Ernst Lubitsch Made the Hollywood Comedy Sublime

9 mins read
Ernst Lubitsch Made the Hollywood Comedy Sublime

The following year, Lubitsch made “The Oyster Princess,” again starring the gleefully anarchic Oswalda. The plot is standard-issue operetta material—an American millionaire’s daughter woos an impoverished European prince—but the visual invention is electrifying. In one scene, the prince’s servant is kept waiting in a palatial room at the millionaire’s mansion. Out of boredom, he becomes absorbed in an elaborate pattern in the floor, and amuses himself by balletically prancing across it. As in the comedies of Jacques Tati, quizzical mischief warms up a cold environment. Later, a stuffy wedding party is overcome by a “foxtrot epidemic.” The exquisitely choreographed chaos—couples kicking their legs in mass formation, the kitchen staff joining in while balancing trays, a bandleader wiggling his butt—is a convulsively musical experience, even without music.

Several other films from Lubitsch’s German period display avant-garde features: surrealist sets, geometrical manipulations of the screen image, self-referential cameos by the director. At the same time, he was devising lavish costume pictures that adroitly mix comedy and drama. In “Madame DuBarry,” aristocratic shenanigans go off with the expected saucy wit; more startling are the helter-skelter scenes of revolution. “The Loves of Pharaoh” (1922) contains sequences of staggering complexity, with thousands of extras in motion. Such proficiency in the epic mode caught the attention of Hollywood, which saw Lubitsch as a European counterpart to D. W. Griffith. Thankfully, he turned out to be something quite different.

When Lubitsch moved to Los Angeles, in December, 1922, his background caused unease. The First World War was not long in the past, and some rabid patriots took umbrage at the idea of a German-speaking filmmaker working in Hollywood. Unlike his predecessor Erich von Stroheim, who had come to America at the age of twenty-four and spoke English fluidly, Lubitsch retained a strong accent. During the Second World War, his Germanic delivery led to a cherished incident on the streets of Bel Air. Lubitsch was serving as the local air-raid warden, identifying blackout infractions as he patrolled the neighborhood in a white helmet. Outside the home of Walter Reisch, an Austrian who tailored scripts for M-G-M, he barked, “Walter—your lights! You have forgotten!” Reisch answered, “Ach, yes, was gibt’s?” (“What’s going on?”) The American director Mervyn LeRoy, hearing this exchange from a neighboring house, merrily yelled, “German paratroopers have taken over!”

The jest had some truth in it: Lubitsch had been the advance agent for a mighty squadron of German-speaking directors, actors, screenwriters, producers, composers, and technicians. Even before Hitler and Goebbels drove hundreds of film people into exile, a substantial German-Austrian colony had formed in Hollywood, with Lubitsch at its center. The director didn’t Americanize himself—nor could he, really. Instead, he fused European and American traditions. “Every good film is by nature international,” he wrote in 1924.

In defiance of commercial nostrums, Lubitsch trusted in the intelligence of his audience. The way to win the hearts of moviegoers, he once told Wilder, was not to tell them that two plus two equals four but to let them do the addition themselves. The hat in “Ninotchka” is a case in point: when Garbo puts it on, no one reminds the viewer that she castigated the same hat half an hour earlier. Lubitsch’s reliance on the oblique, the elliptical, and the unsaid leads the audience to suspect innuendo where none may have been intended. When Genevieve Tobin, in the marital-temptation comedy “One Hour with You,” asks, “Do you play Ping-Pong?,” we giggle at God knows what.

Lubitsch’s early American films have a cool, polished look. When I went to MOMA, which has restored prints of several Lubitsch silents, I was struck by the elemental beauty of the images. “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” released in 1925, is based on the Oscar Wilde play, though none of the original text appears in the intertitles. Instead, Lubitsch discovers cinematic analogues to Wilde’s aphoristic razzle-dazzle. The claustrophobia of the upper crust is captured in hard gazes, sidewise looks, stolen glances, and flashes of raw desperation. The characters drift through strangely vast rooms, dwarfed by the architecture of their station. The central figure is the social outcast Mrs. Erlynne, whom Irene Rich endows with wounded power. In a tour-de-force racetrack scene, she withstands the scrutiny of half a dozen binoculars. At the climax, she glides majestically into a room full of scandal-seeking men, saving Lady Windermere from ruin.

