[To read Part One of this essay, click here. To read Part Two, click here. For Part Three, click here, and for Part Four, click here.]
V. Later Comedies and Lubitsch's Legacy
After Trouble In Paradise and Design For Living, "comedies without music" he called them, Lubitsch returned to the comfort of the operetta form he had perfected during the first days of sound. The story of a randy army officer ordered to woo a wealthy widow in order to save the country from bankruptcy, The Merry Widow—made while on loan to MGM—was the most polished and least suggestive of his five musicals. The Hays Office, by 1934 enforcing the Production Code, objected to several scenes and required extensive cutting before it would approve the film for release. (Fortunately, this footage was saved and has been restored.)
The Merry Widow received good reviews and won an Oscar for art direction, but with production costs of $1.6 million, it was the most expensive musical made to date and wound up losing money. It was also the last pairing of stars Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald. The former found himself relegated to smaller and smaller parts and eventually returned to France; the latter paired up with Nelson Eddy and made commercially successful movies for the next decade, though in retrospect, none are as satisfying as those she made with Lubitsch.
After the commercial failure of The Merry Widow, Lubitsch did not direct another movie for three years. In the meantime, he took a job as production manager at Paramount, becoming the only director to ever run a major studio. I'd like to say it was an inspired choice, but in fact, Lubitsch had never been able to delegate authority easily and wound up interfering in many of the sixty productions a year he oversaw without really being able to contribute anything substantive, a result that pleased no one.
"I think I am possessed only of a fascination for the work I have chosen to do," he said later. "I am so engrossed by the production of a film that I literally think of nothing else. I have no hobby, no outside interests and want none."
He was unceremoniously dismissed as head of production in early 1936.
The time away from the director's chair, though, gave Lubitsch time to consider what kind of film he really wanted to make. Whipsawed on the one hand by the enforcement of the Production Code which had effectively forbidden the racier aspects of his style; and on the other by the aggressive style of the screwball comedy which made his gentle approach passe, Lubitsch temporarily lost confidence in his ability to make a successful picture.
He eventually figured it out, though not at Paramount, moving in 1939 to MGM, where he directed Greta Garbo in Ninotchka and James Stewart in The Shop Around The Corner, two of his best comedies, both preserved in the National Film Registry. In 1942, he made what is arguably his best movie, To Be Or Not To Be, an anti-war comedy starring Jack Benny and in the last role of her career, Carole Lombard. Blasted by critics at the time as being in bad taste, To Be Or Not To Be has become a particular favorite of critics over the intervening years and was included in the National Film Registry in 1996, one of five Lubitsch movies so honored.
"None of us thought we were making anything but entertainment for the moment," John Ford said later. "Only Ernst Lubitsch knew we were making art."
"Lubitsch had the greatest sense of humor of any individual I've ever met," said director Joseph M. Newman. "The actors all loved him. He had a very human quality about him. He was the type of man that became your friend after you met him once. A great man."
His most faithful disciple was fellow German refugee Billy Wilder, who wrote the screenplay to Ninotchka and later directed such classics as Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment. Over his desk, Wilder posted a sign "How would Lubitsch do it?" But despite winning six Oscars during his career, Wilder ultimately concluded he had never measured up to his mentor. "His art is lost," he said. "That most elegant of screen magicians took his secret with him."
In 1943, Lubitsch received an Oscar nomination for Heaven Can Wait, the third nomination of his career, but once again, he did not win. In March 1947, as it became clear that Lubitsch's health was failing, the Academy presented him with a special award "[f]or his distinguished contributions to the art of the motion picture."
"With the passing years," wrote his biographer Scott Eyman, "it became increasingly clear that Ernst Lubitsch had accomplished something only vouchsafed the greatest artists: he had created a self-contained universe with a sensibility so singular, behavioral beauties so intense, that it forever altered the world view of those lucky enough to experience it. He believed in his dreams so strongly that millions of others came to believe in them as well, and the fact that the values and style of Lubitsch's work constituted the finest examples of the discarded heritage of elegant screen comedy made his everlasting, gentle brilliance even more poignant."
Ernst Lubitsch died of a heart attack in November,1947.
"No more Lubitsch," Billy Wilder lamented at the funeral.
"Worse than that," said William Wyler. "No more Lubitsch films."