This week, our featured book is How Did Lubitsch Do It?. Today, we are happy to present an guest post from author Joseph McBride.
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I vividly remember the first time I saw an Ernst Lubitsch film. It was in the late 1960s when I was a student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and saturating myself with classic films. Few Lubitsch films were available then, but I happened to watch Trouble in Paradise, his 1932 romantic comedy about two jewel thieves in France (Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins) involved in an emotionally complex love triangle with the owner of a perfume factory (Kay Francis). The film was sheer perfection. I thought, “I’ve just seen this guy’s masterpiece.”
It took me more than forty years to see the rest of Lubitsch’s surviving films — forty-seven in whole or in fragments out of sixty-nine he directed in Germany and the United States, a relatively good survival record for a director who began in silent films. And after finally seeing them all, I can still say that Trouble in Paradise is the guy’s masterpiece. I have never seen another comedy with such a witty and sophisticated and sexy style, or one that blends comedic and poignant moments with such assurance. One of the principal reasons I wrote my critical study How Did Lubitsch Do It?, a nine-year labor of love published this June, was pure selfishness: I wanted an excuse to see all his films. Many were still hard to see when I started working on the book in 2009, and some of his German work has never yet been released on homevideo in the U.S.
To see everything, I had to travel twice to Germany and once to Switzerland (where I curated a Lubitsch festival). “Had to”? Writing a book on Lubitsch was about as much fun as you can have writing about movies. You can’t truly see a classic film until you’ve seen it on the big screen, and Lubitsch’s work, with its shimmering cinematography, art direction, and costumes, particularly rewards such viewing.
“Although Lubitsch is beloved by hardcore film buffs today — and known by more casual viewers for his classics Ninotchka, The Shop Around the Corner, and To Be or Not to Be — much of his work can seem remote to modern sensibilities.”
My other motive was that I wanted to help restore his reputation. Partly because he died too early to burnish his legend as other directors did, and partly because cinematic tastes have so radically changed since his time, Lubitsch is, if not exactly forgotten, too often overlooked. When I mention his name to people, I often get a blank stare, the same dreaded response I used to get when I would mention John Ford before I and others helped revive his reputation. Although Lubitsch is beloved by hardcore film buffs today — and known by more casual viewers for his classics Ninotchka, The Shop Around the Corner, and To Be or Not to Be — much of his work can seem remote to modern sensibilities.
The world of his comedies and musicals, often set in pre-World War I Vienna or in what he called “Paris, Paramount,” is a vanished place of grace and drollery. His fabled “Lubitsch Touch” is both a way of describing his deft lightness of style and his brilliance in outwitting the often draconian censorship of Hollywood in the Thirties and Forties. Lubitsch brought a new sexual sophistication to American filmmaking in the Twenties and into the pre-Code Thirties, when his continental attitudes (including a most un-American tolerance for adultery, love triangles, and even a ménage à trois in Design for Living) helped revolutionize Hollywood. Sometimes mistakenly viewed as merely frivolous, his films are incisive explorations of how men and women should treat each other. Even after the censorship backlash from 1934 onward, Lubitsch adapted his style with seemingly effortless nonchalance and subtlety. One of the censors said they knew what he was saying, but they couldn’t figure out how he said it.
“Sometimes mistakenly viewed as merely frivolous, his films are incisive explorations of how men and women should treat each other.”
When I show Lubitsch’s films to my students, they are astonished at how adult they are, how far in advance of today’s generally puerile and coarse approach to the romantic comedy genre. Critic James Harvey wrote that by circumventing censorship, “it wasn’t just mockery and dirty jokes that he got away with: it was intelligence itself, in a system that tended to empower stupidity.” My hope for How Did Lubitsch Do It? is that it will lead readers to seek out his body of work for themselves and realize what can be done onscreen with the vagaries of love, romance, and tenderness, laced with a mature, often wistful melancholy. It may be too much to hope that the Lubitsch Touch can be rekindled by filmmakers of the twenty-first century, although some greatly admire him, but we will have his world to inhabit as long as we can keep his films alive.