'The Lubitsch Touch' at Film Forum salutes a movie master

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Has the world ever fully caught up with Ernst Lubitsch? New York’s Film Forum series in June, “The Lubitsch Touch,” featuring a number of rarely seen titles by the director, will help to answer that question. In an era when the most popular form of comedy is scatological, Lubitsch might seem like a relic from long ago. Yet there are so many dimensions to his output, in terms of genre, technique and even a few outré moments of his own, it would be wrong to dismiss his signature sophistication as a singular or passé style. In this case, the director who died 70 years ago gets the last laugh—and a few tears as well.

While Film Forum celebrates the 125th anniversary of Lubitsch’s birth with 31 films on view, several in their original 35mm format, audiences should be on the lookout for the “must-sees” and at least consider a few of the lesser-known or less successful productions.

Born in Germany to a Jewish family in 1892, Ernst Lubitsch dropped out of high school to join Max Reinhardt’s famed Deutsches Theater in 1911. Soon after, he started in motion pictures as a slapstick comedian, and eventually became the director of short subjects (from 1914 to 1920) at the fabled UFA studio. One of the last of those shorts, Romeo and Juliet in the Snow (1920), a lively riff on Shakespeare, is getting its due on June 14, showing off how even the young Lubitsch was able to frame and time comic sequences with just the right angles and scene length. The little gem is paired on the same bill with Meyer in Berlin (1919), a chance to see Lubitsch direct himself as the lead in a romantic comedy about a philandering Jewish husband on vacation, a sort of Mittel-European precursor to Elaine May’s Heartbreak Kid (1972).

If Lubitsch’s Romeo and Juliet surprises anyone for its cross-dressing scenes, his I Don’t Want To Be a Man (1918) is gender-bent throughout, which would have been welcome during Germany’s Weimar period between the wars and represents a preview of Lubitsch’s progressive view of gender parity. This head-spinning little farce is paired on June 19 with Kohlhiesel’s Daughter (1920), starring Emil Jannings and Henny Porten in a modern Jewish variation on The Taming of the Shrew. Other shorts (or short features) display Lubitsch’s most outrageous, stylized side: The Doll (1919), on June 13, comically upends Hoffman’s Coppelia fairy tale with the unjustly forgotten Ossi Oswalda as the story’s “living doll”; and Oswalda also plays the title role in The Oyster Princess (1919), on June 3, a sly critique of American consumerism and excess—and a film that anticipates Lubitsch’s Hollywood work more than any other. Madame DuBarry (1919), on June 4, however, demonstrates the helmer’s skill at serious historical spectacle, with Pola Negri outshining a cast of thousands in the title role.

Once Lubitsch began crafting full-length features, he was immediately recognized by his UFA bosses as a master of many genres, not strictly comedy. There was Anna Boleyn (aka Deception), a 1920 costume drama (screening June 25) reteaming Jannings and Porten, playing Henry VIII and his tragic second wife, respectively. Their performances, the beautiful sets and costumes, and the striking outdoor cinematography highlight a very somber movie not normally associated with what would later become known as “The Lubitsch Touch,” that delicate, difficult balance of subtle comedy and poignant drama.

At the other extreme, The Mountain Cat (1921) finds the director at his goofiest. Also known as The Wild Cat and amusingly subtitled “A Grotesque in Four Acts,” the farcical fantasy has been so rarely shown, Lubitsch’s daughter, Nicola Lubitsch, will be on hand to introduce it on June 11. Once again, the employment of hundreds of extras and the high degree of stylization would not become part of his legendary “Touch,” but this oddity critiques war and militarism in a way that sets the stage for some of his best-loved sound films.

If any project could be called the first to introduce that elusive “Touch,” The Marriage Circle (1924) would be it. Showing on June 9, this adult romp was made at the point Lubitsch had gained so much international acclaim he traveled to Hollywood and signed a contract with Warner Bros. (an initial deal with Mary Pickford ended in disaster). The surrealism, slapstick and spectacle of his German work give way to greater nuance in a five-character marital mix-up starring a game ensemble: Adolphe Menjou, Florence Vidor, Esther Ralston, Marie Prevost and Monte Blue. On the other hand, the lesser-known Three Women (also from 1924) is the closest Lubitsch would ever come to straight melodrama. Closing the series on July 2, this story of a mother and daughter competing for the same man might seem a less “personal” project but is expertly done nonetheless.

Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925), on June 15, presents another early critical success that intermingles humor and pathos, with Lubitsch reworking but also honoring Oscar Wilde’s wry commentary on the oppressive social conventions of the bourgeoisie. Ronald Colman and Irene Rich stand out in the cast. So This Is Paris (1926), on June 2, replicates the marital misunderstandings of The Marriage Circle but in an even racier way—with the first Charleston choreographed for the movies added for good measure. Though no major stars appear this time, Myrna Loy has a small role as a maid.

