Friday Film Festival 002: Lubitsch's Second Tier

Ernst Lubitsch is no longer in the first rank of directors that spring to mind when people talk about the classic Hollywood era. Even though he was revered as a master by many of the (now) more famous directors in the generation after his (Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger), the usual center of gravity in Hollywood — the stars — tended not to congregate in Lubitsch pictures, which were instead populated largely by character actors.

In fact, of the five movies that I consider to be his best — his first-tier films, if you will — only one contains a genuine star: Greta Garbo in Ninotchka (1939). The others, for the record, are Trouble In Paradise (1932), The Shop Around The Corner (1940), To Be Or Not To Be (1942), and Heaven Can Wait (1943). (And yes, Jimmy Stewart's in The Shop Around The Corner, but he wasn't a star yet, and I'd argue that he was always a character actor anyway.)

I'd encourage you to rent, borrow, or torrent all of the above, and put on your own Friday Film Festival, watching them in the order that they were made. Lubitsch's deeply humane, generous-minded, and erotically comic vision of life — he made movies for adults about adults, and was both wise and very funny about love and sex and marriage and idealism and compromise and deceit — makes up one of the most emotionally satisfying filmographies I've come across.

But tonight's Friday Film Festival is not about those movies. Those movies are all readily available on DVD, borrowable from any decent library, and essayed about to death elsewhere on the internet. Tonight is about the three second-tier Lubitsch movies I happen to have on my hard drive at the moment.

In my head, following the lead of most film historians, I divide Lubitsch into three periods: his silent period (which was when he actually grew famous for "the Lubitsch touch"), his musical period (1929-1935, when Jeannette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier were his most frequent muses), and his extended comic period, of which the five movies listed above are some of the greatest movies ever made and even when he wasn't on his game (1941's That Uncertain Feeling, say, about which Burgess Meredith's deadly Oscar Levant impression is about the only memorable thing), he was still pretty great.

1. Cluny Brown
(USA) Ernst Lubitsch · 1946

Cluny Brown is the kind of movie that, had it been made by Ingmar Bergman or Federico Fellini or Jean Renoir in the same year, would long have been enshrined in the world cinema canon as a subtle masterpiece of sexual sublimation and exquisite social satire, with its own Criterion catalogue number and a sober-minded Peter Bogdanovich DVD commentary. The fact that European directors are the first to come to mind when making comparisons like these is hardly an accident — for decades at a stretch, it could seem as though Ernst Lubitsch was the only man in Hollywood watching what Europeans, especially the more hyper-civilized and sophisticated among them, were doing in the 1930s and 40s.

Of course, Lubitsch was thoroughly European himself, a German-born Jew who loved to set his movies among the moneyed elite and then puncture their world with infidelity, deceit, and a wit that was never quite as quick as it was sharp. Lubitsch films require patience, just like the Europeans I compared him to above — and they reward it just as handsomely.

Of course, if Cluny Brown had been directed by any of those Euros, it wouldn't have had its signature flaws, either: Jennifer Jones is frequently luminous in the title role, but her attempt at an English accent is hardly any better for being abandoned early on. For Cluny Brown is set in England, based on an English novel, and features a largely English cast. (In fact, Anthony Asquith or Powell & Pressburger could have done marvelous work with it, now that I think of it.) I own and have read the comedy-of-manners novel (I even wrote about it four years ago; and am ashamed to note I repeat myself here), and the movie's all the better for adding Lubitsch's adult themes, witty realism (especially as delivered by Charles Boyer, playing a refugee who lives by his wits), and fantastic social satire. The clip below shows Lubitsch at his best (even if Jones is clearly out of her depth):

By the way, with that "bang, bang, bang" bit, Cluny is referring to the first scene in the movie, in which she unstops a clogged sink by banging on the pipes with a wrench; plumbing is her passion, and serves Lubitsch well as a metaphor for sex. (The fact that such necessaries of civilized life are supposed to be too vulgar for the ultra-proper British to mention only adds to the fun.) The climactic scene in the film, in which Cluny is rejected by her hilariously prissy lover Wilson (that's him in the picture up top) because of her earthy enjoyment of plumbing — she even spreads her legs to fit the pipe between them, is how blatant Lubitsch is about it, and looks as ecstatically disheveled afterwards as though she's been through orgasm — is hilarious on at least four levels (visually, socially, sexually, and verbally), as well as being emotionally fraught. We don't like Wilson, but we don't want Jennifer Jones to look like that about it.

As for the rest of the movie, Peter Lawford is about as good as he ever was before chucking it to be part of Sinatra's gang, the British character actors are uniformly excellent, and the location shooting is gorgeous. It was Lubitsch's last full film; he would die the following year — in flagrante, if rumors are true — and while it doesn't have the rich humanism of A Shop Around The Corner or the tense black comedy of To Be Or Not To Be (though he gets in a few jabs in at Hitler nevertheless), it's a worthy capstone to a career which savored the light, the elegant, and the winking.

