[To read Part One of this essay, click here]
II. The Lubitsch Touch
Ernst Lubitsch arrived at Paramount Pictures in 1928. Like Warner Brothers, Paramount gave the director complete creative control, but unlike Warners, Paramount's executives didn't care if his movies made money or not. As long as he delivered his pictures on time, stayed within his allotted budget and pleased the critics, the prestige his presence lent the studio was compensation enough.
Such latitude was virtually unheard of, then or now, and no artist could have taken wiser advantage of the opportunity. Although already established as one of the world's best directors (his silent Carmen, for example, made the New York Times top ten list in 1921), Lubitsch blossomed once he arrived at Paramount in 1928.
So productive were Lubitsch's early years at Paramount that film historian James Harvey, in his study Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, called this period in movie history (1929-33) "The Lubitsch Era." He made full use of storytelling possibilities only just becoming apparent to a handful of directors as the new sound technology took hold in Hollywood, and in the process his films came to define the early romantic comedy.
It was during this period that Lubitsch turned an advertizing slogan—"The Lubitsch Touch"—into a very real style that filmmakers have been trying to define and emulate ever since.
The phrase "The Lubitsch Touch" has been associated with the man for so long, it's easy to forget it didn't just spontaneously attach itself to him sometime after birth. In fact, Hal Wallis, who years later would produce Casablanca, coined the phrase while working in the Warner brothers publicity department in the early '20s, but while Wallis may have only dreamed up the label to sell movie tickets, the tag wouldn't have stuck if it hadn't been founded on truth.
In the silent era, what the "touch" mostly meant was that Lubitsch wasn't making D.W. Griffith pictures. Griffith, as you no doubt know, practically invented what we think of a "movie," and from 1915 to 1921, he was the most famous director in America. But while his technical expertise was sophisticated, Griffith's storytelling was not, with earnest tales of virginal heroines and cartoon villains. In lesser hands, these unfortunately are the kind of stories many people think of when they think of silent movies—Snidely Whiplash tying Penelope to the railroad tracks—and even as practiced by the talented Griffith, audiences during the Roaring Twenties were ready for something new.
Thus arrived Lubitsch to serve champagne to an audience raised on buttermilk and although some, such as author-activist Jim Tully, writing for Vanity Fair in 1926, criticized him for making "frothy films for sophisticated chambermaids and cinema critics," French director Jean Renoir later opined that by leading American tastes—or at least the studios' tastes—away from Griffith, Lubitsch had invented the modern Hollywood.
Admittedly, I'm not sure Lubitsch in the silent era was doing anything all that different from Robert Weine, F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, Abel Gance and other European directors, but American audiences weren't seeing those films (Nosferatu, for example, wasn't released in the United States until 1929, seven years after its German premiere). The nearest thing to European sensibilities showing in American theaters in the '20s were the films of Erich von Stroheim, whose Foolish Wives and Greed were tough sledding indeed.
Later, though, once technical breakthroughs allowed him to add dialogue, songs, sound effects and a film score, Lubitsch really was doing something different, and when we speak of the "touch," it's most often the Paramount films we're talking about. He already had a sense of how to tell a story through visuals—for example, the way he established Irene Rich's character in Lady Windermere's Fan with just a shot of a man reaching for a checkbook while she bites her thumb—but with the coming of sound, he was able to draw deeper characters, sharpen the wit, speed the pace, and in the process, pull back the curtain on human behavior, particularly human sexuality, in a way no other director had managed before.
"He could do more to show the grace and humor of sex in a nonlustful way," said Charlie Chaplin, speaking years later, "than any other director I've ever heard of." He was "a man who was amused by sex rather than frightened of it," critic Michael Wilmington wrote, "and who taught a whole culture to be amused by it as well."
After starting at Paramount with a historical drama, The Patriot, as much a part of his repertoire at the time as were his sophisticated comedies, Lubitsch commenced to make a series of "naughty operettas" (Harvey's phrase again), five of them altogether including The Merry Widow while on loan to MGM in 1934, and it was here that he mastered the art of talking about sex without talking about it at all.
"When I married her," says a cuckolded husband in One Hour With You, "she was a brunette. Now you can't believe a word she says."
"He created a style of sophisticated comedy peculiarly his own," said three-time Oscar winner William Wyler, "as well as a new style of musical, both unknown before his time. His films bore the recognizable and indelible stamp of the gay, clever, witty, mischievous master, whose delightful personality matched his work."
Although nearly everyone agrees Lubitsch brought something unique to the screen, no two people can quite agree on what we mean when we speak of "the Lubitsch touch." For Orson Welles, it was his originality. For director-historian Peter Bogdanovich, it's "sophistication." For film critic Roger Ebert, it's "dialogue [that] shimmers like poetry." For director Cameron Crowe, it's the "elegant joke" followed by "an even funnier joke, which becomes the ultimate joke you never expected."
And on and on.
