubitsch’s continual return to the closed world of nobility that he, as a doubly exiled Jew, could not enter can be seen as the sign of a blocked attempt to keep repeating an act of fealty in the vain hope that the kings and princes, the uniformed nobles, and their grandly gowned women would eventually allow him entrance, that they would welcome this brash upstart as an equal.
Perhaps, but I see it differently. Lubitsch was no royalist. His sympathetic interest was in showing how these crowned heads were human and fallible, prisoners of their unfulfilled desires like everyone else, at the same time providing entertaining fantasies (with pinches of gritty humor) set in dreamy architectural environments. As Samson Raphaelson, the preternaturally gifted screenwriter who collaborated on nine Lubitsch films, said, “We just laughed our heads off at kings…. We were just having fun.”
Trouble in Paradise (1932) marked the apotheosis of Lubitsch and Raphaelson’s subtle, indirect style. This comedy about a pair of romantically involved jewelry thieves (Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins) who try to bilk a wealthy widow (Kay Francis) gets complicated when the man finds himself falling in love with his prey. Since both women are so desirable and appealing, the audience finds itself wondering how this “insoluble conflict,” in McBride’s words, can ever be resolved. Lubitsch may not be moralistic, but his intent is “to explore the kind of moral issue he finds most compelling: how men and women should treat each other.” In this case, as in The Love Parade, he is showing how “men who are toying with women’s passions are forced to face the consequences of their deceptions and recognize their own deeper emotional natures.”
When he first saw Trouble in Paradise in college, McBride was convinced that “I’ve just seen this guy’s masterpiece,” and he has apparently held tight to that opinion, devoting roughly three times more space to it than to any other Lubitsch film. I find the film brilliant but a trifle glacial and calculated. My favorite would be The Shop Around the Corner (1940), with its warm, squabbling ensemble of Matuschek & Company employees. Raphaelson himself felt similarly: “I cared more about those people than I did about the people in Trouble in Paradise. I thought the people in Trouble in Paradise were just puppets.” Lubitsch adjudicated the matter thus: “As for pure style I think I have done nothing better or as good as Trouble in Paradise,” while “as for human comedy, I think I was never as good as in Shop Around the Corner.” I guess I prefer human comedy to pure style.
Puppets or no, Lubitsch managed to extract magnificent acting out of his three leads in Trouble in Paradise: Miriam Hopkins was her usual bouncy self, but Kay Francis, elsewhere often decorously becalmed, was never so sparkling and vivacious, and the sometimes wooden Herbert Marshall conveyed a pained sense of ambivalence beneath his suave exterior. There is a beautiful moment near the end when these two, Francis and Marshall, the latter’s con exposed, stare at each other for long seconds with supreme awareness, a look filled with disenchantment, affection, and regret, shame on his part and forgiveness on hers.
Lubitsch was famous for getting actresses to deliver their best performances. Greta Garbo, as the Soviet zealot who bends under the charm of Paris in Ninotchka (1939), was at her most luminous and quicksilver, and Irene Rich was great as the maternal blackmailer in Lady Windermere’s Fan. Margaret Sullavan’s tightly wound, melancholy charm and tremulous voice adroitly suited the idealistic, disputatious Klara in The Shop Around the Corner. Jeanette MacDonald was never so vulnerable or touching as in the Lubitsch musicals. Molly Haskell singled out the way
he created women characters of depth and complexity whose originality was glossed over in the general designation of “Continental sophistication.” But Lubitsch’s worldliness was as deceptive as his touch. If anything, it was in going against the grain of the polished surface, in the hints of awkwardness with which he invested his men and women, that they—particularly the women—acquired complexity.*
A female reporter, interviewing Lubitsch on the set, came away thinking that no man understood women better. Here we see the difference between filmmaking and daily life: both his wives divorced him, claiming neglect. The first said that her husband was “99 percent in love with his work and had no time for home.” She cheated on him with his first screenwriter, Hans Kräly. Raphaelson thought the problem was that “he liked women who treated him badly.” But Lubitsch himself cheerfully admitted he was a workaholic: “I think I am possessed only of a fascination for the work I have chosen to do. I am so engrossed by the production of a film that I literally think of nothing else.”
His involvement was total: he produced, directed, cowrote the screenplay, oversaw every detail of the set designs, costumes, and music, and even edited the films. It explains how Frank Capra would say: “Ernst Lubitsch was the complete architect of motion pictures. His stamp was on every frame of film—from conception to delivery.”
Conception began with the script: Lubitsch and his screenwriters would talk through every line and gesture, looking for ways to avoid cliché and do things differently, while a stenographer took it all down. Billy Wilder, who was the director’s chief acolyte, and who later kept a sign in his office saying “How would Lubitsch do it?” (hence the title of McBride’s book), said that Lubitsch was at bottom a writer, and in fact the best film writer he ever knew. When they worked together on Ninotchka, some of the best dialogue bits came from Lubitsch, such as “The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.”
