My Lukewarm Liking for Lubitsch

January 29 is the birthday of the celebrated film director Ernst Lubitsch (1892-1947)

The son of a Berlin clothing manufacturer, Lubitsch went into theatre as a young man, initially as an actor. By 1911 he was with the prestigious company of the legendary Max Reinhardt. Could there have been a better teacher for the art of directing?

In 1913, Lubitsch began acting in films, appearing in 30 of them by 1920. Many of these were slapstick comedies, with Lubitsch playing a droll character named “Meyer”.

He began directing in 1917. His 30 year directing career may be divided into at least 4 phases: German Silents (1917-1922), American Silents (1923-1929); Pre-Code Talkies, characterized by many musicals and operettas (1929-1934); and the Screwball Comedy era (1935-1948), which includes a lot of his best known work today.

The German films include The Merry Jail (1917,  an adaptation of Die Fledermaus); I Don’t Want to be a Man (1918, a precient, gender bending farce); The Eyes of the Mummy (1918, very nearly a horror film) Carmen (1918, the Bizet opera); The Oyster Princess (1919, perhaps his strongest bona fide satire); Madam Dubarry (1919); Meyer from Berlin (1919, with Lubitsch as the comedy star!); The Doll (1919, based on a tale by E.T.A.Hoffman); Sumurun (1920, an Arabian fairy tale); Anna Boleyn (1920); The Wildcat (1921); and The Loves of Pharoah (1922, his biggest, grandest and last German film). The films of Lubitsch’s German period are much more heterogeneous in nature than his later work, and he comes off as a much more well rounded director. There are some typically strange, Germanic existential films in the mix, slapstick, horror and some grand historical epics. He also provided a platform for soon-to-be international movie stars like Pola Negri and Emil Jannings. Hollywood of the day had nothing on Lubitsch during his German period.

Hollywood clearly felt the same way. Mary Pickford brought him over to direct her 1923 film Rosita for United Artists. And he stayed. The silent films of the Hollywood period are much like his Berlin ones, only featuring American (and Anglo) stars, like Adolphe Menjou, Marie Prevost, Lew Cody, Clara Bow, Ramon Novarro, Norma Shearer, Ronald Colman, Patsy Ruth Miller, Lilyan Tashman, Dot Farley, Myrna Loy, John Barrymore, Hobart Bosworth, Florence Vidor, Lewis Stone; Raymond McKee, Monte Blue — and old friends like Pola Negri and Emil Jannings. These films include The Marriage Circle (1924); Three Women (1924); Forbidden Paradise (1924, about Catherine the Great); Kiss Me Again (1925, based on a Sardou play); Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925, based on the Wilde play); So This is Paris (1926); The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927); The Patriot (1928,a biography of Czar Paul I); and Eternal Love (1929).

Though Lubitch was from Berlin and his earlier work bore the stamp of his native city, curiously his work in America seemed much more Viennese in spirit — light farces and romances as opposed  to heavy handed horror, history, tragedy and self conscious art. At least partially this has to be the voice of popular demand weighing in, but it also says something about his own sensibilities

The sound era allowed him for the first time to exercise his penchant for musicals, operettas and dialogue driven comedy. Sam Raphaelson, best remembered for The Jazz Singer, became his most frequent collaborator as screenwriter. Now he worked with stars like Maurice Chevelier, Jeanette MacDonald, Lillian Roth, Jack Buchanan, Zasu Pitts, Claudette Colbert, Miriam Hopkins, Charlie Ruggles, Lionel Barrymore, Kay Francis,  Herbert Marshall, Edward Everett Horton, C. Aubrey Smith, Robert Greig, Gary Cooper, Fredric March, Franklin PangbornIna Claire, Fifi D’Orsay, Sterling Holloway, and Donald Meek. Films of this period include The Love Parade (1929), The Vagabond King (1930, about Francois Villon, later remade with a script by Preston Sturges); Monte Carlo (1930, based on the novel Monsieur Beaucaire); The Smiling Lieutenant (1931, adapted from a Straus opera); One Hour With You (1932, a musical remake of The Marriage Circle); Broken Lullaby (1932); Trouble in Paradise (1932); Design for Living (1933, based on the Noel Coward play); and the famous operetta The Merry Widow (1934).

Then finally the home stretch, the mature period, when Lubitch worked with many of the above named stars and added Marlene Dietrich, Melvyn Douglas, David Niven, Greta Garbo, Bela Lugosi, Sig Ruman, Richard Carle, Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart, Frank MorganMerle Oberon, Burgess Meredith, Alan Mowbray, Harry DavenportEve Arden, Jack Benny, Carole Lombard, Robert Stack, Lionel Atwill, Don Ameche, Gene Tierney, Charles Coburn, Marjorie Main, Spring Byington, Eugene Palette, Louis Calhern, Tallulah BankheadAnne Baxter,  Vincent Price, Mischa Auer, Grady Sutton, Charles Boyer, Jennifer Jones, Peter LawfordReginald Gardiner, Reginald Owen Billy Bevan, Una O’Connor, Betty Grable, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. , and Cesar Romero.