Women are objectified in Lubitsch’s world, but so are men. The 1924 film “Forbidden Paradise,” which MoMA has returned to gleaming condition, is a comic take on the story of Catherine the Great, with a libidinous Tsarina (Pola Negri) delighting in a handsome guardsman (Rod La Rocque). Movies of the twenties fetishized beautiful men like Rudolph Valentino and Ramon Novarro; Lubitsch is plainly having fun with that trend, reducing his male lead to a stupid sex object. In one scene of deafening innuendo, La Rocque’s chest swells so muscularly that a button bursts off his tunic, causing the Tsarina’s eyes to open wide. At the end, she moves on to a new conquest, without having paid any great price for her exercise of lust. Lubitsch, in a later discussion of the roguish 1933 comedy “Design for Living,” said that women in film should do “what all the male Don Juans have been doing for ages—and attractively.”

So absolute was Lubitsch’s mastery of the silent-film medium that he might have been expected to stumble with the introduction of sound. Instead, starting in 1929, he launched another ebullient revolution, codifying the film musical with a run of movies, most of them featuring Maurice Chevalier: “The Love Parade,” “Monte Carlo,” “The Smiling Lieutenant,” “One Hour with You,” and “The Merry Widow.” In retrospect, it was obvious that the man who made “The Oyster Princess” would thrive in the new genre. A famous sequence in “Monte Carlo”—Jeanette MacDonald at the window of a speeding train, singing “Beyond the Blue Horizon” to peasants in fields—was described by the film scholar Gerald Mast as the “first sensational Big Number” in Hollywood history.

In the matter of gender relations, the musicals have aged less well. The empowerment of the female gaze in the silent films gives way to a male-dominated perspective, a sacralizing of Chevalier’s roué persona. Characters played by MacDonald and Claudette Colbert are not granted the freedom that Oswalda and Negri earlier enjoyed. McBride argues, in Lubitsch’s defense, that the movies address the “emotional consequences of male abandon.” The rake is often exposed as a grownup boy who fears both loneliness and commitment. As it happens, the cinematic bard of sexual laissez-faire was himself unlucky in love. Lubitsch’s first marriage, to Helene Kraus, ended when Kraus had an affair with the screenwriter Hanns Kräly, who had been working with Lubitsch since the garment-comedy days. A second marriage, to Vivian Gaye, fell apart following a passionate beginning.

After Kräly made his exit, in 1930, Lubitsch turned to Raphaelson, one of many New York writers who went west when sound came in. In 1932, the two concocted “Trouble in Paradise,” which is to film comedy what “The Marriage of Figaro” is to comic opera. McBride rightly says of it, “Nothing could ever be more perfect.” Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall play Lily and Gaston, master thieves on a debonair rampage through high society. Kay Francis is Madame Colet, an eccentric perfume executive who is initially Gaston’s mark but then becomes the object of his conflicted affections. The thieves inhabit a world of pure artifice, which allows for pitch-perfect parodies of tony movie dialogue (“Out there in the moonlight everything seemed so perfect, so simple—but now . . . ”). Colet, a mesmerizing Francis creation, has a way of puncturing illusions with regal candor: “You see, François, marriage is a beautiful mistake which two people make together. But with you, François, I think it would be a mistake.”

“Trouble in Paradise” was made during the Great Depression, and at first glance it seems frivolously detached from its historical moment. There is, however, a political undertow beneath the froth. Aaron Schuster, in the 2014 essay collection “Lubitsch Can’t Wait,” tracks recurrences of the phrase “in times like these”: well-off people use it to gesture emptily toward the Depression while justifying their usual behavior. The chairman of Colet’s board says to her, “If your husband were alive, the first thing he would do in times like these—cut salaries.” This is, as Schuster says, the cruel politics of austerity, and Colet nobly, if daffily, rejects it: “Unfortunately, Monsieur Giron, business bores me to distraction. Besides, I have a luncheon engagement. So I think we’d better leave the salaries just where they are.” Naturally, Giron is unmasked as the biggest thief of all. Gaston boasts that he can at least count himself a “self-made crook.”

