Vol. LXIII, No. 4
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Born this day, January 28, Ernst Lubitsch (1892-1947) was among the rare directors whose names were used to sell their movies. Just as the Hitchcock brand meant suspense and DeMille signified spectacle, The Lubitsch Touch stood for sophisticated comedy. Evidence of the commercial impact of those three words can be seen in the preview for Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938) advising moviegoers in big racy letters, “In case you missed the finer points of The Lubitsch Touch, We Repeat the Lesson.”
Judging from Paramount’s trailer for that over-the-top battle of the sexes starring Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert, the “Touch” is a slap in the face. First Cooper slaps Colbert, then she slaps him. The next title, “The Colbert Touch,” is illustrated when Colbert punches Cooper, “The Cooper Touch” when Cooper spanks Colbert. It’s when Colbert munches green onions while being embraced by Cooper and then begs him to kiss her that you begin to see what Lubitsch is all about. It’s not Colbert’s nasty little joke nor Cooper’s reaction (he throws her down on the sofa and calls her a “doublecrossing animal”); it’s the subversion of the Kiss, the foremost cliché of movie romance, which in this case is seen to “shine and stink like a mackerel in the moonlight” (as a certain politician once observed of a rival’s speech). In Shakespeare the range is clowns and kings; in Lubitsch it’s scallions and sex.
Lubitsch runs the gamut in the opening minutes of Trouble in Paradise (1932), the film generally considered to be his masterpiece. Shown against a hazy nocturnal backdrop with Venetian elements, the titles are accompanied by music that begins with a tango rhythm as a saccharine tenor croons a cloying love song that would seem to set the stage for a scene redolent of romance — perhaps a couple in a gondola, a crooning gondolier. Whatever you may think is in store, the last thing you expect to see is what you actually get: a dog nosing around in a garbage can that a grubby little man then picks up and dumps into a gondola teeming with refuse.
Don’t lose faith, romance is on the way. Over there in the near distance is a semblance of the Rialto Bridge arching over a radiant semblance of the Grand Canal, everything luminous and romantic, exactly the stageset image of Venice you anticipated. Now the lighting is such that even the garbage is glowing — the very stuff of cinema — and before you can catch your breath, a supremely lyrical camera movement has spirited you through the dreamy Venetian night and along the facade of a posh hotel where a robbery has just taken place, one you see in passing, as it were, before landing face to face with Herbert Marshall. You’ve just experienced the Lubitschian dynamic, going from the mutt and the garbage pail to a criminal act to a man who knows how to hold a cigarette and look at the moon. Except Herbert Marshall doesn’t merely look. He beholds, he adores, he’s beyond cool, beyond suave, he’s in another realm. He’s the Baron, a poem in a tuxedo. He’s also the thief you saw climbing out of a window shortly after the business with the garbage, and he isn’t even sweating. Standing by his side is a lovably dutiful middle-aged waiter who simply wants to take his order.
As soon as Herbert Marshall begins speaking you know “touch” isn’t enough; this moment requires a Lubitsch tone and a Lubitsch manner.
“Waiter,” says the Baron. “You see that moon?”
“I want to see that moon in the champagne.”
“Yes, Baron.” Writing it down: “Moon in champagne.”
