Phillip Lopate

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How Did Lu­bitsch Do It? by Joseph McBride

How Did Lu­bitsch Do It? by Joseph McBride. Columbia Univer­sity Press, 561 pp., $40.00

Jean Renoir said of Ernst Lu­bitsch, “He in­vented the mod­ern Hol­ly­wood.” Or­son Welles thought him “a gi­ant .... Lu­bitsch’s tal­ent and orig­i­nal­ity are stu­pe­fy­ing.” John Ford re­marked: “None of us thought we were mak­ing any­thing but en­ter­tain­ment for the mo­ment. Only Ernst Lu­bitsch knew we were mak­ing art.” François Truf­faut had his chil­dren watch Lu­bitsch movies so of­ten they knew the lines by heart. A num­ber of his pic­tures— Trou­ble in Par­adise, De­sign for Liv­ing, Ninotchka, The Shop Around the Cor­ner, To Be or Not to Be—are firmly en­shrined in the canon of clas­si­cal Amer­i­can cin­ema. Yet de­spite the ven­er­a­tion for Lu­bitsch of fel­low di­rec­tors and cinephiles, Joseph McBride feels that “Lu­bitsch’s name has largely been for­got­ten” and his rep­u­ta­tion is sadly in need of re­cu­per­a­tion. McBride, one of our fore­most film his­to­ri­ans, the au­thor of solid, well-in­formed books on Welles, Ford, Frank Capra, and Steven Spiel­berg, has taken up the cud­gels for his fa­vorite mas­ter of so­phis­ti­cated com­edy.

Not that there doesn’t al­ready ex­ist a body of strong writ­ing about the film­maker, in­clud­ing James Har­vey’s daz­zling Ro­man­tic Com­edy in Hol­ly­wood, from Lu­bitsch to Sturges (1987), Scott Ey­man’s su­perb bi­og­ra­phy, Ernst Lu­bitsch: Laugh­ter in Par­adise (1993), and Wil­liam Paul’s thought­ful Ernst Lu­bitsch’s Amer­i­can Com­edy (1983). But these books are all over twen­ty­five years old. McBride has set out to write not a bi­og­ra­phy (no need for that, since Ey­man’s is so sat­is­fy­ing) but an in-depth “es­say­is­tic in­ves­ti­ga­tion” of the en­tire oeu­vre:

What has been lack­ing un­til this crit­i­cal study has been a sus­tained, sys­tem­atic, fully in­te­grated over­view of both Lu­bitsch’s Ger­man and Amer­i­can work. With­out see­ing his ca­reer as a sin­gle, uni­fied whole, it can­not be fully un­der­stood or ap­pre­ci­ated.

His com­men­tary on the re­cently re­stored silent Ger­man films, many of which are now avail­able on YouTube and DVD, is es­pe­cially per­ti­nent. Lu­bitsch was born in 1892 and grew up in Berlin. His fa­ther, a Rus­sian Jewish émi­gré, ran a tailor­ing es­tab­lish­ment spe­cial­iz­ing in coats for large women. He was some­thing of a dandy and ladies’ man (a pro­to­type, per­haps, of the film­maker’s many phi­lan­der­ers), and left most of the day-to-day op­er­a­tions of the busi­ness to Lu­bitsch’s prac­ti­cal mother. Young Ernst, an in­dif­fer­ent stu­dent, was en­thralled by act­ing and man­aged to join the troupe of the great the­atri­cal di­rec­tor Max Rein­hardt, who cast him in mi­nor roles—a source of frus­tra­tion, though he picked up tech­nique and aes­thet­ics by ob­serv­ing Rein­hardt.

He also be­gan act­ing in his own short comic films, such as Meyer from Berlin (1919) and Shoe Pinkus Palace (1916), of­ten play­ing a clumsy go-get­ting shop boy named “Sally,” which drew on his fam­ily back­ground in re­tail. While Lu­bitsch’s par­ents were sec­u­lar, as­sim­i­lated Jews, his on­screen per­sona read as bla­tantly Jewish. It was eth­nic com­edy, a sta­ple at the time, though McBride wor­ries at length whether Lu­bitsch might have been in­ad­ver­tently feed­ing anti-Semitic sen­ti­ment. I doubt it—cer­tainly no more than Jerry Lewis, Mel Brooks, or Woody Allen did. If you can over­come Lu­bitsch’s out­ra­geous fa­cial mug­ging in the broad­est silent film man­ner, these come­dies cen­ter­ing around a lusty schlemiel are ac­tu­ally quite fun.

