Film Review: The Sublimely Refined Touch of Ernst Lubitsch

In Trouble in Paradise, Lubitsch makes us feel complicit in the best of ways; he makes us feel clever.

That Certain Feeling … The Touch of Ernst Lubitsch – At the Harvard Film Archive from June 16 to Sept. 1.

By Betsy Sherman

Ernst Lubitsch cira 1920 in Berlin. Photo: Alexander Binder.

Ernst Lubitsch cira 1920 in Berlin. Photo: Alexander Binder.

German-born movie director Ernst Lubitsch rose to household-name fame, first in his native country during the silent era, then in America where his Hollywood career lasted from 1923 until his death in 1947. The summer series at the Harvard Film Archive That Certain Feeling … The Touch of Ernst Lubitsch consists of almost all his features and many of his shorts. All but a very few will be shown on 35mm film prints from archival sources. The series is co-presented with the Goethe-Institut Boston.

Just what was that “Lubitsch touch”? Consider one small bonbon, the brief episode Lubitsch contributed to the compilation comedy If I Had a Million, one of several biting cinematic reactions to the Depression that were made in the run-up to the 1932 presidential election. Its premise was that a wealthy man gives a million dollars each to strangers whose names he picks out of a phone book. Lubitsch’s piece, “The Clerk,” contains just 11 shots, the first of which is a grid of desks behind which toil faceless white-collar workers. The camera moves in on milquetoast clerk Charles Laughton, to whom a mail boy delivers an envelope. He looks at the million-dollar check with his name on it. Whatever ripples within him is barely registered on his face. With brief shots, and no dialogue (just the tap-tap-tapping of off-screen typewriters), Laughton methodically penetrates the outer onion-layers of power by going up stairs and through doors, until he reaches the president of the company. His wordless—but not soundless—message is priceless, but so too is that he takes a moment to look in the mirror and straighten his tie before facing the chief. Earthy urges are expressed in a sly, satisfying way that isn’t wholly dependent on dialogue.

Trouble in Paradise (1932), the most refined and sublime of the director’s early sound pictures, opens the series on Friday, June 16 and plays again on August 26 at 9 p.m. Written by Samson Raphaelson, the defiantly amoral look at sex, money and (begrudgingly) love among denizens of Europe’s glamour capitals stars Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins as thieves who, through a combination of nerve and a voracious studiousness, can pass as members of the upper crust, and Kay Francis as the fabulously rich widow they hope to swindle. It’s a movie that isn’t coy in its assertion that people are having sex (even dowdy character actor Edward Everett Horton is). The con gets underway with Gaston (Marshall) playing the part of a gentleman who was ruined in the Crash, and who charms Mme. Collet (Francis) into taking him on as her secretary (and soon, financial manager). The pair are simpatico, and maybe more—to the consternation of Lily (Hopkins), Gaston’s lover and partner in the scheme.

There’s a pleasurable fluidity at work. Gaston and Lily proceed with confidence in their skills and in the safety of their armor, their immunity to manipulation. Mme. Collet is introduced via her frivolity; she tells a shopkeeper that a 3000 franc purse costs “entirely too much”—then buys the one that’s 125,000. But the flirtatious relationship with her new secretary emboldens her. She likes this game, and finds she’s a good player. Trouble in Paradise is rare among ‘30s films with its non-neurotic portrayal of the “lady boss.”

Lubitsch crafts a succession of pithy, economical and very funny commentaries on matters such as the opera, corporate boardrooms, and even the underbelly of Venice’s canals. Paramount’s art design is at its apotheosis. The Collet house’s most sexually charged location is a small landing, at the top of a curving stairway, around which are three doors, to an office and two bedrooms. Gaston and Mme. Collet stand poised there at different stages in their courtship. A gorgeous art deco clock stands shoulder to shoulder with them. In fact, there is a preponderance of clocks. Timing means everything to a con person; one minute too early or late could mean disaster. Gaston’s new-found feelings could tip him off kilter. If he gives in to impulse, he’s lost.

An example of the Lubitich touch in "Trouble in Paradise."

An example of the Lubitsch touch in “Trouble in Paradise.”

In Trouble in Paradise, Lubitsch makes us feel complicit in the best of ways; he makes us feel clever. The film is usually included in any discussion of risqué pre-Code films, those made before the enforcement of the Production Code kicked in during 1934. When Paramount wanted to re-release Trouble in 1935, it was prevented from doing so by the regulatory board. It virtually disappeared for decades, and was rediscovered in the 1960s.

Ernst Lubitsch was born in Berlin in 1892 to a family of assimilated Jews. From childhood he wanted to be an actor, not a tailor like his father. He performed in cabarets, and before the age of 20 won a place in the theater ensemble of Max Reinhardt. From 1913-17, Lubitsch acted in, then also directed himself in, shorts and featurettes centering on the comic exploits of a Jewish man (the HFA series includes Shoe Palace Pinkus and Meyer from Berlin). Stimulated by the filmmaking process, Lubitsch remained behind the camera. In addition to comedies (which included the gleefully over-the-top The Wildcat, starring Pola Negri as a Nordic strongwoman), he made historical dramas that incorporated spectacle in a way different from the popular, operatic Italian blockbusters of the time. He later explained this distinction, “I tried to de-opera-tize my pictures and to humanize my historical characters—I treated the intimate nuances just as important as the mass movements, and tried to blend them both together.”

