The Lubitsch Touch

If all the art and literature of the twentieth century, a century that took itself so seriously (though its record for slaughter is hard to match), were dropped into a dumpster, it wouldn’t be worth one work by Michelangelo or Botticelli.  Do you mind if I say that?
Here in our own nervous century we swim in a sea of cultural trash, illuminated by video games that excite the shooters, by pornography that has changed the shape of the human body (it's hairless now, as in fifth-century Greece and the Italian Renaissance; the dicks, even in quiescence, dwarf their predecessors; the breasts, which were out of control for a while, have again become natural), and by the preachings of the evangelists of Success, who promise us transformations (regard their tweets) beyond even the come shots that conclude the ritual sequence of postures in the videos, the actress licking her lips in anticipation.
And yet we ourselves are disembodied, and function with avatars like Mardi Gras masks on sticks.  We are discouraged from actual sex, and urged to cultivate narcissism and the internet, which are strangely aligned.  And indeed, one has learned to fear women who kick-box, or have tattoos.  

Beauty, that royal danger, that puritan's foe, is out of style. Our movie stars exhibit only a serviceable regularity of feature, often not even that, and appear in morality tales as predictable as the postures of the porn stars.
Action films have dwindled into displays of animation; even James Bond has become a cartoon.  And a film by Quentin Tarantino or Tim Burton can ruin the evening.

Love is out of style.  "Alliances" are in style.  Business plans are in style.  Brad Pitt made an entire film about the success of a business plan.  So elevating.  But that's where we are.  People fall in love with business plans.
One wonders what one does like about cinemah, and why one wants to make films, and when I’m in that mood I always think of Ernst Lubitsch.  Now, nobody can make a film like Lubitsch, let’s get that straight, but one can be inspired by him to make something as light as a soufflé, as subtle as a secret, as funny as a fart.

If only.

My favorite Lubitsch movie, Trouble in Paradise, is about a master thief who, in a Venice hotel (Grand Canal Venice, not LA Venice), robs someone in another room.  Then, resuming his pose as a baron, he hosts a dinner in his own suite for a countess he plans to seduce.  “And you see that moon, waiter?  I want to see that moon in the champagne.”  The waiter writes it down: “Moon in champagne.”  When the lady arrives, she and Gaston (his name is Gaston) pick each other’s pockets, discover that they’re both thieves, and fall in love.  And we fall in love with them falling in love.

But don’t expect a “cool” hero.  Suave, yes.  Charming, wow.  But not cool.  “Cool” is eminently a Puritan virtue.  (See Greece versus the Puritans.)  Max Weber tells us that during the English Civil War the Puritans, because of their unemotional determination, were able to ride in strict formation, in cool formation, towards the undisciplined Cavaliers, Musketeer types who relied on gallantry and beer.

Henry James says of Daisy Miller’s first reaction to Winterbourne that she had never seen anything so cool”—the first instance I know of the modern usage, and if I hear it much more I’m going to lose mine.  The attitude is one of detachment and distance, and becomes virulent in the fifties, Elvis and Marlon sneering at it all.  They are outsiders; the first line of Camus’s L'Etranger (The Outsider) is “Mother died today.  Or maybe it was yesterday.”
The opposite thing is best exemplified by the courtier John Denham, who in that same Civil War pleaded for the life of George Wither, a Puritan, “on the ground that, so long as Wither lived, he himself could not be accounted the worst poet in England.”
Gaston is not cool; he is operatic.  His every speech is animated by passion, and he is splendidly overplayed by Herbert Marshall, who lost a leg in World War I, which has to be disguised in the wide shots.  He was nevertheless an accomplished ladies’ man, and along with Peter Lorre and George Sanders, he’s my favorite actor.
 "Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored...I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck."
A Paris radio news report on one of Gaston’s spectacular thefts is followed by a commercial for Colet Perfume—“Cleopatra was a famous tantalizer, But she did it with her little atomizer!”—and now we’re on Madame Colet herself, the young widow who owns the company and refuses to cut salaries in spite of the Depression (we’re in 1932).  Such a smooth transition.

At the opera Gaston steals her jeweled purse (we never see these thefts happen; action for Lubitsch is vulgar), and when she offers a reward for the purse larger than he could get by selling it, he simply returns it
—and plans to steal her money.  But they fall in love.  And we fall in love with them falling in love.  So now he loves two women.  And that’s the plot.
It moves incredibly fast.  I’ve watched it and watched it and watched it to figure out how it moves so fast.  The credit sequence of The Outlaw Josey Wales moves fast; I’m scarcely a Clint Eastwood guy but I must say it’s a tight little film in itself.   Trouble in Paradise, though, is a whole movie.

Partly it's that Lubitsch delights in ellipsis, which of course is always good for the budget.  I can think of three of his films in which scenes are played out in mime beyond glass.  In Trouble in Paradise a whole evening of seduction is done with voices over an Art Deco clock marking the hours.  Peter Lawford goes into a room to punch Charles Boyer (this is in Cluny Brown), and comes out having lent him money.

