Book Review: Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise

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I will have to say, for movie buffs who have not seen the films by Ernst Lubitsch, it’s too bad for you. Ernst Lubitsch was one of the greatest filmmakers of the classic period, he brought with him a European elegance to his films which proved to be unique and sophisticated amongst the Hodge podge of films made in the 1930s and 40s. Before he came to Hollywood, he stood out in his native Germany making classical period pieces as well as innovative silent comedies, some of which could rank along with works of Keaton and Chaplin.

In his book “Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise”, writer Scott Eyman gives us a distinct view into the life of the great director. His films are explored in a great depth, revealing a very pure and precise technique which has commonly become known as “The Lubitsch Touch”.

The book begins with a look at Lubitsch’s childhood as a German Jew who was born in Berlin. We learn right at a young age, Lubitsch was caught with the acting bug, and he begins a career as a player and apprentice to famed German theatre producer Max Reinhardt. Reinherdt would probably become the biggest professional influence on Lubitsch, particularly how he directed actors making their performances more natural than it was accustomed to being back then.

By age 21, Lubitsch began directing films, and would become one of the most renowned German directors of the time. Normally when one thinks of German films in the silent era, we most narrow it to the very influential German expressionism which ushered in the horror and sci-fi genre like “Nosferatu” or “Metropolis”. But it’s important to remember, Germany churned out different genres of films just like Hollywood at the time. The book is quick to point out Lubitsch made his name for directing acclaimed epic period pieces even before he was well-known for comedies. He took on an innovative task when he directed a version of Oscar Wilde’s “Lady Windermere” making the bold choice to take out all of Wilde’s witty dialogue and not use title cards at all. Lubitsch instead tells the story completely through images, an effort which was made more famous by his national contemporary F.W. Murnau with his film “The Last Laugh”.

Lubitsch would make more acclaimed period pieces including “Anna Boleyn” (The only one I have actually seen) and “Madam DuBarry”. But it’s with his early comedies we see where his true gift really was. Among his early silent films highlighted are his personal favorite (And Mine too) “The Doll”, which is a comedic fantasy about the daughter of a toy maker who disguises herself as a doll to fool a young bachelor. There is also “The Wildcat” which stars one of Lubitsch’s early discoveries actress Pola Negri as a barbaric mountain woman who becomes smitten with a philandering soldier.

These early comedies showed Lubitsch’s point of view when it came to sex, as he thought it was something to be laughed at rather to be taken seriously, but it also showed his flair for experimentation. With “The Doll”, he creates the sets very stylistically as if everything was made out of a toy box. Lubitsch appears in the very first scene creating the set out of miniatures, it’s a very charming intro to a charming film. With “The Wildcat”, he changes the irises of the camera which create wonderful designs within the frame, it’s easy to see how heavily a film like this would influence the likes of Wes Anderson who played with Aspect Ratio sort of the same way with “The Grand Budapest Hotel”.

The book picks up with Lubitsch’s most lucrative and influential period in Hollywood, where he immigrated to create masterpiece after masterpiece. We see how he was handpicked by silent star Mary Pickford to come to Hollywood and direct her in “Rosita” (A film which was just recently restored and shown in New York at the MOMA).

When the sound era came to be, we learn how Lubitsch perfected the early musicals, drawing on German operettas as inspiration. With operettas Lubitsch would learn how songs would always be plot or character driven rather than be surface level entertainment like most early talkies were. Lubitsch helped change all that with his first four sound films all of which were musical comedies (“The Love Parade”, “Monte Carlo”, “The Smiling Lieutenant”, and “One Hour With You”.) The film created stars out of French crooner Maurice Chevaliar, and Jeneatte McDonald who would become a life long friend.

It was here, the Lubitsch style would be perfected and he created his first real masterpiece “Trouble in Paradise”. The film is an elegant sophisticated comedy as when two lovers who are also thieves decide to steal from a rich socialite only to have one of the thieves fall in love with her. The film sparkles with the greatest dialogue written for film, as well as a perfect platform with Lubitsch’s wonderful sense of irony. It was here he solidified an on again off again working relationship with screenwriter Samson Raphleson, who collaborated with Lubitsch on all of his greatest films.

We see Lubitsch’s career peak near the mid-thirties until there was a backlash, and his cool elegance was replaced with more punchy, and fast, dialogue. In short, America found a way to Americanize Lubitsch, and he was regarded as passe. This came as he was ascending Paramount Pictures, and became its head of production.