As Kristin Thompson shows in her excellent book Herr Lubitsch Goes to Hollywood: German and American Film after World War I, Lubitsch was uniquely poised for success in the U.S. because he had quickly absorbed American innovations in technique and, while still working in Germany, was able to implement them. Because Hollywood films had been banned from Germany during World War I, it wasn’t until the 1920s that those in the Germany industry got to see advances in the art and craft of film that would lead to so-called “classical filmmaking.” One of these advances was in lighting. For example, a configuration of lights that included back-lighting would place an actor in relief (as opposed to looking enmeshed within the set). In addition, sparer sets meant less distraction from the narrative. German films looked flat and cluttered in comparison with these new imports. Furthermore, American enhancements in editing contributed to more clarity in storytelling, which meant that acting could be less demonstrative. Lubitsch got it, to the point where nuances of facial expression gradually became a hallmark of his work. His last two films made in Germany were for an American-owned company that made films in Berlin. The company sent Lubitsch and star Pola Negri across the Atlantic, and the rest was history.

Lubitsch’s first American film was a vehicle for Mary Pickford, Rosita (it’s not in the HFA series). Working for several different studios before the advent of the talkies, Lubitsch was able to retain some of his European collaborators, and to introduce German techniques such as the collage-montage, which he used in So This Is Paris. He forged new relationships, including one with cinematographer Charles Van Enger, who would shoot his two best American silents, the wonderfully acerbic comedy of manners The Marriage Circle and the affecting Lady Windermere’s Fan. According to Thompson, “Unlike most émigré directors, he seems to have struck a happy balance between the strengths he brought with him and the rigid, though technically rich, system offered to him by Hollywood.”

With a big personality and a striking silhouette, Lubitsch became a favorite of the entertainment press. His mug was a common sight in fan magazines. The star director was even celebrated in song; specifically, a 1934 tune The Super-Special Picture of the Year by The Yacht Club Boys. One “boy” played the part of the accented Lubitsch (who “came from Germany … went to Hollywood and revolutionized the game”), the others his press agents ballyhooing the effects of said picture (“a thrill a throb a laugh a tear”). Among the lyrics:

Lubitsch: “I vant a thousand aero-planes to crack up in the sky. Ve begin to shoot the picture as the pilots fall and die.”
Press agents: “If you kill a thousand pilots Mr. [Adolph] Zukor [of Paramount Pictures] will get sore.
Lubitsch: “The heck wit’ him, I’m Lubitsch! Kill me 80 pilots more!

Never mind that Lubitsch wasn’t making pictures with air dogfights, what rang true was the force of his will. The director was known for his participation in every facet of filmmaking and for his insistence on coaching his players by acting out their roles for them before shooting a scene. No spontaneity here—he worked out his films to the smallest detail in pre-production.

 in "The Smiling Lieutenant"

Miriam Hopkins and Maurice Chevalier in “The Smiling Lieutenant.”

Beyond Trouble, Lubitsch’s pre-Code films include effervescent musicals with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald (who had sex appeal before she was buttoned up in those operettas with Nelson Eddy). They were paired in the spicy The Love Parade and One Hour with You (a remake of The Marriage Circle but with a shift in emphasis) and the less racy The Merry Widow. Maurice, without Jeanette, is in the really fun The Smiling Lieutenant (once thought to be lost, thankfully rediscovered), in a triangle with Claudette Colbert and Miriam Hopkins. Jeanette, without Maurice, is in Monte Carlo, paired with quirky British stage star Jack Buchanan. Another trademark Lubitsch pre-Code is the uneven Design for Living (adapted by Ben Hecht from the Noel Coward play), about what happens when bohemians achieve material success.

Hollywood movies from the mid-1930s on changed in tone, not only because of the Code enforcement, but also because times weren’t quite as desperate. Lubitsch films, too, became less acidic. The HFA series includes the rarely screened post-Code comedies Angel (starring Marlene Dietrich), Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, That Uncertain Feeling, Heaven Can Wait (which is not the film that was remade starring Warren Beatty) and Cluny Brown. And naturally it includes Lubitsch’s most famous films: Ninotchka, in which Soviet emissary Greta Garbo is famously charmed by Parisian playboy Melvyn Douglas into laughing, The Shop Around the Corner and To Be or Not to Be.

Of the last two, To Be or Not to Be is the more important historically, as a 1942 strike-back-with-satire at Hitler and the Nazi regime—a subject about which Hollywood was strangely reticent—with actors as improbable heroes. It also contained an important statement of Jewish identity. However, it’s the more modest The Shop Around the Corner, now a Christmastime staple on TV, that feels evergreen. This is not only for its wry depiction of a rocky road to romance taken by lonelyheart pen pals (Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart) who unknowingly work next to each other in a Budapest shop, but also for its empathetic depiction of the small community within that establishment (part of which is a poignant father-son relationship between the Stewart and Frank Morgan characters). From the same Lubitsch-Raphaelson team that gave audiences the tart, cynical Trouble in Paradise, Shop is in no way a surrender. It’s merely a pivot towards the heart from an examination of, er, other parts of the anatomy.

Betsy Sherman has written about movies, old and new, for The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, and The Improper Bostonian, among others. She holds a degree in archives management from Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. When she grows up, she wants to be Barbara Stanwyck.

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