As nicely as the words fit the occasion, the intonation is where Lubitsch lives. That’s how people talk in Trouble in Paradise. What makes it unique to Lubitsch is Marshall’s attitude. He’s not kidding about the moon, no more than John Keats was when he gazed out a Hampstead window into skies crossed by “huge cloudy symbols of a high romance.” The Baron’s tone isn’t merely worldly or elegant. It’s a form of spoken music suggestive of a realm where such things as wars and poverty (and garbage) have no place. When Miriam Hopkins enters, the scene becomes a duet between a jewel thief and his lover, a gorgeous pickpocket in a gold lamé gown. No one in “real life” or even in a conventional movie talks the way these characters do. The love scene that takes place, which involves mutual thievery mid-embrace, two nimble-fingered, theatrically-in-love pros showing off, is one of the clearest examples on film of how much more there is to Lubitsch than terms like touch and tone. This is total. Every word they say, every look, every inflection, resonates with the shared understanding that they’re inhabiting a Lubitsch movie. The tempo these two are playing to is so stylized, it verges on a sort of delirious syncopation, not quite verse and not quite song. You can almost see the shadow of the director, baton in hand, setting the rhythm, putting his players through their paces. To bring off so unnatural a piece of theatre requires actors as tuned to the element as Herbert Marshall, Miriam Hopkins, and the third member of the Trouble in Paradise triangle, Kay Francis. However charming this art-for-art’s-sake playing may be, it involves a tricky balance. Take it too far with actors less comfortable in Lubitsch Land, for instance Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert, and the result verges on self-parody, which is what happens in Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife.
The first time Walt Disney ever invaded my thoughts about Ernst Lubitsch was during the sequence in The Merry Widow (1934) in which a trio of cute maids go about the elaborate undressing of Jeanette MacDonald. The black hat and veil are ceremoniously hung in a special alcove among an array of black hats and veils; the black shoes, dresses, and corsets are bestowed in the same manner, each item coyly showcased in its own wardrobe theatre. The final touch is the placing of the widow’s black Pekingese on its white cushion. Cute. As soon as the widow’s lovelife begins again, the process is reversed, with everything black replaced by replicas in white, including the dog, a reality-bending move that is pure cartoon, as is the opening sequence’s zeroing in on a map of Europe, where the Kingdom of Markovia is a blip so minuscule that a hand holding a magnifying glass has to bring it into view (in the title sequence for Trouble in Paradise, an ornate caricature of a bed appears between Trouble in and Paradise). The cartoon aspect is also evident in the way the widow’s diary is used to show the transition from mourning to romance. Before she meets Maurice Chevalier’s Count Danilo, the pages of the diary go from “Nothing to write” to “Nothing” to a blank page. Then one day after a whirlwind montage of blank pages — the day Danilo has come into her life — she sits down and starts earnestly writing, and a formerly full inkwell, seen in close-up, is drained in a cartoon instant.
Early and Late
Look at an early German film like Lubitsch’s The Oyster Princess (Die Austernprinzessin, 1919), and you can imagine, unlikely as it seems, that Disney, Chuck Jones, and other cartoon stylists of the 1940s were here. One of the most irresistible, no-holds-barred silent comedies ever made, this looney tune truly has to be seen to be believed. If you ever need cheering up, check out the DVD and watch the princess, Ossi Oswalda, a fetching slapstick version of the Medusa from Metropolis, destroy her vast bedroom in the palace where her lazy father the Oyster King is tended to by a quartet of Nubian servants. The princess herself has a cartoonish retinue of handmaidens so numerous she makes the Merry Widow look like a piker. The picture’s highlight, and surely one of the most exhilarating sequences ever filmed, is the Foxtrot Epidemic, wherein the lords and ladies of the Weimar Republic trip the light fantastic. Although this vision of dance heaven is a human spectacle of wondrous dimensions, there are cartoon elements such as the conductor’s crazy herky-jerky moves, which beg for animation in a Mickey Mouse Silly Symphony, and a rhythm section that includes a man sawing a log and another percussionist whose only task is to read the score and accordingly slap a fat frowning bald man’s cheek on every fourth beat.
Lubitsch at the Library
Among the 13 DVDs of Ernst Lubitsch in the collection of the Princeton Public Library are the early works in Kino’s Lubitsch in Berlin series, which includes The Oyster Princess; Criterion’s The Lubitsch Musicals; and the later, better known and less overtly mannered films like Ninotchka (1939), The Shop Around the Corner (1940), To Be Or Not To Be (1942), and Heaven Can Wait (1943).
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