In short, he seems to have worked with nearly every great Hollywood star and character actor of the studio era!

The films of this phase are Angel (1937); Bluebeard’s 8th Wife (1938): Ninotchka (1939); The Shop Around the Corner (1940); That Uncertain Feeling (1941); To Be or Not to Be (1942); Heaven Can Wait (1943); A Royal Scandal (1945, co-directed by Otto Preminger, a remake of Forbidden Paradise); Cluny Brown (1946); and That Lady in Ermine (1948, also co-directed by Preminger; Lubitsch died during shooting).

Some of the films of this period (Ninotchka, To Be or Not to Be, and Heaven Can Wait) are ones I saw first, have seen most often, and probably enjoy the most, although many of the silent movies, especially the German ones, have been wonderful discoveries. To Be or Not To Be has to be one of Jack Benny’s best movies by a mile. And I am interested by the the fact that Ninotchka and To Be or Not to Be are topical and deal with totalitarianism, although not really head-on. In both cases they form backdrops for the usual romantic farce, mere updatings of the bureaucratic principalities in his past work. They have been called satires, but I think that is overstating the case. His fabled “touch” is far too gentle for that. And now we come to the bend in the road.

I confess that I find the so-called “Lubitsch Touch” overhyped, and it’s probable that I’ll never overcome my skepticism or lack of enthusiasm for it. The Lubitsch Touch has been described as a certain quality of delicacy and economy which only Lubitsch possesses, an elegance that characterizes his directorial problem solving. Like the  smile of the Mona Lisa, it is a quality more felt with the gut than comprehended as a fact. It is a subtle style. As with the works of Hawks, you really do have to see many of the films to be able to put your finger on it, and you must see a lot of similar films by other directors to help you identify what it is not.

And, like all such ephemeral phenomena, it is an open question whether it is even real. Like the “wit” of the Algonquin Roundtable members,  people largely believe it exists because other people have said that it exists. My hesitancy in becoming a convert is not for want of exposure. I saw my first Lubitsch films as a teenager, and by now have seen almost all of his extant films, both silent and sound, German and American. Certain of his films (mostly the later ones, like Ninotchka and To Be or Not To Be), I have seen many times. Ordinarily one explores an artist in such depth because one truly loves them and obsessively consumes all their work. But sometimes the opposite is true. Sometimes their work is elusive and enigmatic; they don’t speak to me, but they speak to others, so it is more like I am investigating a mystery.

To finesse my position: I think Lubitsch is a great, even an exquisite craftsman. He seems to have been incapable of making making a bad (in the sense of badly made) film. The art direction in his movies is perhaps unsurpassed, at least in his own time. He composes a beautiful shot; he stages actors with precision and economy and cleverness and wit. He makes great pictures and innovative screen moments. Like all great directors, he establishes “tone”, a common playing style which the whole cast adopts, constituting the “fabric” of the whole experience. Does he get funny performances? Are his movies funny? Yes, yes, yes, yes. But I want more. To some, perhaps a majority, what I have described is the sum of what is sought. Certainly many a director never transcends those parameters: organizing humans and matter in space and time to tell a diverting, possibly meaningful, story. But to me, these are the baseline, mechanical aspects of the art. They are absolutely fundamental and necessary, and a shocking number of film directors don’t possess these gifts, so they are not to be dismissed. But they are not all. 

As for what I think Lubitsch lacking — I hasten to point out that this is my own peculiarity, one in which I may well be quite alone. I don’t ask you to share it or adapt it or even understand it.

Though I find Lubitsch’s movies well shot, well staged, well cast, well acted and well costumed, I confess that for the most part I find myself uninterested in the stories. I can only attempt to  articulate why his work doesn’t speak to me.

Firstly, at the most primitive level, there’s an enormous gulf (bigger than usual) between me the audience member, and the people, places, and things at the heart of Lubitsch’s stories. I am an American. Lubitsch is not. Some, like Billy Wilder (also from Berlin) became American, some might say with a vengeance. Lubitsch never did. I’m not talking about citizenship papers. I’m talking about, to use the best possible word, weltanschauung. At the crudest and most barbaric level possible, I want a native story, set in America, with characters who have something to do with me. Not invariably! But I need something to bridge the gulf. And many achieve that. For example, I love Max Linder and Jacques Tati; I find elements in their work that tie them to me. And this is true of countless foreign film directors. So I’m not coming from a place of jingoism. But Lubitsch actually came to America and made films in Hollywood. But never stopped adapting plays and operas by Hungarians, Austrians, Germans and Frenchmen for the screen, and doing so without tweaking them for the American sensibility. They retained the European locations, presented European social systems, and so forth.  (There are some exceptions, of course. Heaven Can Wait has been transplanted to America from a Hungarian original, and Design for Living’s characters have been Americanized. But these are rare exceptions). I have no idea why Hollywood would make these films, or why Americans would watch them. Yes, they have their virtues. As I have said, and will probably need to say again, I have watched them all, some of them many times. I am talking about why they exist in the first place.