Hav­ing be­come a pop­u­lar screen pres­ence in Ger­many, if not quite a star, Lu­bitsch was at the same time di­rect­ing movies with other ac­tors. There was the risqué cross-dress­ing com­edy I Don’t Want to Be a Man (1918); the deliri­ously zany The Wild­cat (1921), with its frame ad­just­ments in ev­ery geo­met­ric con­fig­u­ra­tion; The Doll (1919), in which a young girl pre­tends to be one to off­set the fears of a leery bach­e­lor; Kohlhiesel’s Daugh­ters (1920), a de­light­ful tale in the snow about two sis­ters, a plain, hard-work­ing one and a pretty, friv­o­lous one (both played by the same ac­tress); and most ac­com­plished of all, The Oys­ter Princess (1919), re­volv­ing around an Amer­i­can mil­lion­aire’s daugh­ter who is in­tent on mar­riage.

You can see Lu­bitsch try­ing out in these films ev­ery stylis­tic cam­era flour­ish (get­ting them out of his sys­tem, as it were), as well as em­ploy­ing mo­tifs and plot de­vices he would in­cor­po­rate in later films. The Doll, for in­stance, opens with the di­rec­tor him­self putting to­gether, like a ma­gi­cian as­sem­bling his props, a card­board set that will dis­solve into a life-size replica—a fore­run­ner of his meta-ges­tures of ac­tors con­vers­ing with the au­di­ence (like Mau­rice Cheva­lier ad­dress­ing the cam­era in the 1929 film The Love Pa­rade). The full-out wacky dance se­quence in The Oys­ter Princess, the “Fox­trot Epi­demic,” pre­fig­ures chore­ographed num­bers in his and ev­ery­one else’s mu­si­cals. These silent Ger­man come­dies are a mi­nor rev­e­la­tion: they may not be mas­ter­pieces but they are ex­u­ber­antly en­ter­tain­ing and in­ven­tive.

Lu­bitsch next tried his hand at a se­ries of his­tor­i­cal spec­ta­cles, the most sat­is­fy­ing of which was Madame DuBarry (1919), star­ring the se­duc­tively sen­sual Pola Ne­gri as a fac­tory girl who sleeps her way to the top (Louis XIV, played by Emil Jan­nings). Its in­ter­na­tional box of­fice suc­cess was fol­lowed by Anne Bo­leyn (1920) and The Loves of the Pharaoh (1922), huge, la­bor­ing ma­chines with “casts of thou­sands,” as they used to say, which earned him the nick­name “the Euro­pean Grif­fith.”

Though left-wing crit­ics dis­ap­proved of Lu­bitsch’s ne­glect of so­cioe­co­nomic and his­tor­i­cal fac­tors, opt­ing as he did to fo­cus on the per­sonal con­flicts and pas­sions of his re­gal pro­tag­o­nists, McBride tries to make the case that he was smug­gling in lib­eral pro­gres­sive ideas. Es­sen­tially, Lu­bitsch was apo­lit­i­cal and obliv­i­ous to Ger­many’s up­heavals, pre­fer­ring to build dream worlds out of his imag­i­na­tion and hone his craft. By the early 1920s he had ac­quired a mas­tery of ev­ery as­pect of film pro­duc­tion and could man­age big and small bud­gets and even the most dif­fi­cult ac­tors—and so he was sum­moned to Hol­ly­wood in 1922 by Mary Pick­ford, to di­rect her in a de­par­ture for Amer­ica’s sweet­heart, Rosita (1923), in which she played a street singer in Seville who is propo­si­tioned by the king.

