Indelible Film Images: The Films of Ernst Lubitsch

In honor of the director Ernst Lubitsch, who was born on this day in Berlin in 1892, here are some memorable shots from ten films made during the Hollywood portion of his career. Each still is accompanied by an excerpt from a review, essay or other text written about the film. Until his death in 1947, Lubitsch was a master creator of love stories and his preferred genre, the romantic comedy, blossomed under his expert touch.

The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927) – Cinematography: John J. Mescall

New York Times film critic Mordaunt Hall: “In this new offering Mr. Lubitsch lives up to all that has been written about him. He may be a stylist, but he is one who does not choose to repeat on any of his past bright camera ideas. Yet the satirical shafts, the careful attention to telling details, the half-second notes and the keeping within certain bounds inform the spectator, even though the name of Lubitsch were not emblazoned on the screen, that it is the master from Berlin who has directed this splendid shadow story.

Few men in the motion picture game could have kept an audience in a high state of merriment with such a story. And last night what was most unusual was the fact that the clique that are ever ready to applaud frequently forgot to do so—because they were enjoying the picture so much.”

The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) – Cinematography: George J. Folsey

Film critic Mick LaSalle in his book Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood: “Paramount was the most sophisticated of the major studios, so it’s appropriate that two of its premiere pre-Code actresses – Miriam Hopkins and Claudette Colbert – emerged in a Maurice Chevalier musical, directed by the Continental master, Ernst Lubitsch. In The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), Colbert played the lover of an officer (Chevalier), who is forced into marriage with Hopkins, a frumpy, love-starved princess. After the marriage, the officer refuses to share his wife’s bed, until the lover generously gives the wife a beauty makeover.

In reality, it was Colbert who at this stage needed, if not a makeover, some finishing touches. Colbert would soon transform herself into a vivacious and self-assured screen presence, her mellow voice dripping with worldly amusement and ease. But in 1931 she was still an apple-cheeked ingenue, while the blond and spirited Hopkins was fully formed.

Miriam Hopkins is one of the undiscovered joys of the pre-Code era. She didn’t make many films, but she made a disproportionate number of first-rate ones. She was kittenish and seductive, a mischievous belle from Bainbridge, Georgia, with a sneaky smile, and she could play anything. Hopkins was busting with energy – not the Crawford-like energy of a woman dancing fast to keep the whorehouse customers happy – but the kind of energy that comes from being smarter and faster than everyone else.”

One Hour with You (1932) – Cinematography: Victor Milner

Senses of Cinema essayist Wheeler Winston Dixon: “Indeed, the film is one of Lubitsch’s best works, and showcases the talents of stars Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald to excellent advantage, in yet another variation on Lubitsch’s silent hit The Marriage Circle (1924). Dr. Andre Bertier (Chevalier) is blissfully married to Colette Bertier (MacDonald), until Colette’s old ‘friend’ Mitzi Olivier (Genevieve Tobin) arrives on the scene, and begins an aggressive campaign of seduction aimed at Andre, despite the fact that she is still married to the long-suffering Professor Olivier (Roland Young). At the same time, Colette has to fight off the unwanted attentions of Adolph (Charles Ruggles), a rich bachelor who pathetically, and to great comic effect, throws himself at Colette’s feet. In the end, despite Andre’s dalliances with Mitzi, all is forgiven, and Andre and Colette are reunited, seemingly just as happy as they were at the beginning of the film, in a beguiling mixture of song, dance and comedic mastery. It seems clear that One Hour with You is Lubitsch’s work alone, with perhaps an ‘assist,’ as the credits indicate, from Cukor, whose own sensibility was very different from Lubitsch’s. Despite the problems on the set during shooting; it is equally clear that this charming, richly detailed film is a jewel in the director’s crown, and one of the finest musical comedies of the early sound era. And in the final analysis, one might argue, that’s all that really matters.”

Trouble in Paradise (1932) – Cinematography: Victor Milner

Film critic Roger Ebert: “When I was small I liked to go to the movies because you could find out what adults did when there weren’t any children in the room. As I grew up that pleasure gradually faded; the more I knew the less the characters seemed like adults. Ernst Lubitsch’s ‘Trouble in Paradise’ reawakened my old feeling. It is about people who are almost impossibly adult, in that fanciful movie way — so suave, cynical, sophisticated, smooth and sure that a lifetime is hardly long enough to achieve such polish. They glide.