2. Design For Living
(USA) Ernst Lubitsch · 1933

And then sometimes the winking wasn't so much winking as plain speech. Design For Living is an astonishingly frank movie even today; the closing scene, with its cheerful acceptance of ménage à trois as the solution to all life's difficulties, would still be controversial nearly eighty years since it was filmed. And in between, there's unmarried sex, cheating sex, married sex, and lots and lots of making fun of the squares.

The fact that it was originally a highly successful Noël Coward play (co-starring the married king and queen of the New York theater, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne) no doubt gave Lubitsch more leeway than he would have had otherwise; but even as it was, he got it in just under the wire; in 1934, it was refused a re-release certificate by the newly stern Production Code Authority for gross immorality and withdrawn from circulation until the post-Code era. The following exchange might be tame by modern standards, but I blinked when I heard the word "sex" actually spoken in black-and-white.

Like Cluny Brown, it isn't a perfect film; even apart from what it did to Coward's far more cynical, forthright, and witty original play (he sniffed that "pass the mustard" was the only line that survived from his script — and no one ever says "pass the mustard" in the film), it's tonally uneven, switching from comedy to melodrama to farce to satire based purely on what's happening plotwise, without the lightness of touch needed in both script and acting to keep it all floating along together. (Lubitsch's usual screenwriter, Samuel Raphaelson, refused to tamper with Coward, so Ben Hecht, better known for hard-boiled ratatat scripts with Charles McMurray, did the job; on his own, Hecht's tonally uneven too. I have some novels.)

Frederic March is winningly terrific as a less-sophisticated-than-he-thinks playwright, and Gary Cooper, though far too ruggedly handsome, is fine in the role of a painter with caveman instincts. But Miriam Hopkins' brittle, stagey performance of the key role in the film nearly sinks the entire thing — we're supposed to believe that she's so fascinating that at least three men are madly in love with her, but she never seems to be thinking about anything but what her next line is. Add in Edward Everett Horton as the fourth wheel — while he was always great as his one character, he should never be anything but comic relief, and applied in limited doses there -- and the tonal imbalance becomes too much to take halfway through.

Luckily, there's more than story to this movie. It's a gorgeous film. Hans Dreier's art direction, taking cues from French Impressionism, Italian Futurism, Mexican Muralism, and German Expressionism, and Victor Milner's cinematography (the background shadows alone are fascinating) make for a sumptous visual feast; and if the mise-en-scène can sometimes be a trifle stagebound thanks to the originating play, Lubitsch is always doing interesting things with the camera, with blocking, and with bits of business. The title of the play was originally a pun because the female character as played by Lynn Fontanne was an interior designer; when Hecht changed Hopkins' version to a commercial artist, Lubitsch and his team managed to retain the pun by just designing the hell out of the movie.

3. Bluebeard's Eighth Wife
(USA) Ernst Lubitsch · 1938

And then sometimes you turn out a stinker.

I'd seen Cluny Brown before. I'd even sat through the first scene of Design For Living. ButBluebeard's Eighth Wife was entirely new to me, though I have a vague feeling I might have seen it in childhood; unless that's just the sensation of being put through the standard paces in a heartless farce where everyone's unlikeable and nothing matters.

I'm a defender of the Hollywood studio system, but it was far more likely to turn out mediocre movies than great ones, and during the mediocrities, you take your pleasures where you can get them. In this one, those pleasures are just about wrapped up in David Niven as a dim aristocrat who can't quite get used to being poor, Edward Everett Horton and Franklin Pangborn doing their usual, and one great battle-of-the-sexes scene:

Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert are both extremely attractive people who made some very good movies. This is not one of them. It's the kind of farce that ends with one party in a straitjacket being kissed against his will; with none of the sympathetic view towards human frailty or rich interest in the varieties of human experience which that implies. Lubitsch was famous for his witty, urbane comedy, but this is broad slapstick, and he wasn't very good at it. (Billy Wilder, who co-wrote the screenplay, would learn to do it better; the similarly goofball ending to Some Like It Hot is justly famous.)

Maybe it's because I stayed up way too late to watch this and I'm sleepy and crabby, but this movie stank and even if Lubitsch is one of my favorite directors I don't have to pretend to like it.

At his best, Ernst Lubitsch had a deeply compassionate, slyly wise vision of human nature which came out naturally in comedy which was delicate, understated, and smartly interrogated the nature, source, and effect of moral and immoral thought and behavior. A champion of frivolity, of manners, and of the unexpected laugh, Lubitsch nevertheless made movies about eternal themes like love and marriage and betrayal. They say that comedy is tragedy that keeps going; a lot of serious-minded filmmakers today are making a lot of half-a-Lubitsch films.

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