It is some­times in­cor­rectly as­sumed that Lu­bitsch was part of the wave of Ger­man émi­gré tal­ent flee­ing Hitler. In fact he was al­ready en­sconced in the Amer­i­can mo­tion pic­ture in­dus­try a decade be­fore their ar­rival. Fac­ing ini­tial hos­til­ity from Amer­i­can pa­tri­ots bristling at em­ploy­ment of “the Hun,” Lu­bitsch made a quick ad­just­ment to his new coun­try, lov­ing as he did the Amer­i­can spirit of ca­sual op­ti­mism and the tech­ni­cal su­pe­ri­or­ity of Amer­i­can film crews, though he never lost his thick Ger­man ac­cent.

Of the dozen silent films he made in Hol­ly­wood dur­ing the 1920s, two stand out as mas­ter­pieces: The Mar­riage Cir­cle (1924) and Lady Win­der­mere’s Fan (1925). In these nar­ra­tives of con­ju­gal mis­un­der­stand­ings, adul­ter­ous temp­ta­tions, love tri­an­gles, self-de­cep­tions, and stoic read­just­ments to spousal flaws, he re­fined his vis­ual ap­proach, tamp­ing down the the­atri­cal Ger­man Ex­pres­sion­ist man­ner­isms and re­plac­ing them with more Amer­i­can, “in­vis­i­ble” sto­ry­telling con­ven­tions. There were sub­tle ten­sions aris­ing from en­gaged and averted glances, move­ments to­ward and away from suit­ors, in high-ceil­ing set­tings that dwarfed the oc­cu­pants and em­pha­sized their emo­tional soli­tude. In­ter­ti­tles were cut down to a min­i­mum, so as not to in­ter­rupt the cam­era’s telling. Most im­por­tant, per­haps, was the so­phis­ti­cated treat­ment of male–fe­male re­la­tion­ships. In The Mar­riage Cir­cle— the film Renoir re­garded as com­menc­ing the mod­ern Hol­ly­wood film—a con­tented wife’s best friend tries to steal her hus­band away. The woman’s sex­ual hunger is stun­ningly overt, and yet also an oc­ca­sion for sym­pa­thy, with none of the judg­men­tal pu­ri­tan­i­cal at­ti­tude found in other Hol­ly­wood films of the pe­riod. Lu­bitsch would al­ways evince a tol­er­ance and even af­fec­tion for hu­man frailty. As Renoir said, “Ev­ery­one has his rea­sons.”

So arose what came to be known as “the Lu­bitsch touch.” I wish it were pos­si­ble to write about this great film­maker with­out in­vok­ing that hoary, re­duc­tive cliché, but at the very least it tells us that long be­fore the au­teur the­ory, crit­ics and the public alike ap­pre­ci­ated that this di­rec­tor had a per­sonal style that per­sisted from film to film. Usu­ally the term re­ferred to some­thing naughty: his el­lip­ti­cal touches when it came to cou­ples hav­ing sex, the closed door from which one could in­fer what was hap­pen­ing. As Truf­faut said about these el­lipses: “In the Lu­bitsch Swiss cheese, each hole winks.”

Cer­tainly Lu­bitsch was cel­e­brated for get­ting around the cen­sors, partly by in­nu­endo, partly by set­ting al­most all his films in Europe, where morals were as­sumed to be looser (those Con­ti­nen­tals, what can you ex­pect). But the Lu­bitsch touch also had to do with re­spect­ing the au­di­ence’s in­tel­li­gence, not spelling ev­ery­thing out. I like what the film critic An­drew Sar­ris said:

A poignant sad­ness in­fil­trates the di­rec­tor’s gayest mo­ments, and it is this coun­ter­point be­tween sad­ness and gai­ety that rep­re­sents the Lu­bitsch touch, and not the leer­ing hu­mor of closed doors.