…Turn up the heat under this dialogue, and you’d have screwball comedy. It’s tantalizing the way Lubitsch and his actors keep it down to a sensuous simmer. In the low, caressing tones of [Herbert] Marshall and [Kay] Francis, they’re toying with the words — they’re in on the joke. And Mariette is neither a spoiled rich woman nor a naive victim. She is a woman of appetites and the imagination to take advantage of an opportunity. She probably doesn’t believe, even then, that this man is who he says. He has a way of smiling while he lies, to let his victims have a peek at the joke. But Mariette is an enormously attractive woman, not least because of her calm self-assurance, and he likes her even as he deceives her.

Their first meeting is a splendid example of ‘the Lubitsch Touch,’ a press agent’s phrase that stuck, maybe because audiences sensed that the director did have a special touch, a way of transforming material through style. What happens, and you are surprised to sense it happening, is that in a drawing room comedy of froth and inconsequence, you find that you believe in the characters and care about them.”

Design for Living (1933) – Cinematography: Victor Milner

Criterion Collection essayist Kim Morgan: “Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living (1933) is what sexy should be—delightful, romantic, agonizing ecstasy. And it’s not just sexy but also revolutionary, daring, sweet, sour, cynical, carefree, poignant, and so far ahead of its time that one could cite it as not only a pre-Code masterpiece but also a prefeminist testimonial. A uniquely Lubitschian picture in its elegance and graceful wisdom, with the gruffly intelligent, street-smart Hollywood writer and soon-to-be legend Ben Hecht collaborating, this take on the trials, titillations, and torments of a kind of relationship usually seen in true adult films, a ménage à trois (and one involving the gorgeous trio of Fredric March, Gary Cooper, and Miriam Hopkins), is unlike any other movie of its era. What film, even before that killjoy schoolmarm Joseph Breen brought his Squaresville strictness to the Production Code in 1934, has ever presented the potentially salacious scenario of three-way love in such a wistfully complicated way? This is neither a bunch of hot-to-trot cheap thrills nor a moralizing sermon on the dangers of sexual transgression—it’s a soulful look at human desire.

Design for Living recognized that desire is not divided unequally between the sexes. It can, in fact, be genderless. A place where gentlemen can be women. And women can be wolves. And men can be romantic Red Riding Hoods, wandering through a quixotic forest only to stumble across a beautiful blonde with shimmering white teeth, delicate little feet, and a big, beguiling wit. ‘The better to share you with,’ she will eventually declare, before not eating them whole but tasting their specific Coop and March delicacies with equal ardency. Here, however, is where the movie reveals clearly that men are indeed men. Male horniness is not to be trifled with. Best friends or no best friends, how can they resist? This is some woman. They surrender, dear.”

The Merry Widow (1934) – Cinematography: Oliver T. Marsh

New York Times film critic Andre Sennwald: “The new Ernst Lubitsch confection, a witty and incandescent rendition of ‘The Merry Widow,’ had its first public hearing on this earth last night at the Astor, where it was presented amid the tumult and the shouting which befit important cinema openings and perhaps the coronation of emperors. The overhead arc lamps threw a weird blue mist which was visible up and down Broadway. According to Major Bowes, whose first-hand description from the lobby came thundering to the crowds outside through a loud speaker, enough stars were present to outfit a new universe. Mounted policemen clattered up on the sidewalk and gallantly beat back the surging proletariat. Miss MacDonald announced that her heart was full of gratitude. When Franz Lehar’s name was flashed on the screen, everybody applauded, and necks were craned in an effort to discover if Mr. Lehar was in the house. Then, or a bit later, the show went on.

It is a good show in the excellent Lubitsch manner, heady as the foam on champagne, fragile as mist and as delicately gay as a good-natured censor will permit. Victor Leon and Leo Stein have arranged a book to suit the Lubitsch style and the songs which fall to Miss MacDonald and Mr. Chevalier have grace and wit. All of the sets are consummately lovely and a few of them are entrancing enough to persuade a Moslem that he has departed this life for the paradise promised by the Prophet.”