For me, the touch has come to be characterized by three things: elision, invention and exuberance—and by the latter, I mean both the joy Lubitsch took in his craft and the sense of euphoria I experience when I watch the best of his movies.
More than any other director before or after, maybe more than any artist not named Ernest Hemingway telling very different kinds of stories, Lubitsch relied on elision—omitting words, scenes and action—to tell his jokes and his stories. "He realized," Billy Wilder said, "that if you say two and two, the audience does not have to be told it's four." Give the audience the conspiratorial pleasure of finding the joke themselves, "and you were rewarded by the laugh of the people who added it up."
Perhaps the most famous example of this was in The Merry Widow—a soldier (Maurice Chevalier) is guarding the door as the elderly, obese king leaves the queen's bedchamber. The camera follows the king down the hall until he realizes he's forgotten his saber. He returns, where we notice Chevalier is no longer standing. The camera lingers outside the door and a moment later, the king emerges with the forgotten sword. But as he attempts to buckle it on, the belt reaches only half way around his waist. And he and the audience arrive at a realization simultaneously.
Lubitsch was also obsessed with finding inventive ways to accomplish the otherwise mundane—"How can we do that without doing that?" was a question he was always asking of his writers. The answer was sometimes as simple as allowing the camera to linger on a vacated space when another director would have followed his actors; having a character enter the frame from an unexpected direction; editing out an actor's long walk from one part of a room to another; or, in a more complex sequence, the way he would establish a locale, eschewing the traditional long shot of a famous landmark, instead opening with something unexpected as in Trouble In Paradise where the focus is on an anonymous doorway, pulling back to reveal a garbage can, then following a trash collector until he reaches a gondola on the canals of what can only be Venice.
The effect is cheerfully buoyant rather than coldly academic, and serves to create a sense that the characters are floating on air, and that even when ostensibly set in a real place, the events were happening in what biographer Scott Eyman called "Lubitschland."
"I've been to Paris, France," Lubitsch said, "and I've been to Paris, Paramount. Paris Paramount is better."
Sometimes this genius for invention represented the difference between a classic and a misfire. In Conversations With Wilder, director Billy Wilder described to Cameron Crowe how for Ninotchka Lubitsch solved the problem of how to show the transformation of Greta Garbo's character from an ardent communist to an equally ardent capitalist without writing pages and pages of turgid, political dialogue.
"'The hat.' And we said, 'What hat?' He said, 'We build the hat into the beginning!' [Co-writer Charles] Brackett and I looked at each other—this is Lubitsch. The story of the hat has three acts. Ninotchka first sees it in a shop window as she enters the Ritz Hotel with her three Bolshevik accomplices. This absolutely crazy hat is the symbol of capitalism to her. She gives it a disgusted look and says, 'How can a civilization survive which allows women to wear this on their heads?' Then the second time she goes by the hat and makes a noise—tch-tch-tch. The third time, she is finally alone, she has gotten rid of her Bolshevik accomplices, opens a drawer and pulls it out. And now she wears it. Working with Lubitsch, ideas like that were in the air."
Working with Lubitsch, marveled Robert Stack after filming To Be Or Not To Be, was "like playing chess at ninety miles an hour."
"In an age in which machine-gun editing has replaced the cinematic equivalent of perfect pitch," Scott Eyman wrote in Laughter In Paradise, "Lubitsch might seem stodgy to a modern audience. If people lack the vocabulary to appreciate the beauty of this particular lost language, it's their loss. They'll never know the exhilaration of an impeccable artist."
Lubitsch loved to work and took great pains to create precisely the right shot; he loved life, too, both its happy and its sad sides. He was funny, charming, exuberant, and forgiving of every human foible but mediocrity and sanctimony, and these aspects of the man show up in every frame of film he shot. Sometimes he's suggestive—shots of sounding artillery spliced into scenes of a wedding night in The Love Parade—and sometimes he playfully chides you for having your mind in the gutter—for example, in The Smiling Lieutenant when Chevalier suggests waggishly to Claudette Colbert that they could make beautiful music together, and then a cut to the two of them, what else, playing a duet on the piano.
"I let the audience use their imaginations," he said. "Can I help it if they misconstrue my suggestions?"
I think more important is a reluctance on Lubitsch's part to judge others—Harvey calls it "moral grace"—that leaves us with the hope that despite all our human failings, love will ultimately win out. In the hands of another director, these stories of pleasure sought and found would curdle into something sour as the characters inevitably faced the consequences of their actions. But in Lubitschland, charm and good manners always prevail. Thus, in a tale such as Trouble In Paradise, thieves can steal and lovers can stray yet all involved can walk away unscathed if they can only conjure the appropriate elegant gesture. This is a fantasy to be sure, but one central to the human experience of longing.
That he could make Americans steeped in Puritan piety believe in the promise of guilt-free pleasure, if only for ninety minutes, is perhaps the most compelling proof of all that Lubitsch did indeed possess the "touch."
[To read Part Three of this essay, click here.]
Trailer: Ex Machina - Row Three
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