Monday, October 19, 2015

The Lubitsch Touch

Ernst Lubitsch

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Ernst Lubitsch directed comedies that should be familiar to every lover of classic Hollywood. Among them are Ninotchka (1939), in which Soviet commissar Greta Garbo is seduced by decadent Paris and suave Melvyn Douglas; The Shop Around the Corner (1940), in which James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan fall in love with one another as anonymous pen pals, although neither realizes that their correspondent is actually an annoying co-worker; and To Be Or Not To Be (1942), Carole Lombard's final film, in which she plays an actress in Nazi-occupied Poland who uses her thespian skills to foil the Gestapo.

But a decade before he created "that late series of masterworks...which stands as one of the enduring glories of the American cinema," [1] Lubitsch had directed a series of films that brought to American movies the lighthearted but sophisticated sensibility of operetta—the famed "Lubitsch Touch." As LA Times critic Michael Wilmington once described Lubitsch's films, they are "at once elegant and ribald, sophisticated and earthy, urbane and bemused, frivolous yet profound." [2] What follows is a brief survey from our recent viewing of some of Lubitsch's early sound films.

The comedies

Trouble in Paradise
Trouble in Paradise (1932; written by Lubitsch and Samson Raphaelson, based on a play by Aladár László): When people speak of the "Lubitsch Touch," this is the kind of film they have in mind. Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins portray expert thieves masquerading as aristocrats, who find each other's duplicity romantically and professionally irresistible. Kay Francis plays a French parfumier who is their intended next victim, until Marshall discovers that she's already being her accountant. His chivalrous feelings soon begin to develop into something more; can he steal from a woman he loves? Charles Ruggles and Edward Everett Horton provide their usually brilliant comic support. Lubitsch himself later wrote that "As for pure style, I think I have done nothing better or as good as Trouble in Paradise" [3]. It's tempting to agree with him; this is one of the greatest classic Hollywood comedies.

Design for Living

Design for Living (1933; written by Ben Hecht, based—very loosely—on the play by Noël Coward) revisits the love triangle at the heart of Trouble in Paradise, but reverses the genders. In bohemian Paris Miriam Hopkins plays the muse to painter Gary Cooper and playwright Frederic March. Edward Everett Horton is the hopelessly bourgeois husband Hopkins ultimately abandons for art and love; the film's ending, with its suggestion of an adulterous ménage à trois, was scandalous. I find that this film doesn't quite match the effervescence of Trouble in Paradise, mainly because of its earthbound male leads, but it's still very much worth seeing. Don't expect to hear much of Coward's dialogue, though.

The musicals

The Love Parade (1929; written by Guy Bolton and Ernest Vajda, based on the play Le Prince Consort by Jules Chancel and Leon Xanrof) is a film of many firsts: it was the first sound film directed by Lubitsch, and it was the first film musical to integrate the songs into the narrative rather than staging them as separate numbers. It was also the first movie role of a moderately successful Broadway actress named Jeanette MacDonald. Her co-star was a French music-hall performer who had appeared in one other Hollywood musical, Maurice Chevalier.

You may feel, as I did, that the names Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier in a movie's credits are not enticements to viewing. I thought of her as the increasingly implausible ingénue of a series of often-parodied musicals with the bland Nelson Eddy in the late 30s and early 40s. And I knew Chevalier mainly from his creepy performance as an aged roué in Gigi (1958), and from a sequence in Marcel Ophuls' The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) in which, accused of collaboration during WWII, he shifts uncomfortably in front of the camera as he makes an unconvincing denial.

But in the Lubitsch musicals, I encountered something quite different from my preconceptions of both of these performers. In contrast to her image in many of her later films, MacDonald is often photographed by Lubitsch wearing sheer negligées or clinging Travis Banton gowns. She sings in a high soprano with a tight vibrato—not a particularly sensuous sound, at least to my ears—but the lyrics and settings can be quite suggestive.

In MacDonald's first appearance in The Love Parade, she's reluctantly awakened from a "wonderful, gorgeous" dream, caresses herself, sighs, and hugs her pillow (not the only time pillows will be human surrogates in a Lubitsch film). Dressed only in a filmy negligée, she then sings of her "Dream Lover" (music by Victor Schertzinger, lyrics by Clifford Grey).

