Touch of Genius: The Sound Films of Ernst Lubitsch

Programmed by Jack Hamm

Essay by Jack Hamm

Though his reputation with the general public has faded over the years, German import Ernst Lubitsch was once among Hollywood's most iconic filmmakers, with studio publicists working overtime to highlight the "Lubitsch touch" which made his pictures so distinctive. His ability to mix sophistication with innuendo was unparalleled: as critic Saul Austerlitz explains, he possessed a style "playfully adult in its themes, without ever crossing the invisible boundary line that separated smut from genius." His greatest protégé, Billy Wilder, lauded his abilities in creating what he defined as "Superjokes": "You had a joke, and you felt satisfied, and then there was one more big joke on top of it. The joke you didn't expect." Ernst Lubitsch stayed in the business of surprising his audiences for more than three decades, and this series takes a look at some of the best entries from the latter half of his career.

Although Lubitsch made numerous films in the silent era, the coming of sound—and with it the opportunity to create witty turns of phrase—heralded the beginning of his greatest work. Initially, he mostly focused on the musical comedy as his genre of choice, with Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald as his most frequent stars; this period is represented here by One Hour with You (1932) and a late entry, The Merry Widow (1934). In late 1932, he turned to straight comedy with one of his most iconic pictures, Trouble in Paradise, a witty and cheerfully amoral tale of romance between two jewel thieves which would help define the "Lubitsch Touch" once and for all. So successful were this and his subsequent films, including the equally innuendo-laden Design for Living (1933, featuring the star-studded trio of Miriam Hopkins, Gary Cooper, and Fredric March), that he was kicked upstairs to the position of head of production of the entire Paramount line, but he was clearly suited better for the director's chair than the producer's office, and his tenure ended unsuccessfully.

His directorial comeback, 1937's Angel, featured the great Marlene Dietrich paired with two of Lubitsch's favorite male leads, Herbert Marshall and Melvyn Douglas, and contained some dramatic elements mixed in with the comedy. However, his next two films featured Wilder (at the top of his game) as the screenwriter, and they are among the best farces of his career. Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938) pairs Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert, while Ninotchka (1939) gives Greta Garbo the first comedy work of her career. Another of his best-remembered works of this period is The Shop Around the Corner (1940), which features Jimmy Stewart and has seen multiple remakes. To Be or Not to Be (1942) has also inspired filmmakers of a later generation and, in an unusual stylistic diversion for Lubitsch, mixes WWII spy hijinks in with the comedy. Alas, by the mid-1940s, Lubitsch's health was in serious danger from a heart condition, and Cluny Brown (1946, starring Charles Boyer and Jennifer Jones) was the only one of his last three intended projects which he was able to complete. He died the next year at the criminally young age of 55, just months after receiving an extremely well-deserved Special Academy Award.

 

2014-04-06 @ 7:00 PM

Trouble in Paradise

(Ernst Lubitsch, 1932) · Gaston, Europe's greatest gentleman thief, becomes partners in crime with a female pickpocket, and it looks like the criminal equivalent of a storybook romance. But when he goes undercover in the household of the beautiful businesswoman who'll be their next victim, a potentially disastrous love triangle breaks out. Possibly Lubitsch's masterpiece, this amoral and innuendo-filled picture was lucky enough to get made in the pre-Production Code days.

runtime: 83 min format: 35mm

 

2014-04-13 @ 7:00 PM

One Hour With You

(Ernst Lubitsch, 1932) · Like many of Lubitsch's early talkies, this musical stars the duo of Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald—and, like many of his movies from any era, it involves the threat of some extramarital hijinks. Our two leads are Andre and Colette, a couple so happily married that everyone wants to get in on the excitement: Colette's best friend tries to seduce Andre, while Andre's best friend pines for Colette. Can they escape with all relationships intact?

runtime: 80 min format: 35mm

 

2014-04-20 @ 7:00 PM

Design For Living

(Ernst Lubitsch, 1933) · Loosely adapted by Ben Hecht from a play by Noel Coward, this is another movie which would have raised quite a firestorm if made under sterner censorship. Our heroine (Miriam Hopkins) falls in love with two different starving artists (Gary Cooper and Fredric March) but can't decide which one she likes better...so, since none of them has any money, they decide to live together in a platonic (or so the movie tells us) ménage a trois! Complications follow.