For some­one who had per­fected silent movie gram­mar, tak­ing it to a point of “pure Cin­ema” (as Hitch­cock, a Lu­bitsch fan, ap­prov­ingly termed it), one would think the in­tro­duc­tion of sound might have posed prob­lems, but Lu­bitsch again ad­justed. If any­thing, the ad­di­tion of sound helped him de­velop his most ur­bane com­edy, by al­low­ing him to em­pha­size the dis­par­ity be­tween the stated and the un­ex­pressed. Though his films were crit­i­cal suc­cesses and highly in­flu­en­tial within the in­dus­try, they rarely scored big at the box of­fice. He was able to keep mak­ing them be­cause even when they lost money, they brought the stu­dio pres-

tige. Still, Harry Warner feared they might be too in­tel­li­gent and worldly, go­ing over peo­ple’s heads, and fi­nally Lu­bitsch de­parted Warner Brothers for Para­mount, where he found a more con­ge­nial home for his Euro­pean re­con­struc­tions. As he fa­mously quipped, “I’ve been to Paris, France, and I’ve been to Paris, Para­mount. I think I pre­fer Paris, Para­mount.”

At Para­mount he launched a se­ries of five mu­si­cal come­dies, start­ing with The Love Pa­rade (1929) and con­clud­ing with The Merry Widow (1934), which usu­ally fea­tured Mau­rice Cheva­lier and Jeanette MacDon­ald. He is of­ten cred­ited with ini­ti­at­ing the mu­si­cal genre; his big­gest con­tri­bu­tion may have been lib­er­at­ing it from a re­vue struc­ture and in­te­grat­ing mu­si­cal num­bers as part of the story. The best of the se­ries was the last, The Merry Widow, but by that time, in the midst of the De­pres­sion, au­di­ences were tired of films about queens and mil­lion­aires in Lu­bitsch’s myth­i­cal king­doms. McBride spec­u­lates on what this mid­dle-class Jewish boy was do­ing mak­ing so many pic­tures about English aris­to­crats and Mit­tel-Euro­pean royals:

Was this a form of so­cial climb­ing?

Lu­bitsch’s con­tin­ual re­turn to the closed world of no­bil­ity that he, as a dou­bly ex­iled Jew, could not en­ter can be seen as the sign of a blocked at­tempt to keep re­peat­ing an act of fealty in the vain hope that the kings and princes, the uni­formed no­bles, and their grandly gowned women would even­tu­ally al­low him en­trance, that they would wel­come this brash upstart as an equal.

Per­haps, but I see it dif­fer­ently. Lu­bitsch was no roy­al­ist. His sym­pa­thetic in­ter­est was in show­ing how these crowned heads were hu­man and fal­li­ble, pris­on­ers of their un­ful­filled de­sires like ev­ery­one else, at the same time pro­vid­ing en­ter­tain­ing fan­tasies (with pinches of gritty hu­mor) set in dreamy ar­chi­tec­tural en­vi­ron­ments. As Sam­son Raphael­son, the preter­nat­u­rally gifted screen­writer who col­lab­o­rated on nine Lu­bitsch films, said, “We just laughed our heads off at kings .... We were just hav­ing fun.”

Trou­ble in Par­adise (1932) marked the apoth­e­o­sis of Lu­bitsch and Raphael­son’s sub­tle, in­di­rect style. This com­edy about a pair of ro­man­ti­cally in­volved jew­elry thieves (Her­bert Mar­shall and Miriam Hop­kins) who try to bilk a wealthy widow (Kay Fran­cis) gets com­pli­cated when the man finds him­self fall­ing in love with his prey. Since both women are so de­sir­able and ap­peal­ing, the au­di­ence finds it­self won­der­ing how this “in­sol­u­ble con­flict,” in McBride’s words, can ever be re­solved. Lu­bitsch may not be moral­is­tic, but his in­tent is “to ex­plore the kind of moral is­sue he finds most com­pelling: how men and women should treat each other.” In this case, as in The Love Pa­rade, he is show­ing how “men who are toy­ing with women’s pas­sions are forced to face the con­se­quences of their de­cep­tions and rec­og­nize their own deeper emo­tional na­tures.”

