Sometime in the late 1960’s, I asked Jean Renoir what he thought of Ernst Lubitsch. He raised his eyebrows and said, enthusiastically, “Lubitsch!? But he invented the modern Hollywood.” By “modern Hollywood,” Renoir meant American movies from about 1924 to the start of the ’60s. Before Lubitsch’s arrival to California from Germany in 1922 (to make a Mary Pickford vehicle called Rosita), Hollywood films were under the overwhelming influence of D. W. Griffith, circa 1908 through the epoch-making The Birth of a Nation in 1915 and beyond. Victorian, puritan, Southern, montage-driven, Griffith was the father of film narrative. As pioneer Allan Dwan told me, he would go to see Griffith’s movies and just do whatever Griffith was doing. The majority of American directors felt similarly, including John Ford and Howard Hawks.
When Lubitsch arrived, however, things started to change. He brought European sophistication, candor in sexuality and an oblique style that made audiences complicit with the characters and situations. This light, insouciant, teasing manner became known far and wide as “the Lubitsch Touch.” By the end of the 20’s and throughout his short life—he died in 1947 at age 55—Lubitsch was probably the most famous film director internationally, except perhaps for C. B. DeMille. Today hardly anyone remembers either one of them. Yet while most of DeMille is pretty forgettable, if sometimes fun, Lubitsch is always fun and often as good as it gets.
Recently, a number of now fairly obscure Lubitsch films have been released on DVD, so maybe there’s hope. If you want to see just exactly how dumbed-down our society and culture have become, take a look at Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise (1932), out on the Criterion Collection. This airy, witty, blatantly amoral sex comedy about a couple of amorous jewel thieves was in its time a successful mainstream picture, hard as that may be to believe these days. But then in the 1930’s, films were being made by adults for adults, even after the Production Code kicked in around 1934.
Trouble begins in Venice, and its brilliant screenwriter Samson Raphaelson (who did numerous films with Lubitsch) told me once that he and the director spent over a week trying to come up with a good opening to establish the location as Venice: “Ernst wasn’t satisfied with just a shot of the canals or something,” and he wouldn’t go forward until they had solved the beginning. Finally, Lubitsch came up with it: Fade in on a shot of a back door to a building at night, a dog sniffing around a garbage can. A heavyset man enters the frame, picks up the can and carries it off as we PAN to see him dump the contents into a gondola filled with garbage on a darkened canal; he gets in his craft and, as he oars away, starts to sing, “O Solo Mio.” That was the Lubitsch touch.
This was the same picturemaker for whom Garbo laughed in the irresistible Ninotchka (1939), and Jimmy Stewart lifted his trousers to show that he wasn’t bowlegged at the conclusion of The Shop Around the Corner (1940), probably the warmest, most human romantic comedy ever made. Lubitsch was the fellow with the moxie to laugh at the Nazis right in the midst of World War II, typified by Jack Benny’s infamous line from To Be or Not to Be (1942): “So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt!” And he was the one to elicit Don Ameche’s single great performance in that beautiful period comedy about an unremarkable man’s love life, Heaven Can Wait (1943). All these acknowledged classics are currently available on DVD. (Also available is a rare Lubitsch flop, his last silent, Eternal Love (1929), a tragic love story with a brilliant performance by John Barrymore, and directed with all the economical precision and emotional depth of Lubitsch at his best.)
Although in the talking era he made virtually all comedies, Lubitsch had pioneered intimate costume dramas in the teens and 1920’s: His first international successes were Madame DuBarry (1919) and Anna Boleyn (1920; originally titled Deception in the U.S.), both of which dealt with historical figures in a candid, mostly-warts fashion that American audiences were not accustomed to. Kino has just released DVD’s of Anna Boleyn, with a devastating performance by Emil Jannings as the sexually rapacious Henry VIII, as well as another popular epic, Sumurun (1920; first U.S. title was One Arabian Night), in which Lubitsch himself has a sizable role opposite his star Pola Negri. (Orson Welles told me that when he first came to Hollywood, one trade term for a close-up was “big head of Pola,” a phrase of Lubitsch’s when he was directing Negri in America.) Of course, Lubitsch himself started out as an actor in silent comedy two-reelers, playing Jewish merchants with gusto and perfect timing.
Indeed, Lubitsch was well known in the business for giving his actors extremely precise instructions on how to play their roles. I once asked Jack Benny if it was true that Lubitsch acted out all the parts for his cast, and Jack confirmed it. Was he any good? I asked, and Jack answered, “Well, he was a little broad—but you got the idea!” This addresses the question of why all the actors in Lubitsch movies have such a very particular style, unlike the way they are in any other picture, be they as disparate as Gary Cooper, Don Ameche, Maurice Chevalier or Herbert Marshall. Signe Hasso, who played the French maid in Heaven Can Wait, told me that Lubitsch—who was short, heavyset, with a thick German accent and always sporting a cigar—had shown her exactly how to play the maid, and that he was just terrific at it, too.
The silent German comedies Kino has released—The Wildcat (1921), The Doll (1919), The Oyster Princess (1919), I Don’t Want to Be a Man (1920)—are all fast-paced in a farce mode, often extremely funny, but not really typical of the understated Lubitsch comic touch that sprang full-grown with his second American film and first drawing-room/bedroom romantic comedy, The Marriage Circle (1924; released on DVD by Image Entertainment). With this film, an unqualified and undated masterpiece of infidelity and misunderstanding, Lubitsch became, as his biographer Scott Eyman put it (in Laughter in Paradise), “the composer of the cinema’s finest, most elegant chamber music.”
