Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...

THE LUBITSCH FILE - PART 1

by Peter Bogdanovich
March 16, 2013 11:24 PM
4 Comments
  • |

The great Polish-German director Ernst Lubitsch was not an absolute favorite of mine while I was keeping my card file of every movie I saw, 1952-1970, so my ratings and comments would be a great deal higher and more effusive today, because over the years he has evolved into one of my all-time top picture artists. I think perhaps his sense of life and humanity was so much deeper than I could have possibly understood at ages 12 to 31. I have already written extensively about him, and a long piece I did for Peter Kaplan's The New York Observer can be found in the Links section of this blog. Titled "O Rare Ernst Lubitsch," you can go from that introduction to the original article, called "The Importance of Seeing Ernst" at the Observer's website. There's also a section on Lubitsch in the introduction to my Who the Devil Made It (1997), which is now available also as an e-book. Here are the first ten cards---of 28 Lubitsch films---in my movie file.

The initial one, based on a silent 1924 Lubitsch comedy, Forbidden Paradise, was not directed by the Master because of his first of three heart attacks, so he chose Otto Preminger to take over, probably because Otto spoke German; it was number 17 in my run of thousands of pictures, which explains the comment in the second entry about the 2162 films I had seen since my first viewing ten years earlier.

A ROYAL SCANDAL (1945; d: Otto Preminger; p: Ernst Lubitsch).

1952: (Tallulah Bankhead is very funny being herself in this Catherine-the Great-and-her-adventures-in-love fiction.)

Added 1962: Very good- (Ten years makes a difference, and so do 2162 movies in between: this is a graceful, polished and stylish satire on Russia, on Catherine the Second, and, subtly, on movies about period monarchies. Expertly played, written, directed: though by Preminger, the film has a decidedly Lubitsch flavor and personality. Some of his grace and lightness has been replaced by Preminger's roving, dispassionate eye.)

THE MARRIAGE CIRCLE (1924; d: Ernst Lubitsch).

1958: Very good* (Light, droll, satiric and sophisticated comedy of manners, exquisitely directed in the pure Lubitsch style, expertly played by Adolphe Menjou, Marie Prevost, Monte Blue, Florence Vidor; among Lubitsch's most typical works, and perhaps his best silent film.)

Added 2013: This would probably get an Exceptional rating today, as it is one of Lubitsch's finest silent comedies, and he was brilliant with non-talking pictures. It was the first of a series of domestic satires he directed, and especially well-observed; he would eventually remake the story as a marvelous musical titled One Hour with You (1932).

THE LAST COMMAND (1928; d: Josef von Sternberg; story idea: Ernst Lubitsch).

1958: Exceptional- (Superbly directed and acted tale of an aging Hollywood extra who used to be Russia's Army Commander under the Czar. Dark, moody, beautifully photographed, eloquently played by Emil Jennings, William Powell, Evelyn Brent; the film has a style and conception that is uniquely Sternberg's.)

Added 1964: (An extraordinary and moving work, deeply personal, and done with the sure hand of a brilliant film artist.)

THE LOVE PARADE (1929; d: Ernst Lubitsch).

1959: Excellent- (Among the first musicals, a brilliantly directed, written, acted, witty and satiric love story about the Queen of Sylvania and her marriage to her rakish French ambassador, thus making him Prince Consort; done with style, grace and invention. An early classic, and certainly Lubitsch at his most typical.)

Added 1965: (A thorough delight, somewhat rough on the edges because of the primitiveness of sound techniques at the time, but delightfully played and sung by Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald, Lupino Lane, Lillian Roth. Personal, distinctively Lubitsch throughout.)

Added 1966: ("Monte Carlo" and "The Smiling Lieutenant" are more proficient and deeper, but this is still a wonder.)

Added 2013: Again, the rating today would be Exceptional* because this has become one of my favorites: probably the first all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing book-musical ever made in America, and it's a sheer delight. The so-called rough edges are more than compensated for by the charm, wit and romance of Lubitsch's first talkie and first musical---of five he would make in as many years.

DESIRE (1939; d: Frank Borzage; p: Ernst Lubitsch).

1959: (Light, charming sophisticated comedy, excellently directed by Borzage in the Lubitsch manner, with delightful performances by [Marlene] Dietrich and [Gary] Cooper: about a beautiful Parisian jewel thief and an American car designer ("I am happy-glad-delighted to drive a Bronson 8") in Europe. Priceless opening sequence in which Dietrich steals a string of pearls by pretending to be married to a famous psychiatrist (to the jeweler) and to the supposedly disturbed jeweler (to the psychiatrist); ends with the two loudly arguing that she is the other's wife.)