MacDonald is Queen Louise of Sylvania, whose courtiers are anxious to get her married. Chevalier is Count Renard, a womanizing attaché to Sylvania's Parisian embassy, who is recalled after a scandal involving the ambassador's wife. The Queen is intrigued rather than angered by the Count's reputation, though, and soon develops romantic feelings for him.

These films were made before Chevalier's Gallic charm curdled into Gallic smarm. He and MacDonald have excellent comic and romantic chemistry, as shown in "Anything to Please the Queen":

Louise and Renard marry, but he quickly discovers that as the Queen's consort he has no real power or function. Chafing at his subordinate role, he threatens to leave her unless he is treated like a king, and the couple and the kingdom are thrown into crisis.

The Count's demand to make the decisions for the powerful and independent Queen Louise is the most dated thing about The Love Parade, but in other ways it can seem remarkably modern. The conventional view of early sound films is that they were severely constrained by the limits of the new technology: cameras were placed in soundproof boxes, and due to the fixed microphones actors had to remain in place while speaking. Although The Love Parade doesn't always avoid a certain staginess, the camera zooms and pans a good deal, and there's a Busby Berkeley-like "March of the Grenadiers" number.

And it has to be said that the film's sexual mores aren't entirely prehistoric. When Louise first meets Renard, he offers to remain by her side "from morning to night"; after their reconciliation, he makes the offer again, but she suggests that instead he should stay with her "from night to morning." The frank acknowledgement of her desire and the lack of sexual hypocrisy are characteristic of Lubitsch's Pre-Code films.

With its intimacy, quick pace, racy dialogue and narratively-integrated songs, the film was unlike any other musical of the era. And audiences responded: it was a huge hit, rescued Paramount Studios' financial fortunes, and made both MacDonald and Chevalier into major stars.

Monte Carlo (1930; written by Ernest Vajda, based on plays by Hans Müller-Einigen and Evelyn Greenleaf Sutherland and a story by Booth Tarkington) was Lubitsch's follow-up to The Love Parade. Countess Helene (MacDonald) is a runaway bride fleeing her wedding to the priggish Duke Otto (Claud Allister) for the third time. She takes an express train to Monte Carlo, where in a bid to become financially independent she gambles recklessly and loses everything. In the casino she's spotted by Count Rudolph (Jack Buchanan), who is intrigued by this mysterious and daring beauty.

Rudolph later encounters a man who tells him that he's seen the Countess in the morning, dressed only in her negligée, hair tousled…Rudolph is crestfallen and jealous until he finds out that the man he's speaking with is the Countess's hairdresser. Rudolph then bribes him to become his replacement, "Rudy," in order to insinuate himself into Helene's life and heart.

The plan works, and the Countess is falling in love with Rudy, until her maid (Zasu Pitts) reminds her of the incompatibility of their social stations. Helene rejects the man she thinks is a humble hairdresser just as Duke Otto shows up to retrieve her. Financially desperate, she's on the verge of once again agreeing to marry Otto when she attends an opera whose plot exactly parallels her situation. The opera ends unhappily, with the central couple separated forever, and the Countess begins to reconsider her rejection of Rudolph...

Alas, the seemingly effortless "Lubitsch Touch" required just the right combination of ingredients to succeed, and in Monte Carlo the recipe is off. Fatally for the movie's charm, it features Buchanan as the romantic hero rather than Chevalier. (If Buchanan looks and sounds vaguely familiar, he was later to play director Jeffrey Cordova in the Fred Astaire-Cyd Charisse musical The Band Wagon (1947)). Buchanan's leering smile lacks warmth, and he's not nearly as dashing a figure as Chevalier. And although Richard Whiting and W. Franke Harling's music was a hit at the time, I found it to be forgettable, with Leo Robin's lyrics often straining too hard to be clever. It doesn't help that the disjunction between the fantasy world of the super-rich in the film and the looming reality of the Great Depression is so glaring. Better things were to come.