When he first saw Trou­ble in Par­adise in col­lege, McBride was con­vinced that “I’ve just seen this guy’s mas­ter­piece,” and he has ap­par­ently held tight to that opin­ion, de­vot­ing roughly three times more space to it than to any other Lu­bitsch film. I find the film bril­liant but a tri­fle glacial and cal­cu­lated. My fa­vorite would be The Shop Around the Cor­ner (1940), with its warm, squab­bling en­sem­ble of Ma­tuschek & Com­pany em­ploy­ees. Raphael­son him­self felt sim­i­larly: “I cared more about those peo­ple than I did about the peo­ple in Trou­ble in Par­adise. I thought the peo­ple in Trou­ble in Par­adise were just pup­pets.” Lu­bitsch ad­ju­di­cated the mat­ter thus: “As for pure style I think I have done noth­ing bet­ter or as good as Trou­ble in Par­adise,” while “as for

hu­man com­edy, I think I was never as good as in Shop Around the Cor­ner.” I guess I pre­fer hu­man com­edy to pure style.

Pup­pets or no, Lu­bitsch man­aged to ex­tract mag­nif­i­cent act­ing out of his three leads in Trou­ble in Par­adise: Miriam Hop­kins was her usual bouncy self, but Kay Fran­cis, else­where of­ten deco­rously be­calmed, was never so sparkling and vi­va­cious, and the some­times wooden Her­bert Mar­shall con­veyed a pained sense of am­biva­lence be­neath his suave ex­te­rior. There is a beau­ti­ful mo­ment near the end when these two, Fran­cis and Mar­shall, the lat­ter’s con ex­posed, stare at each other for long sec­onds with supreme aware­ness, a look filled with disen­chant­ment, af­fec­tion, and re­gret, shame on his part and for­give­ness on hers.

Lu­bitsch was fa­mous for get­ting ac­tresses to de­liver their best per­for­mances. Greta Garbo, as the Soviet zealot who bends un­der the charm of Paris in Ninotchka (1939), was at her most lu­mi­nous and quick­sil­ver, and Irene Rich was great as the ma­ter­nal black­mailer in Lady Win­der­mere’s Fan. Mar­garet Sulla­van’s tightly wound, me­lan­choly charm and tremu­lous voice adroitly suited the ide­al­is­tic, dis­pu­ta­tious Klara in The Shop Around the Cor­ner. Jeanette MacDon­ald was never so vul­ner­a­ble or touch­ing as in the Lu­bitsch mu­si­cals. Molly Haskell sin­gled out the way

he cre­ated women char­ac­ters of depth and com­plex­ity whose orig­i­nal­ity was glossed over in the gen­eral des­ig­na­tion of “Con­ti­nen­tal so­phis­ti­ca­tion.” But Lu­bitsch’s world­li­ness was as de­cep­tive as his touch. If any­thing, it was in go­ing against the grain of the pol­ished sur­face, in the hints of awk­ward­ness with which he in­vested his men and women, that they—par­tic­u­larly the women—ac­quired com­plex­ity.*

A fe­male reporter, in­ter­view­ing Lu­bitsch on the set, came away think­ing that no man un­der­stood women bet­ter. Here we see the dif­fer­ence be­tween film­mak­ing and daily life: both his wives di­vorced him, claim­ing ne­glect. The first said that her hus­band was “99 per­cent in love with his work and had no time for home.” She cheated on him with his first screen­writer, Hans Kräly. Raphael­son thought the prob­lem was that “he liked women who treated him badly.” But Lu­bitsch him­self cheer­fully ad­mit­ted he was a worka­holic: “I think I am pos­sessed only of a fas­ci­na­tion for the work I have cho­sen to do. I am so en­grossed by the pro­duc­tion of a film that I lit­er­ally think of noth­ing else.”

