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The Essentials: 5 Great Ernst Lubitsch Films

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

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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.

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