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Just Maybe -- the Best Comedy Film Director Ever

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Even though mainstream Entertainment Weekly magazine named him the 16th-best film director of all time, if I mention the name Ernst Lubitsch to my own middle-aged contemporaries, I usually get a hazy look. "I've heard that name, but who was he?"

The reason for this may be that Ernst Lubitsch had heart trouble, and died young (in 1948, at just 55). But he was also an authentic prodigy, and like his colleague and competitor, MGM production head Irving Thalberg (who died of heart failure before turning 40), perhaps a sense of his fragile ties to this earth spurred him on to achieve more quickly and experience life more richly than us mortals who happen to live longer, but leave behind less of a legacy.

A literal sign of the regard this genius earned in the industry was sitting right on Billy Wilder's desk throughout most of his storied career (Wilder had co-written the scripts for a couple of Lubitsch features). The sign read simply: "What would Lubitsch have done?"

Born in fin-de-siecle Germany, Ernst left school in 1908 to pursue a career on the stage, eventually landing as an actor in the prestigious Max Reinhardt Company. Soon enough, Lubitsch entered the emerging film business, learning the craft quickly and exhibiting even more flair behind the camera. By the age of 22, he was writing and directing his own films in Germany.

Soon enough his work there was noted internationally, and in 1922, then reigning silent movie queen Mary Pickford asked him to Hollywood to direct for her. Though famously Pickford and Lubitsch did not get on, the resulting film, Rosita (1923) , was a commercial success and helped establish the young director stateside. It was all pretty much smooth sledding from then on: Ernst Lubitsch had found his permanent home.

What was soon dubbed "the Lubitsch Touch" referred to the director's uncanny ability to combine smart storytelling, witty dialogue, and sumptuous, exotic settings to create films of unsurpassed sophistication that were still accessible to a broad public. His trademarks were musicals, romances and comedies, with the three elements often combined in the same picture.

Since January is this immortal director's birth month, it seems fitting to offer up these eight DVD selections (comprising eleven films), which in my view best display this director's uniquely delicate comic gifts. At a time when subtle, literate film comedies seem like an endangered species at best, these titles comprise a welcome breath of rarefied air. My advice: Breathe it all in and savor the experience.

The Wildcat (1921) -- Banished to a remote military post for his unrepentant womanizing, Bavarian lieutenant Alexis (Paul Heidemann) leaves behind a bevy of weeping women as he begins his journey. In the mountains, his military convoy is attacked by bandits led by free-spirited tomboy Rischka (Pola Negri), who, finding her captive rather attractive, spares his life, leaving the handsome lieutenant to hoof it to the nearby fort in his skivvies, utterly smitten. Unfortunately, the jowly German commandant has arranged for Alexis to wed his dull daughter. Set in a snow-covered fantasy land, Lubitsch's brilliant, subversively funny satire of marriage and military mores dazzles not only for its frenetic pace and tart performances (Negri's bandit girl is especially saucy), but for its sumptuous sets, adventurous technique, and ever-shifting, almost expressionistic visual style. Even the dialogue is rhymed, like an operetta, all of which might explain why Lubitsch called it a "grotesque in four acts." Lubitsch makes hay of military pride and turns all manner of social convention inside out, yet still manages to surprise with an ending (in matrimonial handcuffs!) that reflects the director's sublime comic flair, even in these early years.

The Marriage Circle (1924) -- After moving to an upper-class neighborhood of Vienna, flirtatious housewife Mizzi Stock (Marie Prevost) sets her sights on seducing Dr. Franz Braun (Monte Blue), even though he's blissfully betrothed to her good friend Charlotte (Florence Vidor). Meanwhile, Mizzi's hubbie (Adolphe Menjou), intent on divorce, hires a private investigator to secure the incriminating evidence, as Braun's lecherous medical partner (Creighton Hale) targets Charlotte. They don't make sex comedies like they used to -- and no one even comes close to equaling Lubitsch in this particular sphere. High-brow and naughty in equal measure, the film tracks the vicissitudes of love and illicit behavior among two wealthy Viennese couples (plus one confused gumshoe), and manages to have lots of sprightly fun in the offing. Lubitsch himself liked this film so much he remade it in 1932 as One Hour With You.

Lubitsch Musicals (1929-1932) -- This four-movie set from Criterion's first-rate Eclipse series compiles the director's best work from the early sound period. In The Love Parade (1929), a philandering attaché from the country of Sylvania (Maurice Chevalier) is recalled to his country to face punishment from the country's young, unmarried Queen Louise (Jeannette MacDonald), but ends up marrying him. However, the attaché finds being Prince Consort exceedingly dull, with predictable complications. In Monte Carlo (1930), a noble but penniless bride who abandoned the altar (songbird MacDonald again) lands in Monte Carlo, where a count (Jack Buchanan, England's then answer to Chevalier) is smitten, but can only manage to see her by posing as a hairdresser. The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) concerns another amorous but unlucky officer (Chevalier Encore) who winks at his girl (Claudette Colbert) just as a royal carriage passes him, bearing a princess (Miriam Hopkins) who believes the wink was directed at her. Finally,One Hour With You (1932) profiles a happily married couple in Paris (Chevalier and McDonald), whose bliss gets interrupted by a man-eating, unhappily married close friend of MacDonald's, who takes a shine to poor Maurice. Anyone who's only heard of "The Lubitsch Touch" should experience it firsthand via these four early sound gems. Each successive entry further developed the conventions of movie musicals, while providing the European settings, royal trappings, lilting music, and saucy yet subtle dialogue that would define this particular director's legacy. The movies may all be variations on each other, but in this case, who cares? No duds are to be found in the whole bunch, and one just wants to stay transported to that magical sphere Lubitsch created for us.