Once Lubitsch’s name didn’t carry much weight due to a series of box office failures, he became an independent producer. He teamed up with MGM to make “Ninotchka” with Greta Garbo (Most likely his most famous film) and then to go on to direct “The Shop Around the Corner”, a charming romance and one Lubitsch considered his greatest accomplishment.  He had enough in him to make one of the greatest wartime comedies (“To Be or Not to Be”), and a gentle nostalgic tale about a recently deceased Lothario recounting his life to The Devil to see if he’s suitable to ascend to heaven (“Heaven Can Wait”)

Eyman always takes his time discussing Lubitsch’s work, which for me was always the most interesting part of the book. He gives fair criticism to the films including the ones that didn’t always turn into magic (“Angel”, and “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife” aren’t as beloved as others). Yet we get the sense of how Lubitsch honed his craft . The idea of “The Lubitsch Touch” always alluded me as to what it meant, even though it ultimately is just a title that some journalist made up. Yet it does encompass what his style was, since itself felt elusive. Lubitsch was the kind of director to favor subtlety over telling the audience what to think. He laid out enough clues for you to follow. Eyman notes early on how Lubitsch would use objects in his films that would act as a metaphor, usually for a character, or for a theme of the film. Such an object that was used is a hat in “Ninotchka” that Greta Garbo’s communist soldier sees in a Paris window. At the beginning, she sees it as a symbol of capitalist decadence, but when she warms to Paris and falls in love with an American, we cut to a scene with her wearing the exact hat showing how she has changed her tune.

The use of music was also put into great effect whether it was a running gag such as a music box in “The Shop Around the Corner”, or a specific song like “The Waltz of the Merry Widow” which signaled a character’s demise in “Heaven Can Wait”. Lubitsch had the gift of keeping things light even when dealing with dark material. Even his angriest film “To Be or Not to Be”, which was made in the middle of World War II and was a direct attack on Hitler and the Nazis, never forgot that its heroes were vain, self-involved actors.

As far as Lubitsch’s private life, Eyman gives us just enough without exploiting his memory. We learn of his two tumultuous marriages with women who never seemed really loved him. However it was with one of these marriages he was blessed with a daughter Nicola who was born in 1938 and was the light of his life. There is one terrifying moment, Eyman recounts when Nicola was only five and on a European cruise with his mother while Lubitsch was in Hollywood. The ship was torpedoed by a Nazi-U-boat killing many on board including children. When Lubitsch receives word about it, he is left not knowing whether his daughter survived the attack, only to be relieved hours later when he gets word she was rescued.

For the most part, Eyman gives us the impression that Lubitsch was beloved with most of the actors who worked with him and he was known to enjoy the Hollywood lifestyle with all its charm and decorum to go with it. Despite most of his films being about infidelity of some sort, we don’t see much philandering on his part, despite the fact his marriages were unhappy. He would however partake in a few dalliances once his marriages ended.

The saddest part of the book comes with the description of Lubitsch’s demise, after suffering a series of heart attacks, and it being the time before a coronary bypass surgery was common, he ends up dying at the age of 55 only six months after receiving an honorary Academy Award for his career in film. It was told he died  after sex which I suppose is rather fitting. That night he was going to be picked up for a party, and in a strange scenario, many friends like Marlene Dietrich came by to see his body and pay their last respects.

A filmmaker like Ernst Lubitsch may not be as well-known today as he was back then. His influence is evident in the later films of Billy Wilder (Who had a statement in his writing office which said “How would Lubitsch do it?”). Even today in writer/directors like Wes Anderson or Whit Stillman often tip their hat at times in their films to the work of Lubitsch. Mel Brooks would remake “To Be or Not to Be” and “The Shop Around the Corner was remade into a musical called “In the Good Old Summertime” with Judy Garland,  and more effectively in “You’ve Got Mail” with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan.

This biography showed just how much of an artist Lubitsch was to filmmaking and how he was one of the early great innovators. I am always charmed by his films, and I believe he has made at least three masterpieces with “Trouble in Paradise”, “The Shop Around the Corner” and “To Be or Not to Be”. He could be regarded as one of the great comedy directors, and I wish more people knew of his movies. He definitely created a world of his own with his characters, and was as well-known for comedy as Hitchcock was for suspense. If anything “Laughter in Paradise” just made me appreciate Lubitsch more for his craft, and his humour, and how he approached life, which always seemed to be with a smile.

 

 

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