The Smiling Lieutenant (1931; written by Samson Raphaelson and Ernest Vajda, based on the operetta Ein Walzertraum by Oscar Straus, Leopold Jacobson and Felix Dörmann): After his experience with the uncharismatic Buchanan, Lubitsch must have realized that Chevalier was a much better leading man. His next film features Chevalier as the dashing Lieutenant Niki von Preyn, whose smile and wink at his girlfriend Franzi (Claudette Colbert), the leader of an all-girl cabaret orchestra, is intercepted by the sheltered Anna, Princess of Flausenthurm (Miriam Hopkins). Anna soon convinces herself that she is in love, and decides that she wants to marry the unwitting Niki—and what Anna wants, her father the king arranges. Niki wakes up one morning to discover that he's now Anna's prince consort.

But he refuses to have anything to do with her, and continues to have assignations with Franzi. Anna, hurt and frustrated, has Franzi brought to the palace so that she can confront her. Really, though, she wants to see this alluring Other Woman and learn the secret of attracting Niki's attentions. In a burst of sisterly sympathy for the unhappy Anna, Franzi gives the frumpy princess the answer in "Jazz up your lingerie" (music by Oscar Straus with lyrics by Clifford Grey):

The Smiling Lieutenant is soufflé-light, and wouldn't succeed if it weren't for its delightful cast. Hopkins went on to star in Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise and Design for Living; Colbert would work with Lubitsch again, along with Design for Living's Gary Cooper, in Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938); and Chevalier went on to reunite with Jeanette MacDonald in Lubitsch's next musical project, One Hour With You.

One Hour With You (1932; written by Samson Raphaelson, based on the play Only a Dream by Lothar Schmidt) was a musical remake of Lubitsch's silent film The Marriage Circle (1924). Chevalier is a Parisian doctor, Andre, and MacDonald is his wife Colette. Their marriage is happy until Colette's married friend Mitzi (Genevieve Tobin) makes a play for Andre, who, despite his passionate love for Colette, is sorely tempted:

The music is by Oscar Straus, with lyrics by Leo Robin; by the way, the spyglass effect isn't Lubitsch's, but was unfortunately superimposed on this clip by the folks who uploaded it.

When Andre seems to find Mitzi's charms irresistible, the couple's predatory friend Adolph (Charles Ruggles) decides that he will offer to console the unhappy Colette. In her hurt and anger she seems willing to entertain his suggestion...but has Andre actually been unfaithful after all?

One Hour With You plays up its own theatricality, as characters directly address the camera and sometimes speak, as well as sing, in rhyme. I think it's the best of Lubitsch's Pre-Code musicals, in part because there are real emotional dilemmas at its heart. Although it was later nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, it was not a huge financial success, and Lubitsch decided to return to the spectacle (and the unreality) of the world of operetta for his next film.

The Merry Widow (1934; written by Ernest Vajda and Samson Raphaelson, based on the operetta by Franz Lehár, Victor Leon and Leo Stein): If The Love Parade was a film of firsts, The Merry Widow was a film of lasts: it was Lubitsch's final film with MacDonald and with Chevalier, and it was his final musical for almost a decade and a half (he died of a heart attack after 8 days of shooting on That Lady in Ermine (1948)).  It also represented the end of an era in which sexually suggestive dialogue and situations could easily make it past the censors: several minutes of cuts were demanded by Joseph Breen's new Production Code Administration before the film was approved for release.

The merry widow of the title is Sonia (MacDonald), who owns 52% of the kingdom of Marshovia (which bears a certain resemblance to Sylvania and Flausenthurm). When, after her year of mourning is over, Sonia leaves for Paris, King Achmed (George Barbier) becomes concerned that control of the Marshovian economy may fall into foreign hands. He decides to send a loyal subject to woo and marry her, and when the king finds the notorious ladies' man Count Danilo (Chevalier) in the boudoir of the Queen (Una Merkel), his choice is obvious. He dispatches Danilo to Paris to carry out his mission under the watchful eye of Ambassador Popoff (Edward Everett Horton).