But good reviews aside, the Warners productions were not big hits, so changing course again, Lubitsch freelanced, first agreeing to adapt for MGM the operetta The Student Prince (in Old Heidelberg) (1927), which is certainly romantic but not particularly humorous. Missing its famous Sigmund Romberg score, the silent film’s leads, Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer, do their best to make the creaky prince-loves-commoner narrative into something moving. More interesting is United Artists’ Eternal Love (1929), on June 5, another romantic drama—Lubitsch’s last silent—but one with a genuinely intriguing story, as John Barrymore and Camilla Horn play lovers escaping their dreary marriages (a sort of Brief Encounter in the Swiss Alps).

During this same period Lubitsch wisely moved to Paramount, which he called home for the next decade. In a tantalizing “extra,” one can view the trailer to the studio’s lost The Patriot (1928) on June 25, his first effort using sound (although only partially so) and the first time he was nominated as Best Director by the Academy Awards. Starring Emil Jannings, this extravagant biopic of Emperor Paul I of Russia was an uncharacteristic throwback to the director’s UFA days.

Lubitsch’s first true “all-talkie”—and a musical at that—was The Love Parade, showing June 6, which moves slowly compared to many of his other pictures, thanks to the technical limitations of the sound apparatus, which is not cinematographer Victor Milner’s fault (in the first of several collaborations). Regardless, the risqué qualities still resonate today, right down to the scanty undergarments worn by Jeanette MacDonald (in her movie debut) as the Queen of Sylvania, a frustrated royal subject who quiets her court critics by enlisting a count (Maurice Chevalier) to play “husband.” The June 6 bill also offers MacDonald as royalty in Monte Carlo (1930), this time escaping an arranged marriage and finding solace in a count posing as a hairdresser (Jack Buchanan). Apart from perfecting his use of off-screen space for sexual suggestion, Lubitsch stages and edits at least one song, “Beyond the Blue Horizon,” in a way that would influence future filmmakers of the musical genre. The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), on June 7, doesn’t feature any musical numbers nearly as memorable but compensates with a charming love triangle comprised of Chevalier, Miriam Hopkins and Claudette Colbert (singing and playing the violin!) and would be the first of many Lubitsch films written by Samson Raphaelson.

In fact, Raphaelson’s Trouble in Paradise (1932) soon followed and is one of Lubitsch’s best and most risqué comedies, becoming one of his personal favorites of all his works. In typical pre-Code fashion, the romantic triangle this time involves two jewel thieves (Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall) and a wealthy perfume manufacturer (Kay Francis), yet larceny wins out over love—not a message the censors would approve after 1934, so for this and other reasons the film remained kept from view by Paramount until 1968. Catch it either June 4 or 9.

That same year of 1932, Lubitsch and Raphaelson teamed up for one of the director’s most overtly heartfelt, least ironic films, an anti-war drama called Broken Lullaby (also known as The Man I Killed), but its box-office failure and mixed critical reaction meant that for better or worse, Lubitsch would be expected to deliver upbeat comedies for the foreseeable future. Showing June 5, this pacifist-themed curio (recently remade by François Ozon as Frantz) stars Lionel Barrymore and Nancy Carroll. Back to basics in 1932, Lubitsch safely remade The Marriage Circle as the musical One Hour With You, co-starring MacDonald and Chevalier, and routinely co-directed by George Cukor. It shows on June 12.

More notably, Lubitsch adapted Noel Coward’s Design for Living in 1933 (screening June 8 and 14), and though it barely used any of the dialogue from Coward’s play (Ben Hecht wrote the script), the urbane yet rakish ménage a trois romance of Miriam Hopkins, Gary Cooper and Frederic March is as “deviant” as Hollywood could get prior to the enforcement of the Production Code.

Despite Lubitsch’s ability to invest his now-patented brand of sophistication and sexual innuendo into his material, the Code adversely affected some of his remaining productions. MGM’s The Merry Widow (1934), on June 12, is lavish and enjoyable, with a few moments of “naughtiness,” but is really just a tamer variation on his own Love Parade with better songs, again pairing MacDonald and Chevalier. Incidentally, Film Forum will not be showing the French-language version, La Veuve joyeuse, shot simultaneously on the same soundstages by the director and the same stars but with a different supporting cast.

Back at Paramount, Lubitsch’s stock soared so much from his string of hits (Broken Lullaby being his only flop), the management made him production head, the first time any filmmaker assumed such a position. You won’t get to see those films by the other directors Lubitsch supervised (such as Desire, 1936, from Frank Borzage, very much in Lubitsch’s style, with an uncredited assist from his boss), but then this period only lasted about a year, as everyone, including the artist-turned-mogul, realized bureaucratic skills weren’t his strongest suit.