What any artist worth the name wants is to avoid Saying Things.  An artist wants to show you something, make you feel something, not Say Something.  If you’re experiencing a piece of art that’s trying to Tell You Something, you’re in the wrong hands.  And yet, who can avoid it?  In Shakespeare the characters, even the speeches, have lives of their own
—they Say Things—but Shakespeare himself is nowhere to be found.  We others, however, speak with our own voices, and commit the sin of Saying Things.

What did Lubitsch Say?  He said, there’s no Mr. Perfect or Ms. Right.  He said, if your wife sleeps with somebody else it’s no big deal.  He said, why make an enemy?  He said
(or rather the little boy in Heaven Can Wait said), if you want to win a girl you have to have lots of beetles.  He said sex, he said alcohol, he said big cigars, all with the utmost refinement.  And he said the over-refinement of being in love, from which all sweet ironies spring. 
In 1917 he made a short based on a Strauss operetta: A Berlin bon viveur who goes out drinking and dancing every night gets a subpoena to report to jail for a day "for disgraceful behavior". But when the cops come for him his wife's lover has to pretend to be him to save her reputation, and the lover does the time.  Meanwhile she disguises herself and goes to the party, and her husband picks her up!  Then the revelation, and from now on he takes her out drinking and dancing with him.

In Heaven Can Wait a rich young man falls in love with a woman and marries her, and continues to have the other women he wants.  He has it all.  Lubitsch loves to show people having it all
—ain't it awful?  And when he's old and dying a beautiful nurse goes into his room and, well, closes the door.  As he tells the Devil (for he has not bothered to report to heaven) "Who could ask for a more beautiful death?"  And here, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, death imitates art: Lubitsch himself died in the arms of a call girl.
Interesting detail: his wife (the character's, not Lubitsch's) leaves him for her parents’ house is in Kansas, and these parents don’t speak to each other; their black servant conveys messages from one end of the breakfast table to the other, and with perfect humor and dignity.  You don’t get much of that in 1942, but that’s Lubitsch.
Clarence Muse
While we’re on the permissiveness that gives such taste to his sauce, he has a Wildean indulgence for embezzlers, and much in common with Wilde, whose people are always finding out that they're not "good"—loveable, but not good.  But this is where Lubitsch begins, not where he ends.  (In fact he made a silent version of Lady Windermere's Fan.)  They both loved everything about being a gentleman, except being a gentleman.

Something in him loves larceny.  In Ninotchka some Russian rubes come to Paris to sell jewels that had once belonged to the Grand-Duchess-in-exile, who's already in Paris, and who keeps a man (Melvyn Douglas), who calls on the boys: “Well, gentlemen, what about my proposition?  “What proposition?  “I just said, let's have some lunch!”  Cut to hookers and champagne, and the deal is developing.  In A Royal Scandal Catherine the Great (Tallulah Bankhead) confronts her embarrassed chancellor over his  embezzling: a little I can understand, she says, “but take it easy!
We might have wished to say the same to our own chancellors, from Wall Street to Athens.

“Everybody and his Aunt Nellie,” as Audrey says in Charade, has a theory of “the Lubitsch touch,” and I have mine.  When Maurice Chevalier died, Lawrence Durrell described his appeal as “tender insolence,” and this says it.  Chevalier came to his Hollywood prominence in Lubitsch’s movies, and embodied the Lubitsch spirit, as did the screenwriter Samson Raphaelson.  I like to think that both of them took fire from Lubitsch.  Perhaps I’m oversimplifying.

Lubitsch's insolence pairs a superior tenderness with a daring attitude to pleasure.   In his own piece on Lubitsch, Peter Bogdanovich connects innocence to sophistication, and I like that; the true sophisticate is a naïf.

And oh, how Lubitsch was imitated!  He founded a whole genre, the screwball comedy.  Everybody tried to be Lubitsch.  His protégé Billy Wilder kept a sign up in his office: HOW WOULD LUBITSCH DO IT?

Pointless.  Wilder himself was too intellectual.  Everything in Jean-Luc Godard—the semiotics, the study of the image qua image, the postmodern mind split off from its referents—it's all there in Wilder.  And that’s the trouble.  Some Like It Hot is a gorgeous film, worth seeing just for Tony Curtis’s Cary Grant imitation.  But in much of Wilder's work the intellectual baggage is heavy.  Intellect is not refinement; intellect can be acquired.  (None of us know what we look like; these things are hidden from us; we can only appreciate them in others.)  And except for The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, which is all intellect, after Irma la Douce Wilder's films become crass.

Trouble in Paradise is a poem.  The effort is always to make poems.

I was about to say that To Be or Not to Be, about actors playing Nazis to escape Nazis, is my second-favorite Lubitsch, but then I thought of his The Merry Widow, another operetta (this one with sound), that's like drinking champagne
—light, bubbly, intoxicating.  I hate decisions.   

