Today runs the gamut. Hollywood to indie art house, female perspective to male, screwball comedy to chamber drama. The odyssey from Ernst Lubitsch to Kenji Mizoguchi will provide illumination on how film’s first special effects were used, how two brothers presciently preceded reality television in the Hamptons, and why some directors prefer to work about once a decade on average…
(1892 - 1947)
Three Key Films: Trouble in Paradise (1932), Ninotchka (1939), To Be or Not to Be (1942)
Underrated: One Hour With You (1932) Lubitsch wielded an unusual amount of power at Paramount, briefly serving as head of production, though power never dinted his popularity with his actors and colleagues (indeed, he might have been the best liked of all the great directors). The film is decidedly pre-Code, about a Parisian doctor (Maurice Chevalier) who is successfully seduced by Mitzi, the best friend of his wife (Jeannette MacDonald). A highpoint comes when the good doctor, trying to justify his infidelity, looks at the audience, and in a song asks them what they would do if a woman like Mitzi were to use her wiles on them. He sings: “If her head was on your shoulder / And she grew a little bit bolder / Now I ask you what would you do with a girl like that? / ... Now I ask you what would you do?/That’s what I did too.”
Unforgettable: In To Be or Not to Be, that “great, great Polish actor” Joseph Tura (improbably but brilliantly portrayed by radio comedian Jack Benny) is playing Hamlet. Coming to the front of the stage he pauses, with the prompter absurdly whispering, “To be or not to be,” as if anyone could struggle with the line. Joseph ignores him, looks at the audience, and begins the famous soliloquy, only to see a man on the second row dressed in an officer’s uniform stand up and noisily leave his seat. He works his way down row, and walks out of the auditorium, much to the consternation of the actor. The icing on the cake is that the officer is leaving to visit backstage actress Maria Tura (Carole Lombard), the actor’s wife. The gag is repeated two more times, with no diminishment of our joy.
The Legend: The greatest comedy director in the history of film, his films were famously known for “The Lubitsch Touch”. What was it? The truth is that it was originally a label created by the Paramount publicity department, but in fact his films are indeed genuinely unique and his colleagues knew it. Billy Wilder kept a sign on his desk throughout his career that read, “How would Lubitsch do it?” while Orson Welles said in an interview, “Lubitsch was a giant… his talent and originality were stupefying.” Legendary screenwriter Samson Raphaleson, who wrote several of Lubitsch’s greatest scripts, added, “I worked with Hitchcock, I worked with Cukor… Lubitsch towered above anyone creatively.”
Lubitsch’s influence on Hollywood is enormous but unrecognized. He is not just one of the movie’s greatest directors; he was the first star European director to come to Hollywood. He introduced a Continental sense of playfulness about sex that Hollywood sorely lacked at the time and gave film a sheen of sophistication it completely lacked prior to his introducing it.
Lubitsch was born to a tailor and his wife in 1892 in Berlin. Instead of following in the family business he became an actor, eventually joining Max Reinhardt’s theater company. After starring in a string of comedy films built around pratfalls, he switched to directing, and unexpectedly became one of the great directors of the early Weimar period, leaving for Hollywood in 1923.
In a way Lubitsch never really came to America. In his films he created his own world that many have dubbed Lubitschland, filled with wealthy sophisticates, wise-cracking waiters, rakish officers, adorable scoundrels, and slumming royalty. The films were set in places with real names—Paris, Monte Carlo, and Warsaw—but the locales were as fictitious as Shangri-La. He made sex comedies, though never vulgar ones; his treatment of sex was always elegant and sophisticated.
In 1934 the new Production Code went into effect. In Trouble in Paradise there is a shot of a couple embracing and kissing on a couch. In a dissolve they disappear and the couch is shown empty. The lights darken and the arm of the man reaches out to place a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the hotel door. The implication was clear: they had gone have sex on the bed. But what was possible in 1932 was impossible after 1934. The effect on Lubitsch was significant. His films had been built around sex, but sex was forbidden. But also the Code meant that none of his films made prior to 1934 could be shown. Films like One Hour with You would not be shown again for decades. Older film fans would remember the genius of his early movies, but new fans were not created.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s it became possible to view his films again, his reputation began gradually to recover. But even with the advent of VHS and DVD versions of films, many of his films remain difficult or impossible to see. He should be remembered as what he was, not merely the greatest director of comedies cinema has known, but the equal of the greatest of great Hollywood directors. Robert Moore