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Classically Speaking:
Promoting Classic Movies in a Jaded World!

Thursday, November 17, 2005


Ernest LubitschYou really should know who ERNST LUBITSCH (1892-1947) is! For nearly a quarter-century, European émigré Ernst Lubitsch had his own special niche in Hollywood -- directing witty romantic comedies, often erotic (albeit within the confines of what "eroticism" could be shown, or intimated, during those more discreet times). However, his films were sufficiently popular to have appeal beyond what passed for the "art house" crowd.

First making a splash in the silents, then progressing seamlessly to talking films, the "Lubitsch touch" could be both sophisticated and bawdy...often simultaneously. He was held in such regard that he became the lone director of note to head production at a major studio (Paramount, in 1935-36). Lubitsch also directed two of the most stylish non-musical comedies of the pre-Code era, Trouble In Paradise and Design For Living.

Lubitsch's most sustained period of success came in the first few years of talkies, when he directed a series of urbane musicals, most of them starring Maurice Chevalier and a sexy Jeanette MacDonald who was many years away from her better-known, but far stiffer operettas with Nelson Eddy. His expertise in this genre was such that when MGM decided to remake the 1925 hit The Merry Widow as a musical in 1934, it obtained Lubitsch's services from Paramount -- a rarity for the Culver City studio, which tended to view directors as largely interchangeable. Five years later, after his Paramount tenure was through, he returned to MGM, presenting a laughing Greta Garbo to the world in Ninotchka.

Many Hollywood legends worked in a Lubitsch film at one time or another -- Gary Cooper, Claudette Colbert, James Stewart, Marlene Dietrich, Miriam Hopkins, and Carole Lombard (her premature cinematic valedictory came in Lubitsch's brilliant black comedy To Be Or Not To Be, opposite, of all people, Jack Benny). Lubitsch showed he still had it in the postwar era with the clever Cluny Brown, which would be his last full directoral credit; he died in 1947, during shooting for That Lady In Ermine.

Ninotchka (1939) Poster

A fine place to start is by viewing: Ninotchka (1939). "Garbo Laughs!" the ads read. As the title character, a Soviet official sent to Paris to retrieve both jewels and some wayward delegates, she gets help from co-star Melvyn Douglas (pinch-hitting for the ailing William Powell) and a wonderful script co-written by a young Billy Wilder.

Watch this and then see these other four Lubitsch films.

The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) Chevalier's at his lustiest in this palace romance, this time without MacDonald, although Colbert (as a musician) and Hopkins more than make up for it as rivals for his attention. Features the outrageous song "Jazz Up Your Lingerie," which more or less defines the pre-Code mood.

Trouble In Paradise (1932) Hopkins and Herbert Marshall are charming continental jewel thieves, who are hired by their unsuspecting target, the long, slinky clotheshorse Kay Francis. But when Marshall complicates things by falling for Francis, the fun (and innuendo!) really begins.

The Shop Around The Corner (1940) Stewart, the quintessential American actor, plays a European clerk who's been writing to and receiving letters from a woman he's never met...but it turns out the pen pal is a co-worker whom he can't stand (Margaret Sullavan). The story has been remade several times for stage and screen, most recently in "You've Got Mail."

To Be Or Not To Be (1942) Lubitsch showed his distaste for the Nazis through this darkly comic tale of a Polish theater group who outwit German invaders. But near the end of production, Pearl Harbor was attacked, and the following month, beloved leading lady Lombard died in a plane crash. It thus understandably wasn't well received upon release, but in ensuing decades its brilliance has been recognized.

*Contributed by: "Vincent Paterno" Date: Wed, Nov 16 2005 / 22:36:02 PST

Academy Awards®
© A.M.P.A.S.®
1928-1929 Nominated for Best Picture of the Year: THE PATRIOT — Producer
1928-1929 Nominated for Best Achievement in Directing: THE PATRIOT
1929-1930 Nominated for Best Picture of the Year: THE LOVE PARADE — Producer
1929-1930 Nominated for Best Achievement in Directing: THE LOVE PARADE
1931-1932 Nominated for Best Picture of the Year: ONE HOUR WITH YOU — Producer
1931-1932 Nominated for Best Picture of the Year: THE SMILING LIEUTENANT — Producer
1943 Nominated for Best Picture of the Year: HEAVEN CAN WAIT — Producer
1943 Nominated for Best Achievement in Directing: HEAVEN CAN WAIT
1946 Honorary and Other Awards: For his distinguished contributions to the art of the motion picture. Winner presented a Scroll.