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THE LUBITSCH FILE - PART 2

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by Peter Bogdanovich
March 28, 2013 12:42 AM
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Lubitsch directing still

And so we continue with the Lubitsch films I saw from 1952 through 1970, with the ratings and commentary from my movie-file cards. As I said in Part 1, my admiration and affection for Lubitsch was great back then, but it has grown a good deal stronger as I've aged. His wisdom and wit and compassion now impresses me more than ever, and his ineffable, unmistakable style has become all the more precious.

THAT LADY IN ERMINE (1948; d: Ernst Lubitsch; & uncredited, Otto Preminger).

1962: (Sometimes awkward and a trifle forced, but nonetheless amusing, charming satiric fantasy-romance with songs, about a pretty young Queen and the nasty Hungarian ("Oh, what I'll do to that wild Hungarian...") who conquers her country and her heart, with the help of her ancestral portraits that come to life. Funny, personal, touching.)

Added 1965: Very good (Lubitsch's last film, he did not even live to finish it, and thus his inimitable touch is lacking for the necessary polish, and the cast is not always up to the required sophistication, but still this is a master's film, and it bears the stamp of his charm.)

Added 2013: This was to be Lubitsch's sixth musical, and his first since the financially unsuccessful yet absolutely glorious The Merry Widow (see below), but a fatal heart attack killed him after only eight days of shooting; so the bulk of the movie was directed by Otto Preminger, who can be a terrific director (Laura, Anatomy of A Murder, Advise and Consent, Exodus), but this kind of light-hearted, satirical fantasy is beyond his ability, or indeed anyone else's. There was only one Ernst Lubitsch and he was irreplaceable, that's all.

Cluny Brown still
CLUNY BROWN (1946; d: Ernst Lubitsch).

1962: Excellent (Charming, delightful, very funny, and completely carefree Lubitsch comedy set in pre-war British society about the love of a Czech author-conman for a plumber's daughter who doesn't "know her place". Beautifully acted and satirically written, lightly directed and perfectly controlled; a real pleasure.)

Added 2013: Exceptional* was my highest rating, and that's what I would give this thoroughgoing delight today: Lubitsch's last completed film, and an absolute masterpiece, in which Charles Boyer gives a delectable and brilliant performance, as does Jennifer Jones as the object of his affections. That Lubitsch died within a year after this final work is palpably tragic as you can see how young and energetic and how on-the-mark he remained to the end. An unalloyed pleasure is Cluny Brown, among his least-known pictures, it is also among his finest.

DESIGN FOR LIVING (1933; d: Ernst Lubitsch).

1962: Excellent* (Thoroughly delightful, sophisticated, and brilliantly subtle, stylish, tasteful sex-comedy about two artists and a young woman who take up residence, promising each other, of course, hands off. Finally, the lady gives in to love, saying, as she falls on the couch, "It was a gentleman's agreement; and I'm no gentleman." Witty, urbane, beautifully controlled, written, directed. The cast, all of them perfectly charming, is led by Miriam Hopkins, Fredric March, Gary Cooper, Edward Everett Horton.)

Added 1965: (Even funnier the second time: a droll work, enlivened by Lubitsch's worldly, enchanting touch.)

Added 2013: Much has been made of the fact that this is by no means like the original stage comedy written by Noel Coward; it is based on the Sir Noel's premise, but it's essentially a new script written by Ben Hecht to Lubitsch's specifications. The play could probably not have survived intact since it was basically a menage a trois story, so Lubitsch ran with the ball in a different direction and came up with a delight; though it isn't my favorite film of his, it's still pretty damn good.

THE MERRY WIDOW (1934; d: Ernst Lubitsch).

Merry Widow still

1962: Very good (Lehar's operetta satirically, lightly, eloquently transformed into perfect Lubitsch material. Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald, Edward Everett Horton star in this fluffy Ruritanian musical romance about a tiny country's wealthiest widow, who leaves for a stay in Paris, and the King's desperate plan to have a handsome Captain marry her and bring her back. Of course, they are already in love, but no one knows that. It is the director's sure and personal touch which makes everything work --- sad, funny, graceful. Not one of his very best, like the early Paramount musicals, but still completely disarming and charming.)

Added 1965: (The songs are not as tongue-in-cheek or witty as the ones in Monte Carlo or The Love Parade, and this weighs the film down, but Lubitsch's buoyancy triumphs.)

Added 2013: No, no, no, absolutely wrong: Exceptional* should be the rating, and it is, on the contrary, among Lubitsch's very, very best! In fact, it might be my most favorite Lubitsch picture, and unquestionably his greatest musical. The Merry Widow is pure gold, and all the songs and performances are sublime. It has become such a cherished film in our family that my daughters and others close to us constantly quote numerous lines from this divine work of art. That it is currently unavailable on an American DVD is  perhaps the most appalling example of what's missing of movie classics (you can get a Japanese DVD of the picture, in English, but it only plays on all-region sets). This is a splendid work that we watch at least once a year to be generously uplifted.

HEAVEN CAN WAIT (1943; d: Ernst Lubitsch).

Heaven Can Wait still


1963: Excellent* (A fine cast, under Lubitsch's divine guidance, make something really beautiful and profound out of this simple story of a man's life recalled at the threshold of hell. The director's wit, warmth, personality, wisdom and style has never been more enchanting or vivid; a rare thing --- a charming movie.)

Added 1968: (A deeply personal film, with all the maturity of age and the understanding of a lifetime; among Lubitsch's finest works.)