Added 1965: Very good- (Since the film is a Lubitsch project and design, it can not be entirely satisfactory Borzage, and since Borzage directed, it just misses the lightness of Lubitsch. Fun, nevertheless, but when the script bogs down toward the end, neither personality is there to save it.)

Added 2013: Well, the ending becomes more Borzage than Lubitsch---more romantic and not as witty---but it's still a treasure.

TROUBLE IN PARADISE (1932; d: Ernst Lubitsch).

1960: Exceptional (One of Lubitsch's most sparkling, delightful comedies; a sophisticated, dazzling, witty piece about a pair of charming jewel thieves, beautifully played by Herbert Marshall, Miriam Hopkins, and their conquest of a very rich Kay Francis in the wealthy social circles of Europe. A masterpiece of high comedy, with great support from Edward Everett Horton, Charlie Ruggles.)

Added 2013: A few years ago, I did the video introduction for Criterion's DVD release of this wonderful movie, and it just seemed better than ever. And the work was a general-audience picture in its day, not a specialized niche film; so what happened to America that this sort of sophistication could never work today? And Trouble in Paradise is a pre- Code movie, with no moralizing about its amoral hero and heroine; they get away with all their thefts and couldn't be more charming about everything. No wonder Billy Wilder always had a sign in his writing room that read: "How would Lubitsch have done it?"

LADY WINDERMERE'S FAN (1925; d: Ernst Lubitsch).

1961: (Interesting but only moderately successful silent version of Oscar Wilde's brilliantly witty play; judging from this, Lubitsch did not hit his stride until sound came.)

Added 1966: Good* (On the contrary, this is a subtle and elegant Lubitsch version of the play, which, stripped of its flourishes, becomes an almost more powerful social satire, and a more human one; there are several wonderful Lubitsch touches --- especially at the ball near the end --- and the acting is fine. A charming and quite personal achievement.)

TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942; d: Ernst Lubitsch).


1961: Very good (An often uproariously funny satiric comedy set during the Nazi occupation of Poland, and what a Warsaw troupe of actors do to help in the fight; very well played by Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, with superb character support. Lubitsch's sure, easy direction places his personality on every foot of the film; a delightful picture.)

Added 2013: No, Exceptional would once more be the rating today: this is a wildly courageous masterwork, filled with hilarious takes on actors and on the Nazi personality, mercilessly etched by the Master.

THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940; d: Ernst Lubitsch).

1961: Excellent* (One of Lubitsch's most touching, gently satiric, heartwarming and quietly delightful pictures: a beautifully acted, written and directed comedy-romance about a Budapest department store and a pair of employees who fall in love through anonymous correspondence but detest each other in the shop. Subtle, expert performances by James Stewart, Frank Morgan, Margaret Sullavan in a truly memorable, deeply human film.)

Added 2013: Exceptional* through the roof, please! This is one of the greatest of American films: an absolute masterpiece of wit, humanity understood and defined. Each character is vividly brought to life with compassion and love; it makes you laugh, and it can make you cry. It is essentially a celebration of "average" people.  If you haven't experienced this movie, you haven't seen the depth and breadth of Lubitsch at his finest.

NINOTCHKA (1939; d: Ernst Lubitsch).


1962: (Not Lubitsch's best, but still a delightful and wonderfully done comedy romance about the coming-to-bloom of a lady Soviet agent during an assignment in Paris, where she meets a charming white Russian. Garbo has never been better --- indeed it is her most personable performance --- and she receives fine support from the other actors.)

Added 1966: Very good (A trifle too long perhaps, and not as personal as a good many other Lubitschs, but still a very lovely film, handsomely done, well written, and not dated --- surprising for a picture with so many political jokes.)

Added 2013: The film's initial release was marketed with the slogan, "Garbo Laughs," and indeed that scene is a remarkable highlight in the de-icing of a cool lady Communist. Greta Garbo is really wonderful all the way through, kidding her own image of stoic despair. If the last act is not quite as funny as the first two-thirds, it is still an utter delight.