In The Merry Widow Chevalier plays a womanizer-as-national-hero, and in his courtroom speech he pleads guilty: "Any man who can dance through life with hundreds of women, and is willing to walk through life with oneshould be hanged!"  The peasants leap up and applaud.  On the other hand, To Be or Not to Be is a winter film; it gives me a cozy feeling that I also feel in Some Like It Hot—a strange kind of warmth, I don’t know what it is, that you only get in black-and white movies.
And it has Carole Lombard, my favorite actress along with Irene Dunne and Margaret Rutherford.  Beautiful as she was, Lombard never took herself seriously.  She said of her great love Clark Gable, “If his pee-pee was one inch shorter they’d be calling him the Queen of Hollywood.”
Sample dialogue with Jack Benny: “It’s becoming ridiculous the way you grab attention—whenever I start to tell a story you finish it, if I go on a diet you lose the weight, if I have a cold you cough, and if we should ever have a baby I’m not so sure I’d be the mother.”  “I’d be satisfied to be the father.”

A distaste for schmaltz is one of Lubitsch’s two great freedoms.  In-love-ness, OK, but you won’t find any of the sentimentalities that inform lesser filmmakers—childhood (invented by Jean-Jacques Rousseau), Christmas (invented by Charles Dickens) or America (invented by Frank Capra).
And he has a Shakespearian freedom from dogma that was singular in the last century: no Freud, no Marx.  Knowledge of psychoanalysis didn’t become general until the 50s, so he was able to spoof it in That Uncertain Feeling without being very deep about it. 

But Marx was the flavor of the 30s—all the kids were communists, real members of the Party, it was the thing, and of course in the 50s McCarthy ambushed them.  Stalin was a hero, Roosevelt was inaugurating revolutionary social programs, and even the future Nixonite John Ford made The Grapes of Wrath.  Not Lubitsch.  When Gaston confronts an outraged Trotskyite he ticks him off in Russian.  (Ah, how the super-hero has changed:
for Lubitsch he was someone who followed opera, knew eighteenth-century furniture and spoke several languages.)

When the rubes in Ninotchka fail to make the deal, Ninotchka herself, an unsmiling puritan from the collective, comes to Paris and encounters Melvyn.  Love, baby.  “GARBO LAUGHS!” said the posters.  But the Countess blackmails her back to Moscow and to the Commissar, played, in an inspired piece of casting, by Bela Lugosi.

 Dracula in Lenin drag
To be a communist was to commit the sin of seriousnessbad manners.  But though Lubitsch presented himself as frivolous and easy-going—"the playboy," Graham Geene called himhe had the strength to resist, nay to mock, that whole zeitgeist.  Frank Capra was still selling a socialist vision in the Why We Fight series, and the Germans were attacking our Soviet allies, but even in wartime Lubitsch didn’t join the parade.

Peter Lawford (a young fool), at the outbreak of war: "I'm going to write another letter to The Times."  Boyer (indulging him): "Good!"  "No—no, I'll join the RAF!"  "Better!  Join the RAF.  Rise above The Times!"

Now look, Freud and Marx were brilliant men who gave their lives to trying to help people.  But enough!

And I love high spirits.  My own comic novels are inspired by P.G. Wodehouse.  I’ve wandered elsewhere, but I’d rather do comedy than anything else.  And in film, Lubitsch is the master.


  1. Tweeted and promoted to my 5000 + followers. Enjoyed the piece and your perspective...about Lubitsch.

  2. Hi Robert,
    I enjoyed this piece and it was amazing to see so many old screen grabs! I also liked your perspective about Lubitsch although the name didn't mean that much to me until I read this post (that's when the penny dropped, as it were).
    Will be tweeting it straight away!!

    1. Ah, Carlie, I promise you some real treats when you get to those movies. Thank you for telling your friends.

  3. I loved this piece, Robert. I am ashamed to admit I have somehow missed seeing his movies. I, too, love high spirits, and the lighter touch in movies. Something totally lacking in the current flow of comedies coming out of Hollywood. Crass and crude, sure... but funny? Not so much. I'll be on the lookout for Lubitsch films now. I'll tweet for you, too.

    Thanks for the delightful read.


    1. Thanks, Dean. Always good to hear from you. I think you can get The Merry Widow and To Be or Not to Be on YouTube.

  4. Enjoyed your piece on Lubitsch which was dead on. You are, however, dead wrong on the peerless Wilder who IS the Shakespeare of the 20th Century. He did exactly what you accuse Lubitsch of doing: he stood apart from his material and allowed it to speak without ideaology. That's why he could do thrillers, noirs, dramas, comedies etc.

  5. I'm willing to take correction there. Wilder is one of the pleasures of life.

  6. Good morning read, whilst enjoying a fine Perdomo on my balcony in the City of Angels

  7. Thank you, James. Lubitsch would have liked the thought of someone enjoying his work with a cigar.

  8. This was a great, informative read. Time to watch some new old movies. And I will never, never say 'cool' so breezily again.

    1. Anne-Marie, you can say 'cool' any time you like (but not to me). Glad you enjoyed it.