Speaking of music, bear in mind that Lubitsch also made the first great screen musicals, including the very first all-talking, all-dancing, all-singing, fully plotted musical-comedy in American picture history, The Love Parade (1929), starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, both brand-new to movies. Parade is one of four musicals just recently released on DVD by the Eclipse (budget) division of the Criterion Collection—under the comprehensive title, Lubitsch Musicals—and each of them is pure gold. I have to admit that these are—along with Lubitsch’s last and best musical, The Merry Widow (1934; currently not available on DVD except in a Japanese edition, which can be played here only on all-region machines)—among my favorite movies of all time. There is an innocence and a sophistication combined that is enchanting, a sense both of mockery and celebration that is at once very funny and strangely touching.
In four short years, Lubitsch and his talented collaborators put together four complete book musicals, all with original songs, all sung live during shooting, with the orchestra right off camera. This was before sound mixing was possible, or playback, so everything had to happen at once. (I remember Hitchcock telling me about shoot
ing an insert of a radio in the same period, and having to have a full orchestra off-camera to play the music supposedly just coming from the radio.) However, singing live that way gives these early musicals a remarkable immediacy, a spontaneous freshness that doesn’t date. Chevalier and Macdonald (and in Parade the legendary second bananas Lillian Roth and Lupino Lane) are really singing right there and then.
After The Love Parade, there was Monte Carlo (1930), with MacDonald and the English music-hall star, Jack Buchanan; followed by the bittersweet The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), with Chevalier, Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins; and finally One Hour With You (1932), again with Chevalier and MacDonald, a musical version of The Marriage Circle and in its own special way just as delectable. Lubitsch’s superb way of shooting those films gave nobility to the new art of talking pictures, and influenced everyone who followed. The Smiling Lieutenant is especially unorthodox in creating a triangle situation that does not have the happy ending the audience would prefer.
In both The Love Parade and One Hour With You, Chevalier actually speaks directly to the camera a few times, daringly breaking the fourth wall in a way that no one was ever quite able to do as well again. For the Best Picture-winning Gigi (1958), Vincente Minnelli and Alan Jay Lerner brought Chevalier back to America, and in an homage to Lubitsch, had him address the audience (“Thank Heaven for Little Girls”) just as he had done 30 years before (though this time he was lip-synching to playback, and often not very precisely). Minnelli had remembered Lubitsch before: When making his terrific The Band Wagon (1953), he brought Jack Buchanan to Hollywood for the first time since Lubitsch’s Monte Carlo, in which Buchanan is inordinately charming, and which features one of the most famous of early musical numbers—MacDonald on a train singing “Beyond the Blue Horizon” while passing farmers wave and join in with the syncopated sounds of the engine.
Both The Love Parade and The Smiling Lieutenant (and later, The Merry Widow) are Ruritanian romances, Chevalier being an officer from some mythical middle-European country. Monte Carlo begins in one and then shifts to the French Riviera. One Hour With You is set entirely in Paris, a favorite city of Lubitsch’s: One of his best silent comedies is So This Is Paris (1926), and The Merry Widow mostly plays there, too, as does Ninotchka and nearly all of Trouble in Paradise—though it is really a fantasy Paris. As Lubitsch famously said, “I have been to Paris, France, and I have been to Paris, Paramount. I think I prefer Paris, Paramount.” In other words, the places of his imagination—and indeed, it’s his very personal slant on everything that makes his pictures so intoxicating.
Naturally, all older films suffer from not being seen, as they were meant to be, on the big screen, which is probably one of the main reasons why younger people are so impatient with anything made earlier than about 1990. I was fortunate to have first seen these Lubitsch musicals in a large screening room at Paramount in the mid-1960’s when Jerry Lewis generously set me up to screen whatever studio prints I cared to run. I ran 82 movies, some in their original, gloriously shimmering nitrate prints. There is simply no substitute for that. We cinéastes of the 60’s used to scoff when someone said they had only seen a classic on TV: “Then you haven’t seen it,” we’d say. Now it’s all on TV, and there’s very little chance of viewing classics the way they were meant to be seen (Film Forum and MoMA are two New York oases).
Many films, therefore, are irreparably damaged and diminished. John Ford’s famous long shots, for example, lose all their majesty and impact. Howard Hawks’ comedy pacing becomes exhausting when you have to strain to see. Mythology, which is what pictures are at their best, by its very nature must be bigger than life, not smaller than life. Being overwhelmed by images in the dark is part of the basic magic of the medium. Take that away and you take away a good deal of the glory. At least if you’ve seen a picture the right way once, repeat viewings retain in memory a residual glow. But kids don’t have that, so to them it becomes perhaps just a charade they must strain to view, certainly not something that takes over.
In 1929, when Maurice Chevalier in The Love Parade sang to the audience—“Paris, Please Stay the Same” was his first number—he was bigger than he could be on any stage, and therefore proportionally all-powerful. Today, on DVD, unless you have a gigantic screen, he becomes maybe only a charming curiosity. I’ll take it, though, in place of most of what’s out there. It speaks of a simpler, more civilized era. The America that took Chevalier to its heart is definitively gone, too, of course, and only retrievable by an act of imagination. To see these Lubitsch musicals takes us back to a remarkably more innocent time, evoking a period when charm, wit and grace could rule, when an ineffably light touch could become famous and cherished the world over.