Sunday, June 27, 2010

#17: Ernst Lubitsch

I challenge any fan of classic cinema to watch that clip and not be completely put in the mood to watch the first Ernst Lubitsch film that you can get your hands on. Hearing Billy Wilder talk about Lubitsch, the man he unceasingly championed as his personal idol in Hollywood, truly is inspiring. His love of Lubitsch has become well known through the often repeated story of how Wilder hung a single sign in his office door that asked: “What would Lubitsch do?” The famed “Lubitsch Touch” is what Wilder continually strove to reach. To see an aging Wilder in the above clip, an undisputed master of direction himself, get that glint in his eye as he meticulously describes a scene Lubitsch created decades earlier (although, the astute Lubitsch fan will notice that he ultimately does reference the wrong film!) reiterates why Lubitsch remains such a fascinating director. Very few contemporaries of the sound era could direct comedy as magnificently as Lubitsch. Even today, he towers above contemporary directors.

The fact that so many accomplished directors themselves seemed keen to declare him the greatest director of comedy speaks volumes. Defining the “Lubitsch Touch” is an elusive task, and I’m sure that everyone has a slightly different explanation of what it means. Lately, though, for me the term has come to symbolize Lubitsch’s ability to make absolutely timeless films. His best work remains just as dynamic today as it did when it first premiered. These films maintain the air of sophistication that Lubitsch did better than anyone, while at the same time preserving the underlying sensual nature of his stories. The placement and movement of his camera created tension and sensuality that never would have slipped by Hays Code censors in more demonstrative form. The physical romance that runs through most of his stories takes place off camera, but he is skilled enough to make sure that the seductiveness and sexuality of it all remains palpable.

But who am I to try and describe in words the brilliance of Lubitsch? His films really just need to be experienced. So, on with the list! And I realize that the number of movies I have seen from Lubitsch is nowhere near being complete. He still has a number of musicals and films from his early years that I have yet to see. Everything I have seen, I love, which speaks well about any "new" Lubitsch movies I watch in the future. And while I'm at it, I'd like to point out how close I came to bumping To Be or Not to Be to the top of the list. It and Trouble in Paradise are two of the funniest movies I have ever seen. I couldn't quite supplant Trouble in Paradise, but it is so close. The next four in line could probably go in any order, but this is how I feel at the moment.

1. Trouble in Paradise (1932)
2. To Be or Not to Be (1942)
3. Heaven Can Wait (1943)
4. Ninotchka (1939)
5. The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
6. The Merry Widow (1934)
7. Cluny Brown (1946)
8. The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)
9. The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927)
10. Design for Living (1933)
11. Broken Lullaby (1932)

Next in line: Fritz Lang.


  1. Dave, so good to see Lubitsch so high on your list and a bit of a surprise too, considering your preference for dark cinema. Your top 7 correspond exactly to mine too (+ "Design for Living" to round out my top 8), although aside from "Trouble in Paradise" I'd probably put them in a different order. Especially gratifying to see "Cluny Brown" and "Heaven Can Wait" up there, which most don't seem to rate as highly as the better known works. It's also interesting to consider your list in the light of what good work he got from his actresses, many of whom were obviously talented, but he really seemed to bring out the best in them, making us see things in them that other directors didn't. Some like Lombard, Jennifer Jones, and Gene Tierney never did better work than they did under his guidance.

  2. Forgot to mention Kay Francis as another actress who was never better than under Lubitsch's tutelage in "Trouble in Paradise."

  3. I have never seen a Ernst Lubitsch film. Old 30's and 40's comedies have never interested me enough to seek them out. I think that I should try to expand my tastes and give them a shot. The motivation is lacking but I will make a concentrated effort to see a couple you have listed......M.Roca

  4. I have only seen seven Lubitsch films all of which are terrific. The top five could easily change positions on another day. If you like Wilder you must like Lubitsch! The influence is all over.

