Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Best Director Of 1932-33 (Comedy/Musical): Ernst Lubitsch (Trouble In Paradise and Design For Living), Part One

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.]

11 comments:

Husky Navarro said...

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 fourteen years.

We knew him as "Uncle Randy". . . .

FATHER_CAPRIO said...

Very interesting post about a great director. The Student Prince seemed a splendid film, Norma Shearer is wonderful and the boyish face of Novarro is not at odds. Of course the performance of Jean Hersholt very good. I also liked Lady Windermere's Fan.

Zoe said...

Nice post
I finally saw (after serching & searching) his The Doll recently thats a cute little film.

Mythical Monkey said...

Thanks Father Caprio and Zoe -- hopefully you'll still feel the same way after you read parts two, three, four and five ...

I finally saw (after serching & searching) his The Doll recently thats a cute little film.

This puts you one up on me. Now I've got to find this film!

Gordon Pasha said...

MM:

I loved the Foxtrot video, made even more relevant because my wife and I again watched “The Merry Widow” on TCM this morning. The numerous dance scenes in “Widow” seem just a direct extension of the Fox Trot video. Hypnotic.

It is especially rewarding to start a morning with Jeanette, sans Eddy. “Widow” has a little extra meaning to me as it was issued the year I was born. I like to entertain the thought (unsubstantiated) that, perhaps, I accompanied my mother safely tucked away within her person while she watched that which occurred in Marshovia and beyond.

Thank you again for the video. You will likely comment on “Widow” in your next installment so I will say no more.

Best:

Gerald of Laszlo’s

Mythical Monkey said...

It is especially rewarding to start a morning with Jeanette, sans Eddy

Welcome, Gerald of Laszlo's -- I've added a link to your blog which those of you who actually read comments can find here.

Movie fans who only know Jeanette MacDonald through her association with Nelson Eddy really owe it to themselves to check out her pre-Code musicals, particularly Love Me Tonight directed by Rouben Mamoulian and One Hour With You and The Merry Widow, both by Lubitsch. She was beautiful and sexy and with a wonderfully naughty side that the studios later scrubbed clean.

Mythical Monkey said...

You will likely comment on “Widow” in your next installment so I will say no more.

I will mention The Merry Widow in Part Two when I write about the Lubitsch touch, but I'll say more when I get to Part Five (Part 3 is about Trouble in Paradise, Part 4 is about Design For Living) when I write about Lubitsch from 1934-47.

Obviously, this is one of those insanely long essays which I can't keep myself from writing from time to time ...

Mythical Monkey said...

I will mention The Merry Widow in Part Two when I write about the Lubitsch touch

Actually, since it's Jeanette MacDonald's birthday, I decided, why wait?

Zoe said...

"This puts you one up on me. Now I've got to find this film!"

I wish i could tell you how I came across The Doll but i really cant remember, i ended up by having to download it, but i cant seem to remember how i did it, lol,it isnt on the archive site so it must of been a torrent of some kind, not sure if thats legal, but its a real clear restoration. Its through kino so you might be able to find a real dvd copy of it.

Gordon Pasha said...

“She was beautiful and sexy and with a wonderfully naughty side that the studios later scrubbed clean.”

I agree. She was all those things and more. I have a friend who likes film but when he hears that Jeannette is going to be on TCM he switches channels. He will say something like “I can’t stand them and that kind of singing.”

Probably a good part of the reason Jeanette has such detractors is the Eddy anchor. Eddy came with the MGM package (as you implied) and after the move somebody at MGM must have called out some mythical Munchkins and “brushed, brushed here, and brushed brushed there.” And also covered up her lingerie. David Thomson had her right. As do you.

Best

Gerald

(I am a Met fan and we likely get to play Stasburg at Washington, sometime on the Fourth of July weekend)

Mythical Monkey said...

(I am a Met fan and we likely get to play Stasburg at Washington, sometime on the Fourth of July weekend)

Probably July 3, barring a rainout in the meantime. Fortunately for the Mets (and unfortunately for me), Washington's hitters will make your starter, regardless of who he is, look like Cy Young.