After Danilo and Sonia meet and flirt at Maxim's, she discovers the marriage plot, and will have nothing more to do with Danilo; meanwhile, Danilo has truly fallen in love with Sonia, and is put on trial in Marshovia for refusing to go through with the scheme.

The music is by Lehár, adapted by Richard Rodgers with English lyrics by Lorenz Hart.

Of course, we know how everything will turn out in the end, but the plot is mainly an excuse for the lavish  (and Oscar-winning) sets by Cedric Gibbons and Fredric Hope, a spectacular Maxim's can-can number, gowns by Adrian, a seemingly infinite number of couples dancing to the famous Merry Widow waltz, and the still-effective MacDonald-Chevalier chemistry.

But it wasn't enough. With the advent of Busby Berkeley musicals like 42nd Street (1932) and Gold Diggers of 1933, and with the dawning of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers partnership, movie musicals had gotten jazzier. Perhaps the operetta-based musicals favored by Lubitsch had begun to seem old-fashioned. In any case, The Merry Widow was not a financial success. For the next several years Lubitsch would take a step back from directing to focus on producing. When he returned to directing, he created the great comedies mentioned in the first paragraph of this post, but he would never complete another musical.

Trouble in Paradise and Design for Living are available from the Criterion Collection, as are the four Pre-Code Lubitsch musicals (The Love Parade, Monte Carlo, The Smiling Lieutenant, and One Hour WIth You) in an Eclipse Series box set. The Merry Widow is available in a restored version from Warner Archives/TCM.


1. Dave Kehr, "The Lubitsch Touch, in Song: Warner Archive Restores ‘The Merry Widow’," New York Times, June 20, 2013:

2. Michael Wilmington, "LACMA Marks Lubitsch Centenary," Los Angeles Times, May 29, 1992:

3. As quoted in Herbert Weinberg, The Lubitsch Touch: A Critical Study. New York: Dutton, 1968, p. 286.


  1. Let's see, I've never been able to get through Ninotchka (odd, given that I love a good Soviet ribbing and I did get through the Fred Astaire/Cyd Charisse version when I don't even like Fred Astaire); I also saw To Be or Not To Be this year and Shop Around the Corner years ago and was frankly bored by both.

    HOWEVER. I adore Trouble in Paradise, it is so very rewatchable and witty and amusing. So I have hope that something earlier by Lubitsch, such as Design for Living or one of the MacDonald starrers/operettas will be worth my time. Maybe I'll try The Merry Widow, since I'm fairly sure the Lehar will be worth it either way.

    1. Miranda, I was surprised at how much we enjoyed the Chevalier-MacDonald musicals. Astonished, really, since my expectations were so low. I can't promise that you'll feel the same way—if you're not a Fred Astaire fan, be forewarned that The Merry Widow shares some elements with the Astaire-Rogers musicals (including, of course, Edward Everett Horton).

      There's another Chevalier-MacDonald musical that didn't make this survey because it wasn't directed by Lubitsch, but by Rouben Mamoulian: Love Me Tonight (1932). (Mamoulian later directed Silk Stockings.) We saw Love Me Tonight a while ago and weren't favorably impressed (despite the songs by Rodgers and Hart), but after seeing the Lubitsch musicals I think we'll give it another chance.

      Regarding your response to the later Lubitsch movies, I do wonder whether part of what might be happening is that Lubitsch's comedy may not always translate well to the small screen. Pauline Kael famously wrote, "If you watch a great movie on TV, you will be committing an aesthetic crime, of which you are the victim." I saw To Be Or Not To Be at a screening in college, and must confess that I enjoyed it more than when I rewatched it on DVD recently. In this case, though, I trust my earlier response more than my later one.

      I will say, though, that there's a highly praised late Lubitsch film that I could barely get through: Heaven Can Wait (1943). Despite a great cast including Gene Tierney, Charles Coburn and Spring Byington, the movie failed for me. I found its pacing ponderous and its sexual politics dubious, to say the least. So the Lubitsch Touch isn't infallible by any means, even for those of us who enjoy most of his films.

      Thanks for your comment!