His in­volve­ment was to­tal: he pro­duced, di­rected, cowrote the screen­play, over­saw ev­ery de­tail of the set de­signs, cos­tumes, and mu­sic, and even edited the films. It ex­plains how Frank Capra would say: “Ernst Lu­bitsch was the com­plete ar­chi­tect of mo­tion pic­tures. His stamp was on ev­ery frame of film— from con­cep­tion to de­liv­ery.” Con­cep­tion be­gan with the script: Lu­bitsch and his screen­writ­ers would talk through ev­ery line and ges­ture, look­ing for ways to avoid cliché and do things dif­fer­ently, while a stenog­ra­pher took it all down. Billy Wilder, who was the di­rec­tor’s chief acolyte, and who later kept a sign in his of­fice say­ing “How would Lu­bitsch do it?” (hence the ti­tle of McBride’s book), said that Lu­bitsch was at bot­tom a writer, and in fact the best film writer he ever knew. When they worked to­gether on Ninotchka, some of the best di­a­logue bits came from Lu­bitsch, such as “The last mass tri­als were a great suc­cess. There are go­ing to be fewer but bet­ter Rus­sians.” Once the script had been nailed down, Lu­bitsch rarely de­vi­ated from it. Im­pro­vi­sa­tion was for the scriptwrit­ing phase, not the ac­tual shoot­ing. Lu­bitsch, the ex-ac­tor, would act out each role—a prac­tice that some pro­fes­sion­als might or­di­nar­ily take of­fense at, but it “was his way,” notes McBride, “of en­sur­ing that they would fol­low his pre­ferred rhythms, which are in­te­gral to the hu­mor and emo­tion of his work.” It was also his way of keep­ing the ac­tors en­ter­tained, which he re­garded as his di­rec­to­rial duty. He would play the pi­ano be­tween takes: his love of mu­sic was a con­stant. *Molly Haskell, From Rev­er­ence to Rape: The Treat­ment of Women in the Movies, third edi­tion, with a fore­word by Manohla Dar­gis (Univer­sity of Chicago Press, 2016), p. 96. To­ward the end of his short life—he died in 1947 at the age of fifty-five—he ex­pressed some re­luc­tance at hav­ing be­come so en­tranced with the spo­ken word that he’d ne­glected telling the story purely via the cam­era. The pu­rity of his cin­e­matic tech­nique, how­ever, was if any­thing en­hanced by its rig­or­ous econ­omy: if you look at the scenes be­tween James Ste­wart and Mar­garet Sulla­van in The Shop Around the Cor­ner, the block­ing and com­po­si­tions are per­fectly ap­pro­pri­ate, the cam­era move­ments slight yet pleas­ingly ad­justed to the mood. Truf­faut said of Lu­bitsch: “There’s not a sin­gle shot just for dec­o­ra­tion; noth­ing is in­cluded just be­cause it looks good. From be­gin­ning to end, we are in­volved only in what’s es­sen­tial.” At the same time, he was able to stage the bravura the­atri­cal scenes of To Be or Not to Be (1942) with panache. In that out­ra­geously au­da­cious film, Lu­bitsch is ex­hibit­ing his af­fec­tion for the com­mu­nal the­ater mi­lieu while re­viv­ing me­mories of his ap­pren­tice­ship with Rein­hardt’s troupe. Jack Benny, pre­vi­ously wasted in movies, gives an un­for­get­table per­for­mance as the vain, hammy ac­tor Joseph Tura, who is try­ing to pro­tect his sorely cuck­olded ego while joust­ing with the Nazi com­man­dant, known as “Con­cen­tra­tion Camp Ehrhardt.” With this pic­ture Lu­bitsch re­turned to the Jewish themes he had started with as a young man—though per­haps his comic sense all along can be seen as an ex­pres­sion of typ­i­cally Jewish hu­mor.

Enno Pata­las, the Ger­man scholar who re­stored many of Lu­bitsch’s silents, wrote:

Lu­bitsch was not ashamed of be­ing Jewish—quite the con­trary. In a 1916 in­ter­view—the ear­li­est that sur­vives—he says that “Wher­ever Jewish hu­mor is seen, it is lik­able and well-crafted, and it plays such a ma­jor role ev­ery­where that it would be ab­surd to dis­pense with it in the cin­ema.” Jewish cul­ture is the only cul­ture with a feel­ing for com­edy at its very heart. Jewish hu­mor cuts the ground from be­neath the earnest­ness of life—a way of as­sert­ing one­self in a hos­tile world.

That could cer­tainly serve as a ra­tio­nale for To Be or Not to Be, a movie that ruf­fled feathers when it opened by re­fus­ing to be earnest about Nazis.

