Ernst Lubitsch

Laughter in Paradise by Scott Eyman

by Wayne Brown


Can Heaven Wait? A Look at the Life of Ernst Lubitsch


cott Eyman has done it again, with an insightful introspective, into the life of one of Hollywood’s founding fathers, Ernst Lubitsch.

cover art

Ernst Lubitsch

Scott Eyman

Laughter in Paradise

(Johns Hopkins University Press)

This early giant of the world of cinema, directed over 50 films in his native Germany, from 1913 to 1923. He then crossed the Atlantic and managed to craft another 30 films in the United States, from 1923 until his tragic death in 1947.

The director of such classics as Ninotchka, To Be Or Not to Be, Trouble in Paradise, Heaven Can Wait, and Little Shop on the Corner, lived his life in much the same spirit as his films. Filled with humor, love, and endearing attention to the details of life’s passionate lessons, the Lubitsch touch always filled a troubled audience with warmth and laughter.

Arguably the father of the musical and romantic comedy, Lubitsch brought an optimistic and practiced eye to the budding silver screen, celebrating the art of love and the triumph of the little guy over adversity and despair.

Born in Berlin in 1892, Ernst became interested in film at an early age. He first became involved in stage production, then as a respected comedic actor in early silent films and finally, a successful director in post World War I Germany.

Eyman’s attention to detail, as he chronicles the atmosphere of 1920’s Germany, gives the reader insight into the development of the early film and in particular the character of Ernst Lubitsch. Though the German cinema seemed to be flourishing, the plight of the general public was of poverty and despair. Reparations from the Great War had essentially bankrupted the country and the national pride was in shambles.

Luckily, perhaps with insight, Lubitsch gathered his family and emigrated to the United States, before the peak of fascism in his fatherland. He would return only twice during his short lifetime.

Though born a Jew, Ernst was far from orthodox, preferring instead the cosmopolitan lifestyle of his time. He was devoted to his daughter, he loved fine cigars, enjoyed a good joke and his directorial craft. He brought a sweet touch to the films of the early twentieth century.

Mary Pickford and her husband Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. were instrumental in signing Ernst to his first American picture deal, Rosita. Thus Lubitsch became exposed to the American public.

Already established as a director of note in Europe, he now became one of Hollywood’s self-styled Foreign Legion, a small group of his fellow countrymen, including Fritz Lang and Carl Laemmler. They fancied themselves isolated warriors, plying their trade in a cultural desert.

Well-liked and respected throughout the entertainment world, adaptable and always the professional, Lubitsch easily managed the jump from the silent era to the new talkies. Ernst’ sense of rhythm and love of music had served him well.

Well-known for his ability to make pictures efficiently and within a deadline; he was often granted carte blanche when assigned a project. Lubitsch rubbed elbows with the biggest names in Hollywood. Charlie Chaplin and Basil Rathbone, to name but two. Directors, producers, actors and actresses, were all enthralled by his wit and charm, and he was frequently seen at many of the posh parties of the day. He also managed to further the careers of many Hollywood icons, including Pola Negri, Emil Jannings, Jimmy Stewart, Jack Benny, Frank Morgan, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Jeanette MacDonald and many more.

He died one afternoon in November 1947 after making love. He was 55. Upon hearing of Lubitsch’s death, friend Charles Brackett stated, “...there will be some delightful trouble in Paradise tonight…”

Eyman, an admirable researcher and gifted writer, has given the reader, a fond, gentle look at a Hollywood icon and imbued this reader with a renewed love of older films. He writes knowledgeably and with a friendly, comfortable style, delighting the reader with well-researched antidotes, garnered from years of personal interviews and reminiscences with friends, co-workers and family members. Eyman’s passion for his subjects is well-fostered and meaningful to all dedicated students of the cinema.

Organized footnotes, a film discography, a bibliography and selected photographs; attest to the intricate, thorough detail, paid to Ernst Lubitsch and Eyman’s other works. My review of Eyman’s Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford, may be found in the PopMatters

archives. [see sidebar]

I look forward to more from Mr. Eyman.

(Hey Scott! How’s about a bio of Orson Welles?...or Tod Browning?...or Gary Cooper?)

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