Introducing Ernst Lubitsch: The Director With The Golden Touch

Stephanie Carwin

Ernst Lubitsch was born in Berlin, Germany, on 28 January 1892 and raised in a Jewish family. Instead of continuing the family business (his father was a tailor) the young Lubitsch gravitated toward the theatre during high school. From these humble beginnings, Lubitsch went on to become one of the most successful directors Hollywood has ever known.

At age 19, he became an actor at the Deutsches Theater, one of the premiere theatre companies in Germany thanks to the direction of the legendary Max Reinhardt. Lubitsch quickly moved into the burgeoning field of cinema, performing primarily comedic roles like the Jewish character ‘Meyer,’ for which he would become well known. Feeling limited by what he perceived to be his early typecasting however, he decided to venture into writing and directing, making his directorial debut with the short film Fraulein Seifenschaum (Miss Soapsuds) in 1914.
This was the beginning of a prominent career, as he went on to make a number of successful feature films in Germany, including Die Augen der Mumie Ma (The Eyes of the Mummy Ma) – his first film shown in the United States – Die Austernprinzessin (The Oyster Princess), and Madame Du Barry (Passion) starring the popular Polish actress Pola Negri, with whom he would collaborate with on several films. These films not only established his reputation as a successful and innovative film director but also helped to generate international interest in German cinema.
His career progressed further when Mary Pickford convinced Lubitsch to come to Hollywood to direct her in the film Rosita in 1923. Whilst the two of them reputedly did not get along and would never work together again, Lubitsch remained in Hollywood, the forerunner of the many European émigrés would later arrive as Hitler gained power in their native lands. Filmmakers such as Fritz Lang, William Wyler, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger and many more flocked in to find expression and avoid persecution. Germany’s loss was clearly Hollywood’s gain – these filmmakers went on to create some of the most important pieces of cinema. Lubitsch himself initially signed a 3-year deal with Warner Brothers Studios that gave him significant creative freedom, marking the beginning of a prolific career in America in which his European background would allow him to bring a different perspective to Hollywood’s silver screen.

Mary Pickford

After a number of silent films that were critically acclaimed but never achieved major financial success, Lubitsch’s career accelerated with the transition to talking pictures and the ensuing popularity of musical comedies. He moved over to Paramount Studios and his pioneering musical, The Love Parade – starring the French singer/star Maurice Chevalier – proved a major success, not only giving Paramount a much-needed boost right after the stock market crash of 1929, but earning Lubitsch his second Academy Award nomination (his first being for the silent film The Patriot).

Maurice Chevalier

He even became the first director ever to run a studio when he was granted the opportunity of becoming head of production at Paramount. This was short-lived however, since his natural strength remained the art of directing. In the early 1930s, Lubitsch made a string of sophisticated adult comedies in the brief window after the dawn of talking pictures and before the arrival of the more puritanical period of the Hays Production Code, including The Smiling Lieutenant, Trouble in Paradise, One Hour with You, Design for Living and The Merry Widow.
These films were a serendipitous union of his European sophistication and the golden age of the Hollywood studio system, marked by an indefinable finesse that was so unique it came to be known as ‘The Lubitsch Touch’. This magic touch was characterised as an inimitable style of directing that included not only seamless camerawork, but also pithy dialogue and an ability to extract subtle and profoundly human performances from all of his actors. His more European view of adult themes also had a large impact on the kind of roles that women would play during this period, often non-traditional and sexually liberated, a marked change from the more prudish women seen previously in conventional Hollywood roles.
As film critic Mick LaSalle observes, ‘the best era for women’s pictures was the pre-Code era, the five years between the point that talkies became widely accepted in 1929 through July 1934, when the dread and draconian Production Code became the law of Hollywoodland. Before the Code, women on screen took lovers, had babies out of wedlock, got rid of cheating husbands, enjoyed their sexuality, held down professional positions without apologising for their self-sufficiency, and in general acted the way many of us think women acted only after 1968.’
Many filmmakers and critics agree that this particular brand of adult romantic comedy was never to be seen again, since only Lubitsch had the ‘touch’ to bring a buoyancy to the more frank elements of human relationships, demonstrating affection for the complex, flawed and bittersweet reality of relations between men and women. Considered by many as the inventor of the romantic comedy genre, he has been cited as a major influence on such iconic Hollywood directors as fellow European émigré Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot, Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity), who not only credits Lubitsch as a central influence in his career, but who had a sign in his office that read ‘How Would Lubitsch Do It?’
Director Peter Bogdanovich sums it up: ‘Lubitsch had a terrific impact on American movies. Jean Renoir was exaggerating only slightly when he told me recently, ‘Lubitsch invented the modern Hollywood’, for his influence was felt and continues to be, in the work of many of even the most individualistic directors.’
Let’s take a look at five must-see Lubitsch films:

