Even though the likes of mainstream Entertainment Weekly named him the 16th best film director of all time, if I mention Ernst Lubitsch, I usually receive a hazy look and this response: "I've heard that name, but who precisely was he?"
The likely reason for this: he hasn't been around in a very long time. Ernst Lubitsch had heart trouble, and died too young (in 1948, at just 55). But he was also a prodigy. As with his contemporary, MGM production head Irving Thalberg (who died of heart failure before turning 40), it's likely that Lubitsch's own heightened sense of mortality spurred him on to achieve more quickly (and experience life more intensely) than us mere mortals who hang around longer, but leave less of a legacy behind us.
A literal sign of the respect this genius earned in the industry was sitting right on writer/director Billy Wilder's desk throughout most of his career (Wilder had co-written the scripts for a couple of Lubitsch features). The sign read simply: "What would Lubitsch have done?"
Born into a Jewish family 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.
His work there was noted soon enough in Germany, and in 1922, the reigning silent movie queen Mary Pickford asked him to Hollywood to direct for her. The film "Rosita" (1923) was a hit, and director Lubitsch had found his home.
What was soon dubbed "the Lubitsch Touch" represented the director's unique ability to combine smart storytelling, witty dialogue, and often sumptuous settings to create films of unsurpassed sophistication that, due to their sheer entertainment value, still managed to be accessible to a broad public. His trademarks were musicals, romances and comedies, with the three elements often combined in the same picture.
If you have not experienced this director's special "touch," well- here's your chance.
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 and hits the road to a fairy-tale hamlet called Piffkaneiro. 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 and 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. As one of the most inventive and uproarious of silent comedies, "The Wildcat" deserves a wider audience.
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. There's nothing like a good old-fashioned sex comedy, particularly when Lubitsch is firmly at the helm. Sophisticated and naughty in equal measure, "Circle" 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 "Eclipse" label compiles the legendary 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 (Jeanette 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 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 who winks at his girl (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 nevertheless takes a shine to poor Maurice. Calling all lovers of sophisticated musical comedy- do not miss 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 (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. Careful, Gaston- you're playing with fire! This sublime, soufflé-light farce ranks as one of the director's finest outings. The film pokes sly fun at conventional mores, and cheerily touts the marvels of sex, riches, and the little games we play with both. All the signature ingredients you'd expect from the Master are here in abundance, including rarefied atmosphere, snappy dialogue, and witty ripostes. Marshall and Hopkins create a striking comic chemistry- he the epitome of English coolness, she wonderfully feisty, but no fool. And Ms. Francis makes a stunning complication! If you like your chuckles with a touch of class, here's your movie.
Ninotchka (1939)- Greta Garbo's first comedy, "Ninotchka" details what can happen-on a purely human, emotional level-when communism and capitalism collide. Three Russian comrades travel to Paris to sell an invaluable 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 (Garbo) to move things along. When the cold but impossibly beautiful agent arrives in Paris and meets the Count, he realizes his mission has become much more challenging, but more interesting as well. "Garbo Laughs!" screamed the publicity, and so will you (laugh, not scream). Director Lubitsch infuses this gossamer "East meets West" romance with his trademark chic style. Garbo's transformation from icy harridan to warm, alluring 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.
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 personals. 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. They don't make romantic comedies like they used to, as this wry, poignant, perennially charming film demonstrates. Veteran players Stewart and Sullavan are a perfect match as comically antagonistic lonelyhearts, conveying their characters' vulnerabilities with a delicacy too often missing from the tepid Hanks-Ryan remake, "You've Got Mail". Rich subplots involving the wonderful Frank Morgan and Joseph Schildkraut, who plays a scheming, boastful employee, let Lubitsch impart further nuance to this modest but wholly pleasing tale. A delight from start to finish, this is one "Shop" you'll want to dally in.
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 the raging war in Europe on its release in 1942, Lubitsch's clever, spirited, often side-splitting farce doubled as a tribute both to the Polish resistance and, quite ingeniously, to the mighty art of play-acting. Benny, in his best-remembered film role, 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 marked Carole Lombard's final screen appearance (she was killed in a plane crash flying home from selling war bonds later that same year). This gifted comedienne gives a grand farewell performance under Lubitsch's inspired direction.
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 make 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, charming, and almost effortlessly moving.
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