What Makes Lubitsch Lubitsch?

Film Forum begins June with the the director celebrated for his sophistication


“The Lubitsch touch” was the brainchild of a go-getter in the Warner Bros. publicity department named Hal Wallis, when Ernst Lubitsch was under contract at the studio in the 1920s. Thus did future producer Wallis invent one of the few PR slogans ever to be turned by critics into a philosophical debate, to be defined and redefined ever since. On the simplest level, I’d agree with Armond White that the touch was sophistication. You may favor a mistier, more metaphysical definition; but like cinephile Potter Stewarts, we all know the touch when we see it.

And for two weeks and thirty-one films at Film Forum, starting June 2, we’ll be able to see plenty. One of the most revered directors of the studio era, Ernst Lubitsch stands in no danger of being forgotten, and while this extensive tribute to the great man (on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of his birth) includes some rarities, there are also a number of films that are frequently revived. So, one might ask sternly in the voice of Greta Garbo’s Ninotchka, must we have more Lubitsch?

We certainly must, and we should. As the world grows steadily more coarse and obvious, Lubitsch’s unique brand of easy virtue still appeals. He lived through times far more cataclysmic than our own, yet he clung to his vision of humanity: flawed, hypocritical, at times selfish, but all the same — as Melvyn Douglas’s Leon tells Ninotchka — “this doomed old civilization sparkles.” Admittedly, “sometimes it feels as though the whole world is coming to Hell,” Laird Cregar’s Satan observes in the immortal 1943 Heaven Can Wait, but while His Excellency is glad for the business, he doesn’t want the wrong kind of crowd. And what might the wrong crowd look like, in a Lubitsch movie? Oh, that’s easy. Prigs. Phonies. Stuffed shirts. Bores, whether “animal, vegetable, or mineral,” as Miriam Hopkins must ask during a stultifying game of charades in Design for Living.

There is order and morality in Lubitsch’s immorality, as in the 1932 Trouble in Paradise, one of his finest achievements. Hopkins plays a high-stakes thief who fears losing her crime partner (Herbert Marshall) to the charms of their wealthy mark (Kay Francis). She implores him: “I want you as a crook. I love you as a crook. I worship you as a crook. Steal, swindle, rob. Oh, but don’t become one of those useless, good-for-nothing gigolos!” The movie achieves the rare feat of making both women seem entirely worthy of the hero’s affections. Like a show-off juggler, Lubitsch spun the romantic-choice dilemma in another, even more transgressive direction the next year with Design for Living, having Hopkins choose both Fredric March and Gary Cooper. (Hell, who wouldn’t?)

The series sprawls across the whole of Lubitsch’s career in no particular order, zigzagging among a wide array of silents and nearly all the films from his Hollywood sound period. There are 35mm prints of films that usually circulate in hideous public-domain videos, such as That Uncertain Feeling, Lubitsch’s 1941 remake of one of his lost silents; the Film Forum print is on loan from the Austrian Filmmuseum. There are curios, such as the underseen Broken Lullaby (1931), a somber drama, set just after World War I, that was recently remade loosely by François Ozon as Frantz.

The silents include a trio of comedies made in Germany with the exuberant and adorable Ossi Oswalda. The Doll (1919) is a spin on the E.T.A. Hoffmann story that also became the ballet Coppélia; it boasts surreal sets, gluttonous monks, and Oswalda creating chaos as the phony “doll” of the title. The Oyster Princess (1919) has a glorious foxtrot scene that clearly foreshadows the later musicals; and I Don’t Want to Be a Man (1918) is an eye-popping gender-switch comedy that finds Oswalda, in drag, sharing a passionate kiss with the hero.

Indeed, sex — its possibility, its fulfillment, its fun — is everywhere in Lubitsch, though it is seldom vulgar or obvious. Instead it’s transformative, particularly in his pre-Code screen musicals: The Love Parade (1929, Lubitsch’s first sound film); Monte Carlo (1930); The Smiling Lieutenant (1931); and 1932’s One Hour With You (a superior remake of 1924’s The Marriage Circle, also in the series), whose mere title suggests possibilities that only Lubitsch could in the 1930s, before or after the Code.

The series begins at the end with Cluny Brown, Lubitsch’s final completed feature. Made in 1946, it follows the parlormaid and aspiring plumber of the title (Jennifer Jones) as she tries to “learn her place” in stiff and stately England, watched from an amused distance by a Czech refugee (Charles Boyer) who’s clearly perfect for her. Adapted by Samuel Hoffenstein and his lover Elizabeth Reinhardt, the film treats Cluny with tenderness even as she utters clueless double entendres: “I would bang, bang, bang, all night long,” is how Cluny describes her approach to blocked pipes.

Set in 1938, Cluny Brown is a comedy of hindsight, with a melancholy sting to the characters’ squabbles about whether or not to discuss looming war at garden parties. Behind Lubitsch was a run of films that stand as “one of the enduring glories of the American cinema,” as critic Dave Kehr has put it. Ahead was Lubitsch’s tragically early death from a heart attack, aged only fifty-five. In the end, the Lubitsch touch “was a kind of lost art, like Chinese glass-blowing,” lamented Billy Wilder. “He took the secret with him to the grave.”