runtime: 91 min format: 35mm

 

2014-04-27 @ 7:00 PM

The Merry Widow

(Ernst Lubitsch, 1934) · Consternation reigns in the tiny kingdom of Marshovia, where the country's wealthiest taxpayer (Jeanette MacDonald) has moved away. The frantic king dispatches handsome Count Danilo (Maurice Chevalier) to seduce and marry her, ensuring that her fortune will return to the local coffers. It's easier said than done: for one thing, he doesn't even know what she looks like, as he's never seen her without a widow's veil, and she seems determined to stay hidden.

runtime: 99 min format: 35mm

 

2014-05-04 @ 7:00 PM

Angel

(Ernst Lubitsch, 1937) · After an unsuccessful tenure as head of production at Paramount (the first director ever to earn the position at a major studio), Lubitsch makes a welcome return to the director's chair for the first time in three years. Marlene Dietrich stars—alongside frequent Lubitsch collaborators Herbert Marshall and Melvyn Douglas—as a neglected wife who has a brief encounter with a stranger, only to discover that he's a long-lost friend of her husband...

runtime: 91 min format: 16mm

 

2014-05-11 @ 7:00 PM

Bluebeard's Eighth Wife

(Ernst Lubitsch, 1938) · The modern Bluebeard (Gary Cooper) doesn't murder his wives; he just divorces them when the relationship gets tiring. His latest spouse, however, is determined to stick around in this farce written by future directing legend Billy Wilder, who would later list Lubitsch among his greatest influences. The "meet cute" scene in a clothing store (each character wants to buy half of the same set of pajamas) ranks among the best in romantic comedy history.

runtime: 80 min format: 35mm

 

2014-05-18 @ 7:00 PM

Ninotchka

(Ernst Lubitsch, 1939) · Lubitsch and Wilder team up again for this tale of love, laughter, and Leninism. Three Soviet agents are sent on a diplomatic mission to Paris, but revel in the luxuries of capitalist society and lose all interest in business. Their superior officer (Greta Garbo, in her first comedy) arrives to put them back in line, but she locks horns with the man who's introduced them to Parisian life, and the battle of the sexes (and economic systems) is on.

runtime: 110 min format: 35mm

 

2014-05-25 @ 7:00 PM

The Shop Around the Corner

(Ernst Lubitsch, 1940) · Jimmy Stewart is a Hungarian clerk (perhaps fortunately, he doesn't try to do an accent) who just can't seem to get along with his beautiful new coworker (Margaret Sullavan), and the feeling is decidedly mutual on her side. Somewhat lonely, he begins exchanging love letters with an anonymous correspondent whom he met through a newspaper ad, and soon starts to think of marriage—but the identity of his unknown lover throws his plans for a loop!

runtime: 99 min format: 35mm

 

2014-06-01 @ 7:00 PM

To Be or Not to Be

(Ernst Lubitsch, 1942) · In this witty skewering of the wartime climate, Jack Benny (in a rare movie role!) plays an inept Polish actor with all kinds of problems. Not only is his wife/co-star (Carole Lombard) carrying on with a young man, but his theatre company is about to become involved in a spy plot and face danger from the country's Nazi officials. Post-Pearl Harbor audiences weren't amused by a comedy directed at such Serious Issues, but most modern viewers disagree.

runtime: 99 min format: 35mm

 

2014-06-08 @ 7:00 PM

Cluny Brown

(Ernst Lubitsch, 1946) · Don't miss Lubitsch's final completed film! Despite her aspiration to be a plumber, Cluny (Jennifer Jones) must conform to societal expectations and work as a maid at a country estate. A guest (Charles Boyer) has his own problems: he lost all his money fleeing occupied Europe, and he can't get anyone to buy his incomprehensible philosophy books. They seem destined to be together, until a few romantic rivals get in the way. Can true love win out?

runtime: 100 min format: 35mm

 

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