Ninotchka (1939) – Cinematography: William H. Daniels

New York Times film critic Frank S. Nugent: “Stalin won’t like it. Molotoff may even recall his envoy from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. We still will say Garbo’s ‘Ninotchka’ is one of the sprightliest comedies of the year, a gay and impertinent and malicious show which never pulls its punch lines (no matter how far below the belt they may land) and finds the screen’s austere first lady of drama playing a dead-pan comedy role with the assurance of a Buster Keaton. Nothing quite so astonishing has come to the Music Hall since the Rockefellers landed on Fiftieth Street. And not even the Rockefellers could have imagined M-G-M getting a laugh out of Garbo at the U.S.S.R.’s expense.”

The Shop Around the Corner (1940) – Cinematography: William H. Daniels

IMDb commenter Tony Mastrogiorgio: “Perhaps the saddest comedy ever made. A wonderful film, filled with great understated performance and sharp, intelligent dialogue. What really distinguishes the film, however, is that undercurrent of sadness throughout. The story is underscored by affairs, loneliness, suicide, disappointment, the fear of losing ones job in a world where that had disastrous consequences. Most of all it was set in a world that no longer existed, having been ripped apart by the beginning of World War II. In fact, the film is barely a comedy at all if you compare the percentage of serious scenes to the comic scenes. Yet funny it is–listen to Margaret Sullavan’s harsh dismissal of Jimmy Stewart and watch his pained expression as he replies that her comments were a remarkable blend ‘of poetry and meanness.’ It’s funny, pointed, and sad all at once. A remarkable achievement and one of the ten greatest screen comedies ever made.”

To Be or Not to Be (1942) – Cinematography: Rudolph Maté

Criterion Collection essayist Geoffrey O’Brien: “Hitler is said to have had a particular animus against Lubitsch, as a Berlin Jew who triumphed in the German film industry and then went on to further triumphs in Hollywood. Lubitsch’s face is used in the Nazi propaganda film The Eternal Jew (1940) as an archetype of corruption and depravity, employing footage of the director taken in Berlin on his last visit to his hometown, just six weeks before Hitler was sworn in as Reich chancellor. No filmmaker, indeed, is more immune to the appeal of martial and nationalistic grandiloquence. He is a heroic champion of the unheroic, a tailor’s son who sees in all variations of royal and aristocratic authority nothing more than an opportunity for humor, a defender of the small virtues of politeness and shared pleasure who managed, if not to wake from the nightmare of history, then at least to make a counterdream in its midst.

The vibrance of Lubitsch’s domain is in its freedom from contempt or triviality or easy escapism or indifferent sentimentalism—freedom, against all odds, from bitterness. We may well infer from his films a deep conviction that power, and fantasies of power, however disguised, are the poison of human existence, separated by a chasm from the venial and eminently forgivable flaws of ordinary lust and ordinary vanity. Lubitsch, of course, would never be so strident as to say so out loud. What he shows us is an illusion, but an illusion created from a refined consciousness of what the world is, with the aim of creating delight. In To Be or Not to Be, he achieved this even in the face of the darkest of shadows. In any situation, as Greenberg observes early on, ‘a laugh is not to be sneezed at.'”

Heaven Can Wait (1943) – Cinematography: Edward Cronjager

TCMDb contributor David Kalat: “In many ways, Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait (1943) is a representative example of its time: It’s a costume drama that luxuriates in period detail, playing to the strengths and predilections of parent studio 20th Century Fox. It’s a character study told with inventive narrative techniques and non-chronological structure, like Preston Sturges’ The Great McGinty (1940) or Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941). It is in glorious Technicolor, which was surging to popularity in the wake of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Then again, this is Ernst Lubitsch we are talking about. He did not make movies like everyone else. Although a ‘character study,’ Heaven Can Wait is the life story of nobody in particular. Citizen Kane and The Great McGinty fulminate over the accomplishments of Great Men (with capital letters). Lubitsch, as he put it, set forth ‘a man only interested in good living with no aim of accomplishing anything or doing anything noble.’ Lubitsch admitted that he faced studio opposition to making a movie that ‘had no message and made no point whatsoever.’ But he defended his choices, saying, ‘I hoped to introduce to a motion picture audience a number of people, and if the people should find them likeable–that should be sufficient for its success.'”


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