Trouble in Paradise (1932)

Lubitsch weaves an intricate love triangle plot between thieves/lovers Lily (Miriam Hopkins) and Gaston (Herbert Marshall) and the wealthy widow (Kay Francis) they intend to fleece. Described by critics of the day as ‘like caviar, only tastier,’ Trouble in Paradise not only sparkled with humour and levity amidst some risqué situations, but Lubitsch imbued the film with his signature visual wit, doing so with the masterful ‘Lubitsch touch.’ Considered one of his all-time best films, it was also the first non-musical romantic comedy in the talking era and thus the first of an entire genre.

Design for Living (1933)

Whilst originally inspired by the Noel Coward play of the same name, Lubitsch and screenwriter Ben Hecht notoriously scrapped most of the original text, keeping only the daring premise: a woman, unable to choose between two men, decides to move in with both of them in ‘a gentlemen’s agreement’ of celibate co-habitation, promising to be muse and critic for their respective arts of playwriting and painting. Of course, things become far more complicated, and the raciness of the ménage-à-trois plot would be one of the last of the pre-Code era. Eliciting finely-tuned performances from his leads – Miriam Hopkins, Fredric March and Gary Cooper – Lubitsch exhibits his mastery at making even the most madcap scenarios resonate with an effortless warmth and comfortable sex appeal.

Ninotchka (1939)

Designed as a star vehicle for Greta Garbo, who successfully rejected her typical typecasting in her first-ever comedic role, Ninotchka is set in the glamorous Paris of Lubitsch’s imagination. Garbo’s Ninotchka is sent as an Envoy Extraordinary to fix a botched mission by a trio of comrades, but instead falls in love with a Count (Melvyn Douglas), softening her hard edges in the process. With a light-hearted touch, Lubitsch tackles the sternness of the Soviets as they are disarmed by the frivolous temptations of the West.

Little Shop Around the Corner (1940)

Set in a pre-World War II Budapest gift shop, the famous premise – of co-workers who despise each other in person but who are unwittingly acting as secret pen pals – has been borrowed for remakes more than once, most recently in the 1998 film You’ve Got Mail with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. Only the original contains the ineffable human tenderness that comes with a Lubitsch film however, and James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan endow their star-crossed characters with great sensitivity – a true Hollywood classic.

Little Shop Around the Corner

To Be or Not to Be (1942)

A brilliant satire of the Nazis that was perhaps ahead of its time – Lubitsch was criticized for making light of the Third Reich immediately before America’s involvement in WWII – the film stars the odd but successful combination of Jack Benny and Carole Lombard playing a famous husband and wife acting team leading a Polish theatre troupe. As the Nazis invade Poland, they make the most of their acting skills in order to survive, including impersonating Hitler himself. As a German expatriate, this subject was clearly not undertaken lightly by Lubitsch. As film critic Leonard Maltin puts it, ‘looking back, we can fully appreciate how daring it was for Lubitsch to tackle this material when he did. What’s more, it’s one of the few films he originated rather than adapting an established novel or play; this was how he chose to deal with the Nazi threat.’

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