Back in the director’s chair, Lubitsch lovingly created Angel (1937), showing June 8 and 14, which yielded something far more dramatic and provocative than anyone was expecting—the studio, critics or audiences—and was considered a failure. Today, the romantic triangle (Marlene Dietrich, Melvyn Douglas and Herbert Marshal) boasts an odd, gripping intensity that sets it apart from other screen romances critic Molly Haskell once dubbed “choice melodramas” (where the heroine must choose between two worthy lovers). Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938) was slightly more in line with expectations, but its morbid theme of Gary Cooper playing a possible Monsieur Verdoux and Claudette Colbert wondering if she is his next victim didn’t sit well with those wanting a light comedy from the master. Once again, this film (showing on June 7) seems much more suited to cynical, modern-day sensibilities and is still unfairly overlooked.

The mostly negative reactions to Angel and Bluebeard led to Lubitsch’s parting from Paramount and briefly joining MGM, where he rebooted with Ninotchka (1939), co-written by Lubitsch’s artistic heir, Billy Wilder, about a Soviet envoy (Greta Garbo) attempting to retain her homeland’s coveted jewels while visiting “wicked,” capitalistic Paris and resisting a romance with her brash American counterpart, Melvyn Douglas. Though the “Garbo Laughs” sequence was over-promoted by the studio, everything else about the film is exquisitely done, so much so that even communists might enjoy this parody of their sensibilities. It screens June 3 and 15.

The immediate follow-up, The Shop Around the Corner (1940), was another instant classic, a more sentimental but still infectious tale of two Budapest shop workers (James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan) hating each other by day and not realizing they are pen-pal lovers by mail. Lubitsch, reuniting with Raphaelson, hits almost all the right notes in a story that doesn’t explicitly mention World War II yet creates an atmosphere of sorrow around the romantic farce—another personal favorite of the director’s. See it June 3, 4, or 15.

Freelancing again, Lubitsch started with an off-form mistake and box-office dud: That Uncertain Feeling (1941), which remakes his own Kiss Me Again (1925), and gives us some idea what that lost silent was like, but does not live up to the other releases of this golden sound period, in part because of the Code restrictions but also the less-than-engaging performances of Merle Oberon and Burgess Meredith as two members of yet another romantic triangle (completed by the reliable Melvyn Douglas). Perhaps the June 13 unspooling of a rare 35mm print courtesy of Austrian Filmmuseum will make the film seem better than it is.

In any case, Lubitsch’s next would be his true masterpiece. To Be or Not to Be (1942) was controversial in its time because it spoofed Nazis during America’s entry into WWII, but the interconnections of buffoonery, elegance and sheer suspense turn the tale of a Polish acting troupe becoming spies for the Allies into one of the most incisive and perceptive films about the War made in the midst of the War. With the inspired if unlikely casting of Jack Benny and Carole Lombard as the married leaders of the company of players, To Be or Not to Be is the one movie in the series to see (on June 10 and 11) if you could attend only one.

Heaven Can Wait (1943), the first of Lubitsch’s films made at 20th Century-Fox, also tells a clever, original story, but the elements don’t gel quite as perfectly. The vivid Technicolor production—a first for the movie-making veteran—starts promisingly in a decorous version of Hell, as a dead playboy (Don Ameche) recounts the highs and lows of his life while “His Excellency” (Laird Cregar) decides his afterlife fate. The rest of the narrative is stretched a bit thin, and neither Ameche nor Gene Tierney as the playboy’s true love are up to the demands of their parts, but there are some beguiling, elegiac moments along the way. It screens June 11.

The series bypasses A Royal Scandal (1945), started by Lubitsch but finished by Otto Preminger and starring Tallulah Bankhead as a comically imperious Catherine the Great. The next and last motion picture in the director’s filmography was Cluny Brown (1946), showing June 2 and 10, a low-key satire of British aristocracy and a delightful romance between a refugee (Charles Boyer) and a plumber (Jennifer Jones). The next year, 1947, Lubitsch received a special lifetime achievement Oscar from the Academy, but soon after (at the mere age of 55) he died of coronary thrombosis and was unable to finish That Lady in Ermine (1948), starring Betty Grable, which was again completed by Preminger (and also not included in the series).

Absent the Preminger films and a few silents which are currently being restored, “The Lubitsch Touch” is as comprehensive a tribute as one could hope for and reveals the director’s wide variety of work, applauding the fact he had more than one touch at his command.

Go to the Film Forum website for showtimes and other information.