Added 1969: (The rating should read Exceptional* which is what this film is, uncut and in color, as I've never seen it before; it is an unqualified masterwork which only Lubitsch could have made --- a marriage of humor and tears --- sometimes both at once --- that is spiritual in its depth and beauty. Perhaps Lubitsch's best film because it is so entirely his, so completely inconceivable in any way without him.)

Added 2013: YES! I got it right the third time around!

Angel still
ANGEL (1937; d: Ernst Lubitsch).

1963: Very good* (Marlene Dietrich, Herbert Marshall, and Melvyn Douglas are delightful in this dry, melancholy, sophisticated and brilliantly urbane Lubitsch comedy-drama about a lady's abortive affair and how it enriches her marriage. Beautifully written, stylish, understated, personal direction.)

Added 2013: Nope, it's Exceptional too. While it's true that Marlene seems subtly lost in this picture (she wasn't bowled over by Lubitsch and preferred speaking German with her mentor, Josef von Sternberg), it is nevertheless among the great filmmaker's most subversive and dryly devastating satiric comedies; impeccably directed, beautifully acted by Herbert Marshall and Melvyn Douglas. Not a success in its day, it is still relevant and vividly human.

ONE HOUR WITH YOU (1932; d: Ernst Lubitsch).

1963: Very good* (Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald in Lubitsch's thoroughly delightful, fresh and charming musical version of his 1924 social comedy, The Marriage Circle, about some frivolous infidelity among two couples. Gay, risque, irreverent, it is not one of Lubitsch's masterpieces --- The Love Parade is superior in the genre --- but a captivating, melodious, completely personal, stylish work nonetheless.)

Added 1966: (The film lies somewhere between the gaiety of Monte Carlo and the wisdom of Angel --- a kind of transition piece in itself, wonderfully played, slight in appearance, but with considerable depth beneath the light touch. A special and completely Lubitschian piece.)

Added 2013: Again Exceptional: The five Lubitsch Musicals---four of them available on The Criterion Collection---are an utter joy to me, each one of them. So I'm not really prone to quibble about one being superior to the other: I enjoy all of them immensely.

THAT UNCERTAIN FEELING (1941; d: Ernst Lubitsch).

1963: Very good* (Melvyn Douglas, Merle Oberon, Burgess Meredith in another divine Lubitsch triangle --- the insurance salesman, his art-conscious wife, and the genius-pianist --- that comes out, as usual, in favor of marriage; light, witty, uncannily exact in flavor, atmosphere, character, taste; a personal and thoroughly delightful movie by perhaps the ultimate master of civilized (and sometimes not-so-civilized) comedy-satire.)

Added 2013: This has some marvelous things in it, but is unfortunately damaged by the casting: except for old reliable Lubitsch veteran Melvyn Douglas, the other two stars don't quite measure up; they're labored and the Master's magic doesn't spark them as much as one would hope. It's still fun at times, because even an off-day with Lubitsch is better than most others' best. You are left to imagine how much better it would have played with a couple of actors who could pull it off.

IF I HAD A MILLION (1932; d: Ernst Lubitsch, "The Office Clerk" episode).

1963: Fair (Some very funny episodes in this omnibus film about what happens to a group of people, each of whom is given a million dollars by an absolute stranger; the Lubitsch sequence [with Charles Laughton] is the best and also the shortest...)

Added 2013: Yes, it's the shortest and wittiest, with no dialog and only one sound: a raspberry!

MONTE CARLO (1930; d: Ernst Lubitsch).

Monte Carlo still

1965: Exceptional (Sublimely entertaining, witty, charming Lubitsch musical about a broke Countess and a wealthy Count who masquerades as a lowly hairdresser to get near her. Beautifully played by Jack Buchanan and by Jeanette MacDonald, delightfully scored and written, directed with that unmistakably light and tickling quality that seems to mock as it celebrates, and celebrates as it mocks --- the Lubitsch touch indeed, and what a marvelous personality he had. This is among his most enjoyable pictures, each song is bright and amusingly staged, and the whole has a flow and style that is as rare as it is wonderful.)

Added 1966: (It is incredible to realize that this was mass entertainment 36 years ago, and so far superior to its contemporary counterparts. There is real wit here, and warmth without mawkishness, silliness without insipidity and style without stylishness. It is among the most entertaining films ever made, and perfection in its every scene.)

Added 2013: It's extraordinary how accomplished Lubitsch was with sound in only its second year, which is true of all his musicals. This one has the famous train sequence during which Jeanette sings "Beyond the Blue Horizon," joined by a chorus of folks they pass along the way, kidding it at the same time it enchants.

PS: Frank Tashlin did a funny and charming parody of this in the final Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis comedy, Hollywood or Bust (1955); they ride in a convertible singing "Nothing's As Gay As A Day in the Country," while gorgeous and buxom women in shorts wave from along the roadside. Frank had intended to introduce the sequence with a road sign that read: "You Are Now Entering LUBITSCH," but the studio nixed the idea.


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1 Comment

  • James | March 28, 2013 3:02 AMReply

    Peter, many thanks for showing us these, and for your recent thoughts in the updates. Reading them one after the other, masterpiece after masterpiece - geez, it gets daunting.

    You may be pleased to know that 'The Merry Widow' (my own personal favourite) was finally released in the US through the Warner Archive line just last week (hence a non-restored DVD-R). A great pity, as it deserves to be seen by all, in the best possible way.

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