This is our final part of the Lubitsch file of pictures of his I saw from 1952 through 1970. For grace and charm in the movies, there’s no one greater. And although he was probably the most famous picturemaker in the world during his lifetime, the fact that he is virtually unknown in America today is an awful comment on our film culture, and what Gore Vidal used to refer to as “The United States of Amnesia.” If it’s directed by Lubitsch, it’s automatically worth seeing, and his most brilliant work—of which there is quite a lot—is absolutely essential.
BLUEBEARD’S EIGHTH WIFE (1938; d: Ernst Lubitsch).
1965: Excellent- (Typically Lubitsch farce about a seven-times married American millionaire and the eighth wife who is determined to be the last; delightfully played by Gary Cooper, Claudette Colbert, and a score of marvelous Lubitsch featured actors, directed with all the old grace and wit, though lacking some of the inventiveness — mainly in the script. Nevertheless a complete charmer from start to finish.)
THE SMILING LIEUTENANT (1931; d: Ernst Lubitsch).
1965: Excellent (Charming, nostalgic, personal, beautifully directed and played musical about an Austrian lieutenant who smiles at his love while on duty, and gets in trouble with a visiting princess who thinks he was smiling at her — to the point where he must marry her! Maurice Chevalier, Claudette Colbert, Miriam Hopkins are delightful in their roles, and the whole thing is handled with the finesse and subtlety and invention of a master, which indeed he was.)
Added 2013: Well, yes, but Exceptional* would be my rating today, because this is one of Lubitsch’s greatest, a bittersweet musical with an ambiguous, basically unhappy ending that speaks toward men’s fickleness and women’s sacrifice. This has over the years become one of my favorite films, and seems strangely more relevant today than ever. Certainly, its delicate perfection is only equaled by other Lubitsch masterworks. This artist understood people and had an uncanny sense of timing and nuance. I can’t recommend any director more highly, except possibly Jean Renoir, when it comes to dealing with the so-called human comedy, which often edges toward tragedy.
THE MAN I KILLED (BROKEN LULLABY) (1932; d: Ernst Lubitsch).
1965: Good* (Lubitsch’s only completely serious sound film, and not really his most personal. But still it is an effective and sometimes very moving, beautifully directed story about a Frenchman who cannot forget the young German soldier he killed in the First World War, goes to tell the dead boy’s parents and beg their forgiveness, but stays to marry his fiancee and become a substitute to them for their son whom he killed; ironic, touching, keenly observed, if propagandistic. Most interesting is that Lubitsch does not become heavy just because his story is tragic instead of comic; on the contrary, his touch remains light and eloquently simple, and thus doubly affecting.)
PARAMOUNT ON PARADE (1930; d: Ernst Lubitsch (“The Origin of the Apache Dance,” “A Park in Paris,” “Sweeping the Clouds Away” episodes); ten other directors.
1966: Fair- (Overall, it is only the charm of antiquity that remains in this studio revue, but the three Lubitsch numbers have much more than that — personality, wit, invention…)
Added 2013: This has historical interest, too, since it was Maurice Chevalier’s first appearance in an American film, and his first of many collaborations with Lubitsch.
DRAGONWYCK (1946; d: Joseph L. Mankiewicz; p (uncredited): Ernst Lubitsch).
1966: Fair- (Mankiewicz’ first directorial effort has a quite smooth touch — a flowing camera which hints that Lubitsch was near by — but little depth, little verbal sparkle… It is, instead, a kind of “Rebecca” – “Gaslight” story… Gene Tierney is lovely as the girl, and it occasionally holds interest, but is on the whole…dated, contrived, uninspired, and far from personal.)
CARMEN (GYPSY BLOOD) (1918; d: Ernst Lubitsch).
1968: Good- (Lubitsch’s first great success — not typical of his later films and not in any way as accomplished — but nevertheless possessing his “touch.” It is light where other Germans of the time — all times — were heavy; it is a Continental film, and probably the most like Merimee of any of the versions of his story. Economy, wit, lightness, an edge of humor: all in the Lubitsch vein; the crowds and the spectacle is not as distinctive, but it is a greatly talented early work.)
SO THIS IS PARIS (1926; d: Ernst Lubitsch).
1968: Very good- (Thoroughly delightful Lubitsch comedy of sex and manners — about a doctor, his flighty wife, an effeminate but lecherous “dancer” and his flirty wife — the usual Lubitsch quadrille, danced with wit and grace and an ease that is awe-inspiring; in an age of self-consciousness and effort, he is the supreme example of effortlessness and sophistication. A minor work — talkies improved him and vice versa — but nonetheless intoxicating.)
THE STUDENT PRINCE (IN OLD HEIDELBERG) (1927; d: Ernst Lubitsch).
1969: Exceptional (Typically sublime visit to the funny, sad, beautiful world of Lubitsch and his royal kingdoms, about a crown prince who falls in love with a bar maid and cannot marry her. Full-bodied and eloquent performances by Norma Shearer, Ramon Novarro, Jean Hersholt and the rest of the cast. A lovely movie and a minor masterpiece.)
Added 2013: Actually, it’s even better than that: “minor” not at all, but major indeed. I have written extensively about this beautiful, heartbreaking film earlier in my blog, and you can get to it here.