I just LIVE for stories about the Hungarian army!

I have a partial answer, but it is not one calculated to secure my buy-in. It provides context for my dislike, and also may help explain his popularity in America. The answer is that, in the scheme of things, America is a young country, and it took a long while to get around to creating its own art. It was even younger in 1923! The country had an inferiority complex for a long time about the need for a native art, and its ability (or lack of ability) to generate one. Emerson wrote a manifesto on the topic. Whitman, who died the same year as Lubitsch was born, was and is widely touted as possibly America’s first true native poetic voice, for example. And so is Twain, of the same generation as Whitman. And the theatre arts have always been said to have lagged behind the others worst of all. In the late 19th century and early 20th centuries the American drama and American musical theatre were much more like how we still think of the ballet and the opera. Lots of European imports, and adaptations thereof. Artists like David Belasco and George M. Cohan and Irving Berlin and Eugene O’Neill slowly began to change that. But at the time at which Lubitsch was making his films, the kind of films he was making — adaptations of works by Sardou and Straus, and so forth were toward the end of a much larger cultural wave that had gone on for over a century. So in this particular case, what we are talking about is less a manifestation of jingoism and much more like something resembling anti-colonialism. For real. And to a certain extent, the arts in America are still crawling out from under the fat butt of European culture that’s been sitting on our head and suffocating us for centuries.

So this is an explanation both for why Lubitsch’s films exist (they were thought to lend prestige), but also, why I frankly recoil from them at an instinctive level. Art is a form of cultural expression and native prejudices are powerful. I’d be dishonest if I said I weren’t guilty of sharing them sometimes: football vs. soccer, NASCAR vs. Grand Prix, fried chicken vs. coq au vin. And Preston Sturges over Lubitsch. Sturges absolutely studied Lubitsch, drew from him…but drew equally from Mack Sennett, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. And Wilder — who spoke American better than most Americans.

And there’s more. For while the settings and subject matter of Lubitsch’s films are all European, so is the point of view.

Somebody please help that Prince! His carriage is so uncomfortable!

Not insignificantly, Lubitsch’s entire world is aristocratic; American political culture is ostensibly democratic-republican (or was. I fear that has begun to erode in recent decades. So perhaps we should tweak to “ought to be”).  Personally (and I remind you that I am writing about my own admitted prejudices) my thing is not rich people or their world, evening clothes and men with monocles, and princes and princesses and life in fancy mansions and palaces and hotels and balls and so forth. I much prefer Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers who crash the gates, run in, and turn the furniture upside down. I am okay with palaces in fantasy for some reason (Disney or Oz), but when it becomes to something resembling the real world, then the Kings and noblemen better be men of action as in Shakespeare and not fops in sashes drinking champagne.

Kings? I hates a King! George III is a king! Is Lubitsch not apparently, even solely preoccupied with the welfare of the rich? Compare and contrast him with the likes of Hawks and Sturges, both of whom had terrific democratic instincts as showmen and artists despite having had some personal experience of luxury. Or Capra, who has the perspective of an Italian immigrant. He’s not giving us Rossini operas — he’s expressing himself as an Italian-American, a true hybrid voice, a new voice. The supremacy of the Common Man. In a Lubitsch film, the Common Men are the servants, and he’s okay with that.

“Come on, baby, drop everything you believe!”

Lubitsch is more than okay with a world that has servants. He seems resigned to the world as it is. He is a fatalist. Yet for the most part, Americans (of both the left and right nowadays) are activists. If something upsets us, we march right down to city hall. Our art, even silly pop culture, generally reflects that outlook, the optimistic view that positive change (whatever we may think it consists of) is possible. Lubitsch seems to cynically think that all institutions and social structures are corrupt and exist only to be ignored and evaded, or are universally treated that way, which is to say the same thing. Those who believe in them, like Ninotchka, are self-deluded dreamers and naifs and suckers. To him, humanity is what it is, and there is no hope for improvement, no chance for redemption or reprieve, other than coming to terms with life as it is. That the world is far from Shangri La, he acknowledges, but the acknowledgment does not go so far as to advocate that we attempt to reform it. His work may be ironic but I would not call it satirical. It expresses a bemusement, but ultimately an acceptance of the ways of the world. His characters do not fight but bend to the world’s imperfections. World weary, they prefer to let their enemies exhaust themselves with their own foolishness rather than lift a finger to change things. There is no other way to put it: this voice is not characteristically American. His is an Old World voice,  jaded, resigned to fate. As soiled and tawdry as America has revealed itself to be over the last few years, culturally America is still coasting on pushes it got from Puritanism and Progressivism and many another ism in the past: a belief in the perfectibility of man and his institutions.

