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The Essentials: 5 Great Ernst Lubitsch Films

The Essentials: 5 Great Ernst Lubitsch Films

Sadly, the name Ernst Lubitsch isn’t one that’s batted around much by the hip young gunslingers of the movie world. Given that he passed away in the 1940s, there are many whose grandparents were barely out of short trousers the last time a Lubitsch picture was in theaters, and only a few filmmakers (Wes Anderson the most recent) mention him as a touchstone these days. But we’re firmly of the belief that cinema would be much improved if every screenwriter and director sat down for a weekend with the films of the much-missed director.

Lubitsch, born in Berlin in 1892 to Jewish parents, started off life as an actor before becoming a director in the Weimar era, quickly establishing himself as a promising filmmaker while still only in his 20s with melodramas like “The Eyes of the Mummy” and “Anna Boleyn.” In 1922, the director left for Hollywood to work for Mary Pickford and found success with a series of silent films, and eventually, musicals and talkies. Over the next twenty-odd years, he knocked out a string of outstanding comedies, each one displaying the famous, slightly intangible “Lubitsch touch” (Billy Wilder has a good explanation here), even running Paramount for a year in 1935, and picking up a Special Academy Award in March 1947.

Before the year was out, sadly, Lubitsch had passed away, dying from his sixth heart attack, 65 years ago today on November 30th, 1947. At the funeral, Billy Wilder (a protégé of the older director, who worked on him on films like “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife,” and “Ninotchka“)  remarked sadly to another great director, William Wyler, “No more Lubitsch,” to which Wyler replied, mournfully, “Worse than that. No more Lubitsch pictures.” And while his influence lives on (Wilder hung a sign on his desk saying “How would Lubitsch do it?” for the rest of his life), it’s hard not to feel that sadness still today. To mark the anniversary of the director’s passing, we’ve picked out five of our favorites, which will serve as a good introduction to any of you unfamiliar with the director’s work. And there’s plenty more where that came from; feel free to add other recommendations in the comments section below.

“Trouble In Paradise” (1932)
It may be eighty years old, but few rom-coms since have matched the cleverness, wit, sexiness and sheer joy of the meet-cute (a term that barely holds a candle to the sophistication of the film) that opens Ernst Lubitsch’s “Trouble In Paradise.” The dashing and infamous Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) and the gorgeous Lily (Miriam Hopkins) — both thieves — are in Venice, and on a date under the guise of being a Baron and a Countess. But it isn’t long before the crooks realize they are in like-minded company. After they flirt by showing what they have lifted off one another over the course of the evening, they fall swiftly in love. Fast-forward and Gaston and Lily are happily together, scheming their way around Europe, when Gaston sets his eyes on Madame Mariette Colet (Kay Francis), the widowed owner of a lucrative cosmetics company, but he’s soon forced to choose between his love of money and the love of his life. Marshall carries the film with a confident swagger that makes you believe this man could work his way into the heart and business of a woman in a matter of weeks. And Hopkins and Francis are no mere shells, showing two wildly different women — one cool and collected, the other impulsive and passionate — who both have plenty to offer Gaston. It’s a tricky balancing act but the film’s finale, which sees Lubitsch masterfully write his way to an ending that sees all three get what they want and then mirror the opening sequence to top it all off (has pickpocketing ever been done as an act of affection since?), is a total joy to behold. Yes, the film is a total fantasy — two thieves moving from European capital to another, swindling their way through life — but Lubitsch knows if the feelings aren’t genuine it won’t work, and by the end of the picture, you really are rooting for Gaston to make the right choice. Brilliant and breezy (the movie runs at a crisp 82 minutes), deeply romantic and laugh-out-loud funny, “Trouble In Paradise” is pretty much divine. Made just before the Production Code was brought in, the film was effectively banned once it did arrive, remaining mostly unseen until 1968. Thank god it did resurface, not least on an excellent Criterion edition.

“Ninotchka” (1939)
Greta Garbo was one of the first great movie stars; a Swedish beauty who broke out in the silent era and won four Oscar nominations for stunning performances in films like “Anna Christie,” “Romance” and “Anna Karenina.” But she wasn’t known for her sense of humor. Her roles exclusively involved heavy, dramatic subject matter, which is why it marked something of a genius stroke for Lubitsch, in one of the first major examples of casting a star against type, to bring her into comedy, selling “Ninotchka” with the tagline “Garbo Laughs!” (itself a nod to the “Anna Christie” tagline “Garbo Talks!”). The delightful 1939 comedy (written by Walter Reisch, with Lubitsch’s protégés Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett), sees Garbo play the title character, a Soviet envoy who comes to Paris to sell jewelery confiscated from the aristocracy, only to fall in love both the West and Count Leon (Melvyn Douglas), who’s out to take the jewelery back from the Grand Duchess to whom it used to belong. It’s unashamed propaganda, but propaganda with razor-sharp jokes and a feather-light touch, and one of the most purely enjoyable romantic comedies ever made. And the combination of a revelatory, luminous turn from Garbo with the trademark Lubitsch touch turns out to be a perfect fit. Garbo retired after only one more film, 1941’s “Two-Faced Woman,” and it’s hard not to wish, on the basis of this, that she’d discovered comedy, and Lubitsch, much earlier in her career.