    To Be Or Not To Be
    Trouble in Paradise
    Design for Living
    The Shop Around the Corner
    Bluebeard's Eight Wife
    Heaven Can Wait

  5. R.D. - No doubt that I am drawn to dark cinema, but I love comedy as well - but am very particular about those that I go for. Lubitsch was the man who unlocked the wonderful world of 30s and 40s comedy for me. Trouble in Paradise completely blew me away the first time I saw it and I've been enamored with the work of Lubitsch ever since. I think you hit on one of the man's greatest talents: being able to get the best performances out of his actors. His movies always display wonderful ensemble performances that elevate the hilarious script and his tasteful direction to even more impressive heights.

    Maurizio - I once felt similarly to you toward 30s and 40s comedy (particularly screwball-related films) and it was actually Ernst Lubitsch who won me over. Trouble in Paradise in particular is what did it.

    John - Absolutely, you cannot understand Wilder's style or aspirations without being at least somewhat familiar with Lubitsch. I love seeing TO BE OR NOT TO BE at the top of your list... I didn't have the guts to put it there myself, but it's an all time favorite!

  6. Dave - "To Be or Not to Be" has a triple edge sword. Besides the director I am a big fan or Lombard and Jack Benny so the combination is like a magnet. Of the seven films I have seen the top five are almost interchangeable on any given day. I do like "Bluebeard's Eighth Wife" very much too. Upon seeing BEW for the first time I said to myself wow, this is a Wilder film! Of course, it was co-written by Wilder so something of him comes through. "Heaven Can Wait" is good but it is not in the same class as the others, at least for me. I am sure Mr. Wilder will be popping up somewhere down the road.

  7. John - I need to see Bluebeard's Eighth Wife ASAP then! Heaven Can Wait really charmed me, particularly the wonderful performance of the always-underrated (at least in my opinion) Charles Coburn. Such a great actor!

  8. Tremendous use of that Billy Wilder clip there Dave, and surely we have here one of the titans of the cinema, one who's famed 'Lubitsch Touch' is one of the form's pitch-perfect accomplishments. The Lubitsch Touch" is a brief description that embraces a long list of virtues: sophistication, style, subtlety, wit, charm, elegance, suavity, polished nonchalance and audacious sexual nuance. Although I would be inclined to go with "Trouble in Paradise" as the top film on most days of the week, today I am going to top my list with the film of his that I have the deepest personal affection for, and the one that pond for pound delivers the most by way of emotional resonance.

    1 The Shop Around the Corner
    2 Trouble in Paradise
    3 The Merry Widow
    4 The Student Price in Old Heildelberg
    5 Heaven Can Wait
    6 Anna Boleyn
    7 To Be or Not to Be
    8 Design For Living
    9 Rosita
    10 Monte Carlo
    11 Ninotchka
    12 Eternal Love
    13 Cluny Brown
    14 Madam Dubarry
    15 Carmen
    16 The Smiling Lieutenant

  9. Dave:

    1. Trouble in Paradise (1932)
    2. Ninotchka (1939)
    3. To Be or Not to Be (1942)
    4. The Merry Widow (1934)
    5. The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
    6. Design for Living (1933)
    7. Cluny Brown (1946)
    8. Broken Lullaby (1932)
    9. The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)
    10. Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938)

    “Trouble in Paradise” at one. “Ninotchka” is a very close second, the perfect cocktail: Lubitsch. Wilder and Brackett, Garbo and Hollywood Paris.

    Most of us revisit films throughout our lives (except Pauline Kael). And we often find ourselves quite a different audience the next time around. I mentioned to Matthew Coniam recently, that this revisiting resembles a reverse “Portrait of Jennie” – the film stays the same yet I am older (and different) each time I see it.

    Three samples followed three very different paths.

    When I first saw “To Be or Not to Be,” it was not a Lubitsch film but a Jack Benny movie, and we were at war – one we were not sure we would win. And I saw it as a young boy in a movie house, in black and white, on a large screen. I very much liked it. Now when I watch it again, I still very much like it. But for different reasons.