Once the script had been nailed down, Lubitsch rarely deviated from it. Improvisation was for the scriptwriting phase, not the actual shooting. Lubitsch, the ex-actor, would act out each role—a practice that some professionals might ordinarily take offense at, but it “was his way,” notes McBride, “of ensuring that they would follow his preferred rhythms, which are integral to the humor and emotion of his work.” It was also his way of keeping the actors entertained, which he regarded as his directorial duty. He would play the piano between takes: his love of music was a constant.
Toward the end of his short life—he died in 1947 at the age of fifty-five—he expressed some reluctance at having become so entranced with the spoken word that he’d neglected telling the story purely via the camera. The purity of his cinematic technique, however, was if anything enhanced by its rigorous economy: if you look at the scenes between James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan in The Shop Around the Corner, the blocking and compositions are perfectly appropriate, the camera movements slight yet pleasingly adjusted to the mood. Truffaut said of Lubitsch: “There’s not a single shot just for decoration; nothing is included just because it looks good. From beginning to end, we are involved only in what’s essential.”
At the same time, he was able to stage the bravura theatrical scenes of To Be or Not to Be (1942) with panache. In that outrageously audacious film, Lubitsch is exhibiting his affection for the communal theater milieu while reviving memories of his apprenticeship with Reinhardt’s troupe. Jack Benny, previously wasted in movies, gives an unforgettable performance as the vain, hammy actor Joseph Tura, who is trying to protect his sorely cuckolded ego while jousting with the Nazi commandant, known as “Concentration Camp Ehrhardt.” With this picture Lubitsch returned to the Jewish themes he had started with as a young man—though perhaps his comic sense all along can be seen as an expression of typically Jewish humor.
Enno Patalas, the German scholar who restored many of Lubitsch’s silents, wrote:
Lubitsch was not ashamed of being Jewish—quite the contrary. In a 1916 interview—the earliest that survives—he says that “Wherever Jewish humor is seen, it is likable and well-crafted, and it plays such a major role everywhere that it would be absurd to dispense with it in the cinema.” Jewish culture is the only culture with a feeling for comedy at its very heart. Jewish humor cuts the ground from beneath the earnestness of life—a way of asserting oneself in a hostile world.
That could certainly serve as a rationale for To Be or Not to Be, a movie that ruffled feathers when it opened by refusing to be earnest about Nazis.
In “removing some of [the] barriers to appreciating Lubitsch,” McBride brings up ways that the director might be seen as out of touch with contemporary audiences, only to defend or excuse him. He queries that elegiac late-Lubitsch work Heaven Can Wait (1943), about an unexceptional man (Don Ameche) who loves his wife (Gene Tierney) but cannot stop chasing women. In her patient acceptance of her husband’s straying eye, is not Lubitsch condoning the double standard? My own reading of the film is that he is neither condoning nor condemning it, only saying it exists. It is the wife who emerges as the film’s exceptional hero, stubbornly determined to wait out her “little boy” of a husband. And the casting of the soft, amiable Ameche as the skirt chaser instead of a more virile type, like Clark Gable or Robert Mitchum, lends an air of pathos to the story. In general, Lubitsch seems to ridicule the Don Juan figure by exaggerating his magnetism to the point of absurdity—like the multitudes of women camp followers who crowd the streets in The Wild Cat. Or the dozens of women at Maxim’s who congregate around Maurice Chevalier in The Merry Widow. Chevalier is such a preening, self-satisfied caricature of a fop in these musicals that one cannot take him seriously as a lady-killer.
Was Lubitsch a sexist or a feminist pioneer of sexual freedom? To me the question seems pointless. When we watch a Lubitsch film, we reenter not only the past mores of an old movie, but a past that he conjured from his imagination, that was fast disappearing or had already vanished in the eyes of his contemporaries. His penchant for adapting old Hungarian plays and Viennese operettas ensured a certain off-kilter relationship to the American present. Even in his heyday he was always one step ahead of being dated, or two steps behind. There was always something delicate and fragile about his graceful constructions that invited special consideration.
Maybe we have to examine the whole notion of being dated. I’m sure there are young people who feel that any black-and-white movie is dated, not to mention any silent, but that’s their loss. As I see it, when enough years after the premiere of a truly fine work of art have passed, it has outlived the threat of datedness. Think of Lubitsch’s miraculously tender last film, Cluny Brown (1946). Can such tenderness date?
McBride concludes his excellent, authoritative book—which offers all the necessary points to be made about Lubitsch, is chockful of cultivated insights and astute quotes, and is even forthright about his subject’s clinkers (The Man I Killed, That Uncertain Feeling, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife)—with a lament. Having decried the gross-out comedies of today and the action movies showing “giant robots smashing into each other,” he wonders what became of the Lubitsch sophistication, maturity, and wit. Is there some way to get it back into films? We need to remember how rare it was even in its day. “Whether or not Lubitsch’s cultural influence can be revived…, those of us who love him need to keep insisting on its importance,” writes McBride. Insisting? How un-Lubitschean. Those of us who love, I mean love, Lubitsch know that such clamorous advocacy is unnecessary. His lovely pictures await those who are meant to find them.