Trouble In Paradise (1932) -- Parisian jewel thieves Gaston (Herbert Marshall) and Lily (Miriam Hopkins) fall in love over dinner, trying to pick each other's pockets. With a wealthy widow, Mme. Colet (a bewitching Kay Francis) as their latest mark, they craftily install themselves as her secretary and typist, respectively. But things get complicated when Gaston must pretend to fall for the beautiful heiress (or is he pretending?) and she returns the compliment. In yet another pristine Criterion release, again Lubitsch shows off his incomparable skill in fashioning soufflé-light comedies that poke sly fun at conventional human mores. Trouble is one of his best outings, cheerily touting the marvels of sex and riches, while saturating us with rarefied atmosphere, snappy dialogue and witty ripostes If you like your chuckles with a touch of class, then here's your movie.

Ninotchka (1939) -- This captivating comedy details what can happen -- on a purely human level -- when communism and capitalism collide. Three Russian comrades travel to Paris to sell a valuable necklace with proceeds to benefit the party. The necklace's rightful owner, Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire) prevails on Count Leon D'Algout (Melvyn Douglas) to restore the necklace to her. The Count blocks the sale and distracts the three Russians with all the capitalistic excesses Paris has to offer. When Moscow notes the delay, they send tough emissary Ninotchka (Greta Garbo, in her first comedy) to move things along. When the cold, impossibly beautiful agent arrives in Paris and meets the Count, he sees his mission has become more challenging, but also more interesting. "Garbo Laughs!" screamed the publicity, and so will you. Lubitsch infuses this gossamer "East meets West" romance with his trademark chic style and clever substance. Garbo's transformation from icy harridan to warm female is a wonder to behold, and Douglas is understated and suitably wry as the Count, never stepping in Garbo's light too much. With a peerless script by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, this is the movie equivalent to champagne, and, of course, caviar. (Trivia note: this picture was remade as a musical for Fred Astaire: 1957's Silk Stockings.)

The Shop Around The Corner (1940) -- When Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) uses her wily sales technique to impress Hugo (Frank Morgan), a Budapest gift-store owner, she is hired to work alongside clerk Alfred Kralik (James Stewart), but the two don't hit it off. No matter: Alfred is secretly hoping to meet a woman with whom he's had a promising written correspondence via the personal ads. Klara, meanwhile, begins to fall for an anonymous man she's been writing to as well. So it's a big surprise -- to them, not us -- when they discover the true identities of their respective pen-pals. Once again Lubitsch's special "touch" lights this wry, poignant, perennially charming film. Veteran players Stewart and Sullavan are a perfect match as comically antagonistic lonely-hearts, conveying their characters' vulnerabilities with a delicacy too often missing from the tepid Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan remake, You've Got Mail (1998). Rich subplots involving the wonderful Frank Morgan and Joseph Schildkraut, who plays a scheming, boastful employee, let Lubitsch impart further nuance to this unusually modest but richly rewarding tale.

To Be Or Not To Be (1942) -- Husband-and-wife thespians Maria and Joseph Tura (Carole Lombard and Jack Benny) are minor stage celebrities in their native Warsaw, where they've been rehearsing an anti-Nazi play in addition to nightly performances of Hamlet. Then Hitler invades, and the house lights go dark. But when an ardent fan of Maria's, Polish fighter pilot Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack), secretly returns from the Allied side in England, he sets in motion some juicy off-stage intrigue, whereby the Turas and their troupe must outwit a Gestapo spy with plans to crush the Resistance. Criticized for satirizing a deadly serious, raging war in Europe on release in 1942, Lubitsch's inspired, often side-splitting farce doubled as a tribute both to the Polish resistance and, quite ingeniously, to the mighty art of play-acting. Benny is terrifically funny as "that great, great actor" Joseph Tura, especially playing opposite Sig Rumann (as a Nazi colonel), and a young Robert Stack, the love-struck lieutenant whose cue to tryst with Maria is the first line of Hamlet's soliloquy. Tragically, this was the spirited Lombard's last screen appearance before a plane crash ended her life prematurely. (She was en-route to sell war bonds.)

Heaven Can Wait (1943) -- On the day of his death, assured that he'll be rebuffed in Paradise, aristocratic New Yorker Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) pays a visit to His Excellency (Laird Cregar), a highly courteous Lucifer who agrees to listen to Van Cleve's life story and determine whether he's right for Hell- a place people had often "told him to go." Thus begins this playboy's tale of life-long philandering, and the effect it had on his lovely wife Martha (Gene Tierney), a woman he truly adored at first sight. A deft, subtly brilliant romantic comedy by the great Lubitsch, Heaven examines a privileged man whose boyish love of courtship colors his devotion to his wife, making his life "one continuous misdemeanor." Penned by the gifted Samson Raphaelson and shot in lavish Technicolor, "Heaven" marries urbane wit and bittersweet themes about youth and aging, folly and regret. Ameche and Tierney are a handsome, appealing pair from their first meeting in a bookshop, while Charles Coburn (as scampish Grandpa Hugo) and Allyn Joslyn (as Henry's strait-laced cousin Albert) round out a fabulous supporting cast. Delicate, wise, and moving, Heaven truly lives up to its name.

A final, fitting anecdote: reportedly, after Lubitsch's funeral, a grief-stricken Billy Wilder, usually at no loss for words, could only mutter: "No more Lubitsch." Walking beside him, fellow émigré director William Wyler, much more reticent by nature, countered: "Worse yet. No more Lubitsch pictures."

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