By now you've no doubt forgotten my list of nominees for best director of 1932-33 in the category of comedy or musical—an inevitable consequence of my leisurely working methods—and a pity that is, for a more distinguished list of directors you'll not find anywhere: Jean Renoir, Leo McCarey, George Cukor, Victor Fleming, Jean Vigo, Lloyd Bacon, any one of whom in another year would be a worthy winner. But for me, there was always just one choice, the one director who of all those on the list was at the top of his game in 1932-33, a man with a comedic touch so light, they named it after him.
I'm referring, of course, to Ernst Lubitsch who directed not one but two of the frothiest and funniest comedies of the pre-Code era, Trouble In Paradise and Design For Living. Not seen for decades—first thanks to Hollywood's self-censorship, later due to the vagaries of DVD marketing—these masterpieces of sparkling wit and easy sophistication are even now only just finding an audience, and Lubitsch himself is no longer as well-known as such classic directors as Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford. But in his day, he was the most famous director in the world and his influence is visible throughout the history of film, from Billy Wilder to Cameron Crowe.
"Lubitsch," said the great Jean Renoir, "invented the modern Hollywood."
I. From Berlin To America
Born in Berlin in 1892, Lubitsch quit his father's successful tailoring business at the age of nineteen to join Max Reinhardt's theater company where he specialized in comedic roles. A year later, he began appearing in films and was soon writing and directing comedy shorts starring himself. He scored international hits in 1918 with a pair of Pola Negri vehicles, Eyes of the Mummy and Carmen, but really established himself in 1919 with The Oyster Princess, a farce about the excesses of the wealthy, punctuated by a manic foxtrot led by Curt Bois who later played the pickpocket in Casablanca.
Lubitsch followed up with a lavish costume drama, Madame DuBarry, again with Pola Negri, this time in the title role, and Emil Jannings as King Louis XV. This pattern of alternating comedies with costume dramas was one Lubitsch followed throughout the silent era, and during that time he was as much known for the latter as the former. Indeed, he received his first Oscar nomination for directing The Patriot, a biography of the mad Russian czar, Paul I, and never lost his fascination with exotic settings and the antics of the rich and powerful. (Alas, The Patriot, like so many silent movies, is now lost.)
In 1923 Hollywood's biggest star, Mary Pickford, invited Lubitsch to direct her next picture, Rosita. The resulting story of a peasant girl who becomes the object of a king's romantic obsession wasn't much to Pickford's liking, but the experience was still a positive one for the director. Lubitsch fell in love with America and but for two brief trips (including his honeymoon), he never returned to his native Europe. Instead, he relocated to Hollywood permanently and signed a lucrative contract with Warner Brothers that featured an unprecedented amount of control over his projects. Among the half-dozen pictures he made for Warners were two classics, The Marriage Circle and Lady Windermere's Fan. The latter, an adaptation of Oscar Wilde's comedy about a woman with a secret past, is one of five Lubitsch films preserved in the Library of Congress's National Film Registry.
Despite their artistic and critical success, however, Lubitsch's silent films failed to find the wide audience the Warner brothers had hoped for, and coupled with the films' high costs, Lubitsch consistently lost money for the studio. "Lubitsch had a following," said film editor Rudi Fehr, "but they weren't coal-miners, they weren't steelworkers." In a cable to his brother Harry, studio head Jack Warner stated bluntly, "Small directors [are] making twice [the] money he [is] making," to which Harry replied, "His pictures are over peoples' heads here."
Lubitsch bought out the remainder of his contract, made one movie at MGM—a charming, non-musical version of The Student Prince In Old Heidelberg, starring Ramon Novarro, Norma Shearer and Jean Hersholt—then finally landed at Paramount Pictures where he remained for the next twelve years.
[To read Part Two of this essay, click here.]