Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...

The Essentials: 5 Great Ernst Lubitsch Films

Features
by The Playlist Staff
November 30, 2012 2:20 PM
11 Comments
  • |

The Shop Around The Corner
"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
"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)
"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
 

Free Indie Movies and Documentaries    

11 Comments

  • John N | December 3, 2012 1:09 PMReply

    TO BE OR NOT TO BE is one of my favorite films and it does indeed still retain its power. But wasn't it Felix Bressart who did the Shylock speech so movingly, not Jack Benny?

  • Bryan | December 2, 2012 5:50 PMReply

    Good to see any article on the greatness of Lubitsch. Thanks for that. Some great choices too.

  • El Hanso | December 1, 2012 7:54 AMReply

    Die Puppe (The Puppet) is one of the funniest silents I've ever seen.

  • Real | November 30, 2012 8:09 PMReply

    Great list! Thank you!

  • rpjonesin | November 30, 2012 6:59 PMReply

    Nice as it is to see this article, Lubitsch deserves more than Five Essentials. The Smiling Lieutenant and Design for Living are delightful, and The Merry Widow is on par with Trouble in Paradise as far as I'm concerned. Wish we had someone like him today.

    fyi, TCM will be showing a few Lubitsch films every Friday in December. I think I counted around 14 movies total for the month.

  • Smyth E. Alan | December 2, 2012 7:11 PM

    Lubitsch's 'The Merry Widow' can be found in the Criterion Eclipse set, "Lubitsch Musicals"

  • Carmen | December 1, 2012 12:24 AM

    "Design for Living" is essential indeed!

  • Scott | November 30, 2012 7:33 PM

    I can't believe "The Merry Widow" has never been released on DVD. They should do an HD restoration and put it out on Blu-ray as well.

  • Scott | November 30, 2012 3:17 PMReply

    I'm a huge Lubitsch fan and I think you made all the right choices (that is, if one has to limit the selection to just 5)! :-) One possible mistake in your article though -- I don't think the photograph on the first page is Ernst Lubitsch! It looks very similar to Ernst (with the signature cigar) but I think that is someone else....

  • Tom | November 30, 2012 3:04 PMReply

    Thanks for writing this. Lubitsch is a fantastic director.

  • Shawn | November 30, 2012 2:23 PMReply

    The Smiling Lieutenant you fucks, lol.

Email Updates