“The Shop Around the Corner” (1940)
It’s not just the way that it directly inspired Nora Ephron‘s “You’ve Got Mail” that makes “The Shop Around the Corner” one of the major templates for the romantic comedy as we know it today — along with “It Happened One Night,” “Trouble In Paradise” and their ilk, it cements many of the conventions and plot devices of the genre. But it does so with a charm and grace, and a sense of authenticity, that over seventy years later still makes it hold up as one of the shining examples of the style. Based on the Hungarian play “Parfumerie” by Miklos Laszlo, and retaining a Budapest setting that gives it a timeless, fairy-tale feel, the film’s set at a luxury leather-goods store owned by the kindly but stubborn Mr. Matuschek (Frank Morgan, best known as the titular “Wizard of Oz“). Two of his employees, the long-serving Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) and newcomer Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan), form an instant dislike for each other, but as it turns out, they’ve been corresponding anonymously, unbeknownst to each other, and have fallen in love. The banter between Stewart and Sullavan (who manage to bury oodles of chemistry beneath the quarreling) is snappy and, in true Lubitsch fashion (the director actually considered it his favorite of his own works), unafraid to be sour in places, so their eventual delayed meet-cute feels sweet and entirely earned — even if it can feel frustrating that Stewart finds out earlier, but plays along. But Lubitsch’s eye wanders away from the duo, with a genuinely wrenching subplot about Mr. Matuschek being driven to the brink of suicide by his wife’s affair with an employee (the dapper Joseph Schildkraut), a welcome dose of reality that feels like a direct tonal inspiration for “The Apartment.” The film’s a pleasure to watch at any time of year — not least to the performances from Stewart, Sullavan, Morgan and William Tracy, as delivery boy Pepi — but as one of the great Christmas movies, feels particularly appropriate at this time of year.

“To Be or Not to Be” (1942)
Now regarded as one of the director’s very best movies, “To Be or Not to Be,” a Nazi-themed farce, was widely greeted with cries of “too soon” on release (nothing changes). Reviews were hostile — Bosley Crowther called it “callous and macabre” in the New York Times — box office was poor, and the film received only a single Oscar nomination. But once Hitler had been vanquished, the film’s reputation started to be restored, revealing perhaps Lubitsch’s most daring, accomplished and even funniest film. The plot involves Joseph and Maria Tura (Jack Benny and Carole Lombard, the latter a last-minute replacement for the fired Miriam Hopkins, and sadly in her last role; Lombard was killed in a plane crash two months before the film’s release), a terrible ham and his unfaithful wife, who become embroiled in the resistance movement after the Nazis invade Poland. Soon, they’re mixed up in a plot to kill a senior Nazi, and to escape the country. One can certainly see why audiences might have shifted uncomfortably, with the outcome of the war still uncertain — lines including “What he did to Shakespeare, we are now doing to Poland” still retain their power to shock today (Lubitsch’s furious anger was personal; his baby daughter had been on board a boat sunk by a German submarine in 1939, though she and her nanny fortunately survived). But at a remove, the film now feels like the complete package — hilarious, moving (not least in Benny’s performance of Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech) and with life and death stakes that grip until the end (in some ways, it’s the “Argo” of its day, while obviously much broader in its humor). Benny and Lombard are so perfectly suited to Lubitsch that it breaks your heart that they never were able to work with the director again. An obvious inspiration for the career of Mel Brooks (who went as far as remaking the film in the 1980s, to dismal results) among many others, it’s likely to keep inspiring generations to come.

“Heaven Can Wait” (1943)
Despite being even more transgressive than “To Be or Not to Be” — it’s a Production Code-baiting story of a lifelong philanderer (Don Ameche) pleading his case to be allowed into hell (“I can safely say that my whole life was one continuous misdemeanor,” he says at one point) — “Heaven Can Wait” turned out to be Lubitsch’s greatest commercial success, and earned Best Picture and Best Director nominations from the Academy. Unconnected except by title to the 1978 Warren Beatty film, it sees Ameche’s Henry van Cleve in Hell’s waiting room, greeted by the devil himself (Laird Cregar, in one of the definitive, and most sympathetic, screen portrayals of Lucifer). In order to gain admission to hell, he has to lay out his sins, and goes on to tell the story of his spoilt-upbringing, how he stole wife Martha (Gene Tierney) away from his cousin, and how he proceeded to cheat on her for a decade. What feels and looks like a reasonably broad fantasy turns out to be disguising a sharp, wise and occasionally touching portrait of marriage and its difficulties. Henry isn’t necessarily bad, he was just born that way, and for all his indiscretions, truly loves Martha. While Ameche has been criticized by some over the years, it’s a tricky role to pull off — sort of a blank by necessity — and does manage to give him depth and charm. It’s certainly one of Lubitsch’s most lavish and technically impressive films, the director reveling in the use of Technicolor, but it feels very personal as well; it’s a film as much about death as anything else, and the director was already in ill health, and would pass away three years later. And while other films followed, it’s “Heaven Can Wait” that stands as his last great achievement.

– Oliver Lyttelton, Kevin Jagernauth

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