    Jeanette in “Merry Widow” has traveled a different path. She was made for Lubitsch. In my viewing history she was initially what a boy thought was an old woman who sang boring opera stuff. Blind youth. Jeanette in “Widow” is a smart, sexy, wonderfully naughty woman in period lingerie in the hands of a master. Endless Lubitsch touches throughout, cascading toward the end.

    Last is really an aside: I do not remember not remembering “The Shop around the Corner.” It is ever with us. Still very smart, and a clever idea, executed to perfection by Lubitsch and cast. But I wonder if my personal overexposure has moved it slightly down my list. Of course, I could avoid watching it when next it turns up – but no such thing will happen. Just one more time.

    Best and thank you.


  10. I think I've only seen two of Lubitsch's films, but funnily enough one of them is one that I don't believe has been mentioned so far, 'The Love Parade' (1929) - I didn't enjoy this all that much as I'm not a big fan of operettas, but there is a great opening scene with Maurice Chevallier singing his farewell to Paris. I had meant to carry on and watch a lot of Lubitsch's 1930s films after this but got distracted by other things - however I do hope to see them in the future.

    The other one I've seen is 'The Shop Around the Corner', which I love - it must be one of the best romantic comedies I've seen and also one of the best Christmas films, with its bitter-sweet flavour.

  11. Dave, I have to take a pass on this one. My growing interest in pre-code cinema will bring me to Lubitsch eventually (I have Design for Living in a Gary Cooper collection) but for many years my aversion to romantic comedy kept me away from him except when a high concept (Nintochka) or a favorite performer (I was a big Jack Benny fan as a kid) interested me enough. Those are two good films but not the sort that made me seek out more from the director. Looking forward to Lang, though.

  12. Dave:

    An afterthought to my comment. I know your followers are a savvy lot and they are quite aware that whenever they view a film not seen in some time that they bring something different to the most recent viewing. The point I should have stressed was that when I first saw the Lubitsch films, I was a very young boy. And, I suspect, a goodly number of your followers might have first seen the Lubitsch films already knowing he was an acknowledged master. Thank you again.


  13. Sam - I would have guessed that The Shop Around the Corner would top your list as I remember that you were a great fan of it. I think that it is an outstanding movie as well, but the ones ahead of it I certainly prefer. The Merry Widow actually came close to the top 5 as well.

    Gerald - Wonderful point on how feelings toward a film can change according to the time period in which one watches them. I have experienced this phenomenon as well and it is very entertaining to read how your perspective changed toward some of these all-time classics. You're on a roll with the great comments!

    Judy - Yes, The Love Parade is one that I haven't seen, but like you I'm not a big fan of operettas, so I'm not exactly rushing out to grab it! I would definitely recommend checking out some of the highly listed films here, as I think you would like films such as Trouble in Paradise and To Be or Not to Be.

    Samuel - No problem, I know that Fritz Lang is a favorite of yours and that you will certainly be chiming in on that thread. If you ever do the get the urge to check out any Lubitsch, my top 2 would certainly be the place to star.

  14. Gerald - Point well taken, but even so I think that what you are saying still holds true in either instance. I know it has happened with me with a number of different films. The contrast you make between watching them as a kid and later in life would probably be greater, I suppose.

  15. I've only seen 4 of his movies. When I watched To Be Or Not To Be, it starts out "Poland, 1939" and I thought "A comedy in 1939 Poland? Can they pull this off?" It's brilliant.

    1. To Be Or Not To Be
    2. Trouble in Paradise
    3. Heaven Can Wait
    4. The Shop Around The Corner

  16. I'm trying to find Monte Carlo Madness also called Bombs over Monte Carlo and a few other names.. I see it listed in various places but when I click on them it isn't there. Can anyone suggest where I can go to watch it. I'm interested not only in Lubitsch but in the German who wrote the story: Reck-Malleczeven (something like that) who died in Dachau for writing Diary of a Man in Despair.

    Peter Lorre is supposed to be in it but I haven't seen him listed in the credits. Also there are several years listed for when it was released: 1928, 1930, 1931, 1932.