In

“re­mov­ing some of [the] bar­ri­ers to ap­pre­ci­at­ing Lu­bitsch,” McBride brings up ways that the di­rec­tor might be seen as out of touch with con­tem­po­rary au­di­ences, only to de­fend or ex­cuse him. He queries that ele­giac late-Lu­bitsch work Heaven Can Wait (1943), about an un­ex­cep­tional man (Don Ameche) who loves his wife (Gene Tier­ney) but can­not stop chas­ing women. In her pa­tient ac­cep­tance of her hus­band’s stray­ing eye, is not Lu­bitsch con­don­ing the dou­ble stan­dard? My own read­ing of the film is that he is nei­ther con­don­ing nor con­demn­ing it, only say­ing it ex­ists. It is the wife who emerges as the film’s ex­cep­tional hero, stub­bornly de­ter­mined to wait out her “lit­tle boy” of a hus­band. And the cast­ing of the soft, ami­able Ameche as the skirt chaser in­stead of a more vir­ile type, like Clark Gable or Robert Mitchum, lends an air of pathos to the story. In gen­eral, Lu­bitsch seems to ridicule the Don Juan

fig­ure by ex­ag­ger­at­ing his mag­netism to the point of ab­sur­dity—like the mul­ti­tudes of women camp fol­low­ers who crowd the streets in The Wild Cat. Or the dozens of women at Maxim’s who con­gre­gate around Mau­rice Cheva­lier in The Merry Widow. Cheva­lier is such a preen­ing, self-sat­is­fied car­i­ca­ture of a fop in these mu­si­cals that one can­not take him se­ri­ously as a lady-killer.

Was Lu­bitsch a sex­ist or a fem­i­nist pi­o­neer of sex­ual free­dom? To me the ques­tion seems point­less. When we watch a Lu­bitsch film, we reen­ter not only the past mores of an old movie, but a past that he con­jured from his imag­i­na­tion, that was fast dis­ap­pear­ing or had al­ready van­ished in the eyes of his con­tem­po­raries. His pen­chant for adapt­ing old Hun­gar­ian plays and Vi­en­nese op­erettas en­sured a cer­tain off-kil­ter re­la­tion­ship to the Amer­i­can present. Even in his hey­day he was al­ways one step ahead of be­ing dated, or two steps be­hind. There was al­ways some­thing del­i­cate and frag­ile about his grace­ful con­struc­tions that in­vited spe­cial con­sid­er­a­tion.

Maybe we have to ex­am­ine the whole no­tion of be­ing dated. I’m sure there are young peo­ple who feel that any black-and-white movie is dated, not to men­tion any silent, but that’s their loss. As I see it, when enough years af­ter the pre­miere of a truly fine work of art have passed, it has out­lived the threat of dat­ed­ness. Think of Lu­bitsch’s mirac­u­lously ten­der last film, Cluny Brown (1946). Can such ten­der­ness date? McBride con­cludes his ex­cel­lent, au­thor­i­ta­tive book—which of­fers all the nec­es­sary points to be made about Lu­bitsch, is chock­ful of cul­ti­vated in­sights and as­tute quotes, and is even forth­right about his sub­ject’s clink­ers (The Man I Killed, That Un­cer­tain Feel­ing, Blue­beard’s Eighth Wife)—with a lament. Hav­ing de­cried the gross-out come­dies of to­day and the ac­tion movies show­ing “gi­ant ro­bots smash­ing into each other,” he won­ders what be­came of the Lu­bitsch so­phis­ti­ca­tion, ma­tu­rity, and wit. Is there some way to get it back into films? We need to re­mem­ber how rare it was even in its day. “Whether or not Lu­bitsch’s cul­tural in­flu­ence can be re­vived..., those of us who love him need to keep in­sist­ing on its im­por­tance,” writes McBride. In­sist­ing? How un-Lu­bitschean. Those of us who love, I mean love, Lu­bitsch know that such clam­orous ad­vo­cacy is un­nec­es­sary. His lovely pic­tures await those who are meant to find them.

Ernst Lu­bitsch, Gary Cooper, Miriam Hop­kins, and Fredric March on the set of De­sign for Liv­ing, 1933

Jack Benny (left) and Ernst Lu­bitsch (right) on the set of To Be or Not to Be, 1942

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