"The Lubitsch Touch"

Dennis Harvey January 18, 2007

In Hollywood’s “golden era,” most directors were considered mere worker bees, not artistes. It was the producer who took primary attribution for a movie, impresarios like Thomas Ince and Adolf Zukor, and of course the stars who claimed primary fan-mag space. Nobody went to a movie because it was directed by so-and-so … because they would be hard-pressed to name one more specifically than, er, “so-and-so.”

Ernst Lubitsch was a shining early exception, and stayed one to the end of his career. The famed “Lubitsch Touch” was a catchphrase filmgoers came to associate with “Continental” wit, sophistication and sauciness unique to the director himself. He was imitated but never matched.

Probably the most successful comparable talent, Preston Sturges, is treasured precisely because he came up with a very different (and far more American) farcial style that shared Lubitsch’s virtues without copying his style in the least. By definition a souffle shouldn’t have much of a shelf life. Yet so many Lubitsch films remain lighter than air, delicious in (rather than dated by) their silvery Art Deco trappings and risque innuendo.

“The Lubitsch Touch” is the inevitable title for a major Pacific Film Archive retrospective that runs this Friday through February 16.

Newish PFA Senior Curator Susan Oxtoby’s series encompasses 21 features, including many seldom-seen silents — as far back as the original German titles that made him an international name, and had Hollywood begging for his services by 1923. Despite a rough start here, he wound up one of very few imported directors to stick it out with all artistic integrity intact, in fact changing the industry rather than letting it change him.Can one overdose on sheer delight? Well, for the next month you can actually find out.

Starting out a young stage actor, the Berlin native added film work to his resume in 1913. By the next year he’d commenced directing movies that, as late as 1920, he often acted in as well. Strangely, despite being barely of voting age at this stage, he most often played comically grumpier old men-often a somewhat stereotypical ethnic Jewish slant.

But the movies that propelled his career from successful to sensational were a series of elaborate costume melodramas that also made a huge star of actress Pola Negri. She played such women of titillating repute as “Carmen” (1918), “Madame DuBarry” (1919), “The Wildcat” (1921), and a harem dancer who bewitches a hunchback clown (Lubitsch himself) in 1920’s “Arabian Nights”-inspired “Sumurun.”

These films were hella sexy for their time, and Lubitsch’s technique was admired almost as much as Negri’s more tangible assets. Once “Du Barry” crossed the Atlantic, both were clamored for by the Hollywood studios — making them among the first much-hyped imports in what would fast become a craze for European talent. (The vogue’s subsequent beneficiaries included director/actress-protegee teams Mauritz Stiller/Greta Garbo and Josef von Sternberg/Marlene Dietrich.) Yet once ensconced in SoCal, they soon parted ways.

Negri would act the grand diva to the hilt — she famously made a histrionic fool of herself publicly “grieving” alleged former lover Rudolph Valentino after his sudden 1926 death — and the enthusiasm that greeted her European films chilled after too many ridiculously overheated American vehicles. A heavy accent was blamed for her career’s demise when the talkies arrived. But in truth, it was already on life support.

Lubitsch had a very different Hollywood launch — he’d been wooed by none other than the biggest star in the firmament, Mary Pickford. Thirty years old in 1923, “America’s Sweetheart” was eager to escape the juvenile roles that had made her (“Poor Little Rich Girl,” “Pollyanna,” et al.). The genius behind “Du Barry’s” grown-up sophistication seemed a perfect ticket. But for all her on-screen innocence, off-screen Pickford was a savvy businesswoman, used to having the deciding creative input on her own films. She and the equally strong-willed Lubitsch — who was not accustomed to being directed by his actors — clashed throughout production on “Rosita.” Fans didn’t like seeing their little Mary as a fiery Spanish singer who turns a king’s head, making the film an expensive flop. But despite the star’s later angry dismissal (“the worst picture, bar none, that I ever made”), “Rosita” is rumored to actually be pretty damn good — and you can judge for yourself Feb. 4 at the PFA.

Despite this high-profile bomb, Lubitsch persevered, shifting away from lavish costume spectacles toward witty modern comedies. (He’d already done those in Germany, including 1919’s very funny “The Oyster Princess” and the same year’s “I Don’t Want to Be a Man,” which has won latterday cult status as a daring portrait of butch-female “gender blur.”)

Among them were 1924’s “The Marriage Circle,” a delicious satire of upper-class licentiousness; and an improbable silent adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s profoundly verbal play “Lady Windermere’s Fan” (1925).

By the time “the talkies” impacted a couple years later, Lubitsch had assimilated sufficiently and honed his style into a particular stripe of boulevard comedy. The altered medium allowed him to triumph in a genre that hadn’t existed before: Movie musicals.

Early-talkie musicals tend to creak nowadays — but not Lubitsch’s. Even though his sensibility was always more theatrical than cinematic (in terms of visual dynamism), his “tuners” remain feather-light and frivolous in the best sense. He also found an ideal new star in Maurice Chevalier, a French stage star whose winking ooh-la-la charm is one cultural stereotype that still flatters its birth nation.

Chevalier and various leading ladies (often trilling soprano Jeannette MacDonald) cavorted though “The Love Parade” (1929), “The Smiling Lieutenant” (1931), “One Hour With You” (1932) and “The Merry Widow” (1934), the last so lavish that it did not recoup its costs.

As the Chevalier vogue faded (and MacDonald moved on to a series of corny but popular screen operettas with Nelson McDonald), Lubitsch redefined his art. His films turned to a non-singing giddy celebration of sex sly enough to defy the censorious Production Code installed as of 1934. (The PFA series unfortunately does not include his last stab at drama, 1932’s anti-war “Broken Lullaby.”) “Trouble in Paradise” and “Design for Living” are racy love triangles — the latter gently reduces the scandalousness of Noel Coward’s stage play while remaining true to its spirit. (It also puts Gary Cooper in the most tacitly bisexual circumstances of his screen career. Sigh.)

Lubitsch’s films grew less frequent and successful in the mid-‘30s. He had a “comeback” triumph in 1939 with “Ninotchka,” which was also very good news for Garbo. Playing a stiff Soviet commissar limbered by Parisian champagne and romance, she won back an American public that had come to find her too repeatedly heavy with cinematic tragedy. (Still, she remained ambivalent enough about stardom to give it up entirely after just one more, poorly fitted vehicle.) His next film was another hit — 1940’s “The Shop Around the Corner,” an oft-remade story (most recently as “You’ve Got Mail” with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan) starring Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart as Budapest shopworkers who despise each other face-to-face yet unknowingly love one another as pen-pals.

Lubitsch’s last films are a fascinating miscellany. “To Be or Not To Be” (1942) is a comedy with a very modern black sensibility — Carole Lombard and Jack Benny play ham actors who distract the Nazis in occupied Poland. The director’s first color film, 1943’s “Heaven Can Wait,” is an uneven fantasy about a rich, sinful sort (Don Ameche) trying to talk his way out of Eternal Damnation. (In the hit 1970s Warren Beatty remake, a pro-footballer hero has to earn his way into Heaven by reincarnating as a wrong-doing rich guy and making the latter do-the-right-thing.) 1946’s “Cluny Brown” was a delight, with Jennifer Jones as a British servant not so mindful of her “place” under employer Charles Boyer.

Born in 1892, Lubitsch had a long career in movie terms, but it should have been much longer. Ill health forced him to relinquish “A Royal Scandal” (1946) and “That Lady in Ermine” (1948) — costume farces starring Tallulah Bankhead and Betty Grable, respectively — mid-production to fellow German