Introductions to Great Film-makers Ernst Lubitsch

13 March 2010

Who is he?

After a successful silent film career directing the likes of Pola Negri and Emil Jannings in Germany, Ernst Lubitsch established himself as the most sophisticated director in Hollywood. Even when his films didn’t make money studios continued to back him because of the prestige he brought them.

Lubitsch, unlike Griffith and von Stroheim, made a smooth transition to sound films, and is recognised as a pioneer of both musicals and the screwball comedy. When Paramount decided to change up Garbo’s career with a comedy, they went to Lubitsch and the result was Ninotchka. 

Why should I watch his films?

Lubitsch brought wit and grace to Hollywood, earning the sobriquet “The Lubitsch Touch.” His romantic comedies still put contemporary efforts to shame with their inventiveness and elegance. He coaxed fantastic performances from his male leads, particularly suave Europeans such as Charles Boyer, Maurice Chevalier and Herbert Marshall.

He also made one of the bravest films of World War II – a 1942 comedy set amongst a theatrical troupe in Warsaw – To Be or Not To Be. This raucous farce was considered in poor taste with the outcome of the war still in the balance but Lubitsch, a German Jew, was the only person who could make it. One particularly unpopular line had a German officer say of Jack Benny’s dodgy actor: “What he did to Hamlet, we are now doing to Poland.” 

Where to start:

The Shop Around the Corner. A delightful romantic comedy which has stood the test of time so well that when it was remade rather insipidly as You’ve Got Mail, that film was still a huge hit. Tom Hanks may be a great lead but he isn’t a patch on Jimmy Stewart; Stewart plays a gentle shop clerk who is unwittingly exchanging romantic correspondence with his fiery co-worker.

Set amongst staff in a department store the original has a heart-warming dynamic, drawing on Lubitsch’s youthful experience in his father’s tailor-shop, which was lost in the soulless remake.  

Where not to start:

Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife. Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett wrote the screenplay. Gary Cooper, Claudette Colbert, David Niven and Edward Everett Horton star. Lubitsch directs! It should be a classic, but a weak central premise stops it from really igniting.

Next Steps:

To Be or Not to Be, Trouble in Paradise, Cluny Brown