Gaston is another Lubitsch rake who rethinks his two-timing ways. Marshall, hinting at vulnerability beneath an impeccable veneer, makes the transition more believable than Chevalier ever could. A bittersweet atmosphere infiltrates the relationship between Gaston and Colet, culminating in an almost shockingly expressive series of shots. Colet, embracing Gaston in her bedroom, says, “We have a long time ahead of us, Gaston—weeks, months, years . . .” First, we see the couple reflected in a circular mirror over the bed; then, at the word “months,” they appear in a small cosmetic mirror; and finally, at “years,” they dematerialize into shadows on the bed. It’s like an abyss opening and then quickly closing.

The final decade and a half of Lubitsch’s career unfolded under the cloud of the dreaded Production Code, with its prudish horror of sexuality and its callow fear of politics. The mechanism of studio self-censorship took shape in 1930 but wasn’t fully enforced until 1934, when the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America handed control of the process to Joseph Breen, a conservative Catholic journalist. The following year, Breen barred a reissue of “Trouble in Paradise” on moral grounds. In the same period, Lubitsch accepted an offer from Paramount to become the studio’s head of production. Putting a director in charge of other directors invites conflict, and Lubitsch was soon skirmishing with Josef von Sternberg, Paramount’s other paragon of Continental style. The experiment lasted only a year, and Lubitsch emerged with his reputation diminished and his creative path uncertain.

After two much debated outings—“Angel,” an absorbing but imperfect vehicle for Marlene Dietrich, and “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife,” a fitfully funny pairing of Colbert with Gary Cooper—Lubitsch returned to peak form in “Ninotchka,” released in 1939 by M-G-M. This was the director’s second collaboration with Brackett and Wilder, who had first joined forces to work on “Bluebeard.” As McBride points out, the duo imported the raucousness of screwball comedy, which in “Bluebeard” clashed with Lubitsch’s airier sensibility. Wilder, who had arrived in Hollywood in 1934, may have adulated Lubitsch, but he had different cultural roots, his voice having formed in Jazz Age Berlin. Lubitsch was whimsical; Wilder was savage. In “Ninotchka,” the two met on fertile middle ground.

The Turner/M-G-M script collection at the Margaret Herrick Library, the home of the Academy archives, contains hundreds of pages of drafts for “Ninotchka,” which had undergone many iterations before Lubitsch got involved. The idea for a story about a cold Bolshevik fanatic finding love in Paris originated with the playwright Melchior Lengyel, who had also helped to conceive “Forbidden Paradise.” Several other writers, including S. N. Behrman, fleshed out the screenplay. By late 1938, the pivotal scene was in place—one in which Ninotchka’s worldly lover, Leon, gets her to guffaw in a restaurant, enabling the promotional tagline “garbo laughs”—but acres of clunky dialogue surrounded it.

When Lubitsch took over the project, in early 1939, he first brought in Reisch, a wizard of plot construction, and then the verbally dexterous Brackett and Wilder. Reading the team’s drafts, you can almost hear the kibbitzing in the room as ideas were bandied about, rejected, altered, and perfected. Here are successive versions of a line that Ninotchka utters to her Russian comrades after arriving in Paris:

The last trial was a big success. People are confessing more and more.

The last mass trials were a great success. We are going to be fewer but better Russians!

The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.

According to Brackett, this line originated with Lubitsch, who had visited the Soviet Union in 1936, coming away with a grim view of the Stalinist state.

Yet “Ninotchka” is by no means an anti-socialist tract. The title character may succumb to the silly hat, but Leon (Melvyn Douglas) experiences his own evolution, and Ninotchka fires some sharp quips in his direction: “I have heard of the arrogant male in capitalistic society. It is having a superior earning power that makes you that way.” The two end up in Constantinople, in what feels like a geographical and ideological compromise. A lovably rascally trio of Bolshevik functionaries, played by the émigré actors Alexander Granach, Sig Ruman, and Felix Bressart, exemplify the make-the-best-of-it types who populate any system.

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