Lubitsch’s two big themes are marital infidelity and institutional corruption. Yet unlike an Ibsen or a Shaw, he doesn’t exhort us to fix the broken institutions. He thinks that’s folly. His only message, such as it is, is “leave well enough alone. I’m not gonna even try to touch this.” He is a formalist. He makes perfect machines. He is like an architect or a musician. Most of his works are farces. To me, they feel trivial. Trifles. Truffles! And the absence of prescription in his work often makes them feel immoral or amoral to me. I’ve always been bugged by Trouble in Paradise, for example. These people are THIEVES! That’s not okay! I don’t like them! I don’t want them to succeed! If they are charming, all the worse! And the same goes for the flagrant adultery in all his movies. He doesn’t judge. Most people have been guilty of the foible? So what? This is a cultural product! It should judge! If it doesn’t judge, it endorses!

I do not approve.

“Why is it okay for the Marx Brothers and Chaplin to steal and assume false identities and not Lubitch characters?”, you may be justified in asking. Something about scale. There’s something subversive and political and class-based about ragamuffins doing it. They’re doing it presumably because they don’t have other options. I feel like the ones in Trouble in Paradise...are in paradise! They steal to maintain the lifestyle of wealthy people…and lord it over people at the bottom. Who are they but Roscoe W. Chandler? Hypocrites and pretenders!

Whereas someone like Wilder may be influenced by Lubitsch but meets the American sensibility at least halfway. Wilder’s work rises to the level of satire, which is activist, I feel. I’d list the Wilder movies that do this, but why bother? It’s like 20 movies. He cares. He criticizes the status quo with a good deal of vehemence. Presumably you do that so we can work on ourselves to be better. I feel like, as opposed to Lubitsch, Wilder really looked hard at America and saw through the lies it told about itself and then told the truth. This is American, as American as Mark Twain and H.L.Mencken. Whereas Lubitsch….never even saw America. His head was completely back in Europe culturally and aesthetically.

It’s fine, I’m not saying it’s not alright for you, I’m articulating why he doesn’t speak to ME on a gut level. People who don’t read very well will immediately walk away saying, “You hate him. How can you hate Lubitsch?” But of course I never said that. There are entire paragraphs full of sentences extolling his virtues contained above. And I refer you back to the title of the post. Not loving is not necessarily hating, something many people can’t seem to register.

6 comments

  1. I think appreciation of Lubitch has been damaged by his reputation. I think all that talk about the “Lubitch touch” foregrounds the trivial and makes the social criticism a backdrop for the romance, where I think in actually the romantic plots are the background. There may be a repetitiveness to his repeated pattern of self-deception becoming self-awareness though disappointment, but there is great variety in the types of self-deception he portrays.

    Also, the way he links political, social, and moral issues to the petty actions of his characters is always bracing. None of his characters are truly heroic or truly villainous. They are all working out personal issues that just happen to connect with something larger. Everyone is flawed and everyone is generous.

    When I was young I saw Trouble in Paradise and wondered what the fuss is about. But with age, it has taken on depth for me. When I was young I looked at it as a “Lubitch comedy,” which made it a ridiculous exercise in style. But now it is just a film to me–and it is all the better for that.

    Like

  2. This is so well-articulated and thoughtful. One of your best pieces, Trav, thanks for this. Much to think on here. (And I basically agree with you completely. And would love to hear more of your thoughts about DESIGN FOR LIVING one of these days, which I saw recently and found curiously compelling, especially whenever Gary Cooper was on screen.)

    Like

    • Thanks, Martin! I found “Design for Living” interesting and odd and even compelling. It was written as you know to be Coward himself with Lunt and Fontanne. It’s hard for me to buy Cooper and Frederich March as artist/ bohemians of any sort (March had literally been a businessman) but it is interesting and illuminating to see them try, and maybe they’re not far off the mark. It’s also interesting to watch Hollywood come close to depicting a menage a trois, or as close as it dare get. I found it enjoyable though minor. I’m sure I’d watch it anytime it was on TCM! (and I agree about Cooper, he was just one of the greatest stars of his time. He’s sadly started to slide into oblivion, I fear, maybe because a lot of his best movies were westerns.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.