  • |
Free Indie Movies and Documentaries    

4 Comments

  • PB | March 26, 2013 11:14 AMReply

    Blake, as usual, I agree with most everything you wrote. Both "Desire" & "Royal Scandal" suffer
    from Lubitsch's absence. Preminger once made a passing remark to me to the effect that Lubitsch's characters were not real. He is too literal, of course, and particularly weak on comedy.
    Borzage is better with this material, but too sentimental to have the biting edge. And, yes, "Lady
    of the Pavements" & "The King Steps Out" are vastly underrated, and "Love Me Tonight" just as vastly overrated; actually, the Mamoulian sweats, which Lubitsch never does. Finally, the mystery of Lubitsch's touch remains as ineffable and irreplaceable as ever.

  • Blake Lucas | March 24, 2013 10:58 PMReply

    The first group covered three of my five favorite Lubitsch and was pleased (but not surprised) that you now would rate all three of these exceptional (Trouble in Paradise, To Be or Not To Be, The Shop Around the Corner), and especially liked the "through the roof" addition on "Shop" because this is one my absolute favorite movies ever and I think one of the few most perfect movies ever made--I could watch it anytime, much like listening to a favorite piece of music which I do feel it in some way resembles with such graceful shifts of mood. Meantime, something came to mind reading this group of cards--for me, other directors, no matter how gifted, don't work well on what are essentially Lubitsch projects. For example, Desire--I love Borzage in many of his films but this one just makes me wish Lubitsch had directed it. It's even more true with A Royal Scandal and (card to come) That Lady in Ermine, which is signed by Lubitsch as a last film but mostly directed by Preminger. Preminger is a great director, too, but Lubitsch material plays so heavily in his hands and though I should get back to Royal Scandal, I can only say it just didn't seem like much when I saw it 40 years ago (and there are Premingers made around this among his best films, so he was definitely on form). In That Lady in Ermine, there is an absolutely magical sequence early on in the movie that is plainly Lubitsch's work, but most of the rest, though it was clearly a promising project, loses that enchantment completely (I will be interested in your view when the card comes up). On the other hand, however, I think there are times when other directors have done Lubitsch-like material but it was all their own and they were not involved with Lubitsch on those projects that turned out beautifully. I'm thinking of the much underrated The King Steps Out (von Sternberg) and the even more underrated, indeed exceptional Lady of the Pavements (Griffith), which might seem far from what one thinks of with Griffith but he made it so beautiful and a real gem. In these cases, these directors made this kind of world their own, but if Lubitsch were around, with his strong personality dominant, likely it would not have been the case. On the other hand, the more directly related Mamoulian directed Love Me Tonight with Chevalier and MacDonald is a movie with a reputation I've never been able to get. It's stylistically showier than Lubitsch but lacks the feeling his musicals could have and shows how difficult it is to get just this kind of material just right. I'm not dismissing it exactly, but for me it's overrated.

  • PB | March 22, 2013 11:43 PMReply

    You're absolutely right about Lubitsch, and I love the quote about Cezanne, which perfectly
    and succinctly marks the difference between art and social commentary. Yes, and he was
    very wise about people and their behavior. He also loved people.

  • MAK | March 22, 2013 2:55 PMReply

    Lubitsch is a director (and like Hitchcock also a 'silent' co-writer who took no credit) who you grow into, especially once you get past a lot of preconceptions about The Lubitsch Touch, and even what 'comedy' can be. (On the recent Criterion DVD of DESIGN FOR LIVING, there's an excellent little lecture-with-clips on the EXTRAS that covers a lot of these preconceptions and misconceptions. Now, I need to get TROUBLE IN PARADISE out to hear what PB has to say!)

    But perhaps Lubitsch said it best in the quote below.

    'As soon as someone tackles a big theme with a message we take him seriously and call it art. We appreciate a painting of the crucifixion . . . whereas a simple Cezanne depiction of a vase and an apple may be far more enduring as art. I believe -- and I am not comparing myself to Cezanne -- in taking a lesser theme and then treating it without
    compromise.' -- Ernst Lubitsch

    Along with Ozu, Renoir, Ray, Ophuls and a tiny handful of other directors, Lubitsch had that rarest of qualities; he was wise. And on film, the best of company.

    (From a guy who named his cat Ernst.)
    BTW - Nothing against those Lubitsch Touches - my fave is in THE STUDENT PRINCE, so I'll save it until that card comes up.

Follow Me

Latest Tweets

Follow us

Popular Posts

  • The Orson Welles File - Part 5