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Why the Neglect?: Lubitsch’s The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927)

Student 00

By John W. Fawell.

The following is an excerpt from Ernst Lubitsch’s The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg: the Art of Classic Hollywood, now available from Lexington Books/Rowman & Littlefield (all rights reserved).

A reassessment of The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927), it seems to me, has to begin with some reflection on why this film, which a number of film enthusiasts think to be one of Hollywood’s best, has suffered such neglect. The film was a critical success, as most of Lubitsch’s films of the silent era were, so firmly ensconced with the press was the notion of Lubitsch as a foreign impresario, the import heir to D. W. Griffith. The critics of his day took Lubitsch seriously and some of the comments by Lubitsch’s contemporary critics are quite adept. The Telegram’s critic, Donald Thompson, in praising the film, noted the “thousand and one delightful touches on the part of the remarkable Mr. Lubitsch.” George Gerhard wrote that “In almost every sequence one could sit back and marvel at his artistic touch, his manner of raising humdrum scenes to the point of imaginative flight.” (1) Both critics get at key aspects of Lubitsch’s art, his obsessive attention to detail and craft and the frequency and wizardry with which he transforms the mundane into the poetic.

However, the film was not successful financially. Released as one of MGM’s upper echelon products, it failed to recover $307,000 of the studio’s 1.2 million dollar investment. (2) Lubitsch, himself, seemed to not hold the film in in great respect. In a letter to Herman Weinberg in 1947 in which Lubitsch casts an appraising glance at his career, The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg is not included in the list Lubitsch provides of what he considers his best silent or his best historical costume dramas. In defense of the film, however, we might also note that the great studio directors were not always trustworthy in judging their own films. Studio professionals that they were, they often had trouble liking a film that did not turn a profit. Other times, their opinions of their own work are just puzzling. Do we agree with Ford that The Prisoner of Shark Island is one of his four greatest films? (3) Or with Lubitsch that his early silent film, Carmen, or the late in his career Heaven Can Wait represent the cream of his crop? (4)

9781498578042Critics have tended to follow Lubitsch’s lead in their lukewarm reaction to the film. The film is almost never included by critics within the canon of Lubitsch’s greatest works, which is generally reserved for films such as Trouble in Paradise, The Merry Widow, The Shop around the Corner, Ninotchka, To Be and Not to Be, and Marriage Circle. The amount of ink spilled on Student Prince over the years is minimal compared to these other films. Biographer Scott Eyman’s evaluation of the film in what is, at this point, the most read book on Lubitsch, is spare enough as to constitute damning by faint praise. And his recounting of Lubitsch’s frustrations with certain aspects of the film – the actors assigned him, the flowery set that represents the backdrop of their key love scene, his struggles with Norma Shearer – seems to have quietly fueled a notion of the film as a compromised Lubitsch effort. Another influential scholar, Kristin Thompson, has more recently expressed surprise about the rave reviews the film garnered when it came out, dismissing it as a “good but hardly extraordinary” film. (5) Why this indifference to the film? My answer would be that it is not only the film that is neglected, but certain aspects of the Hollywood studio system that it exemplifies. My intent in writing this book is not simply to cheer for the virtues of this film but to argue for a certain kind of filmmaking that seems to have fallen somewhat out of vogue. The Student Prince has been neglected but so have certain signal virtues of the studio era Hollywood film.

Simplicity and Sincerity

I think one of the reasons that Lubitsch scholarship has not celebrated The Student Prince is that it bears, a little too heavily, the stamp of MGM, the studio least associated with freedom for the “auteur.” It does not have the sexy charm and continental sophistication of the Lubitsch films that have most defined his talent and which are most cherished by his devotees. Though Lubitsch made three other films for MGM that represent top-tier Lubitsch (The Merry Widow, Ninotchka, Shop Around the Corner), in The Student Prince seems to represent more of a compromise with the studio, perhaps because it was his first film with MGM and he was still awed by the studio’s prestige. It is an MGM film as well as a Lubitsch film.

Lubitsch himself said he was aiming for a simplicity and sincerity in this film that separated it from his other work. Eyman describes it as Lubitsch’s “most Romantic film” and feels that Lubitsch allowed the film’s “romanticism to come through untrammeled by his cynicism.” This unusual sincerity was perhaps due, Eyman suggests, to “the nudging of Irving Thalberg” boy wonder MGM producer. “Lubitsch,” Eyman notes, “doesn’t bend the materials to his wishes but, rather, gives himself to it wholeheartedly.” (6) But Lubitsch’s own comments at the time suggest he was looking for a break from his continual string of knowing sex comedies (“I got tired of frothy French farce comedies – and maybe the public is tired of them too.”) and that he wanted to try his hand at a different kind of cinematic tone. He emphasized that this film would be nothing like the film that preceded it, Forbidden Paradise. “Not in the least! There I was above my characters, looking down on them, laughing at them. Here I’m on the same level with them. I’m one of them.” (7)

The simplicity and innocence of the film dilutes Lubitsch’s urbanity but strengthens the film’s universality. It has more of the classical Hollywood style to it – fewer of Lubitsch’s European quirks and sly innuendos, more of MGM’s sentiment and polish. The idea that MGM, the philistine studio, might improve, rather than detract from, the sophisticated Lubitsch’s skill, is anathema, I am sure, to many Lubitsch fans but this film represents a lovely balance of Lubitsch’s complex and nuanced art and the broad emotive effect of an MGM production. It is characterized by a bracing simplicity and rich array of emotions that you will look for in vain for in the rest of Lubitsch’s work. Even Shop around the Corner, touchingly sentimental as it is, does not reach the depths of emotion that The Student Prince does.

This film’s sincerity has always thrown Lubitsch scholars for a loop. Their preference for the more cynical, distant Lubitsch reflects the general habit of contemporary critics when looking back on Hollywood. We modern viewers tend to like our Hollywood with a few shadows, hence the unique success of Hitchcock, who brings macabre tones to classical Hollywood craft, or of Billy Wilder, whose scripts are almost shockingly cynical at times. Contemporary viewers tend to find Hollywood most palatable when it has a modernist tang to it. And to Hollywood’s credit, it can satisfy that taste. Hollywood’s idealism was effective because it was not bad at cynicism as well; just look at the biting cynicism of any number of top-tier filmmakers: Lubitsch, Wilder, Hawks, Sturges. Just consider Hollywood’s gift for the wisecrack, the putdown, the earthy – for cocky, common sense. The dreams it manufactured coexist with a great ability to catch the vitality and verbal wit of its era’s urban life. Warner Brother’s gritty street slang is as much a part of Hollywood’s greatness as MGM’s frothy sets.

But it is important to not treasure street-wise Hollywood to the point of neglecting those films that were produced there that represent pure distillations of exquisite emotion. Hollywood had a gift for sincerity and sentiment that does not cloy. Needless, to say, I am referring to its best product here. When one talks about Hollywood’s gift for sentiment and for incarnating virtue, it must be acknowledged that the failures probably outnumber the successes. I agree, for example, with Ethan Mordenn, when he writes of that other MGM product, the Andy Hardy series, “The Hardys of Carvel, Idaho, are dreary white Protestants who make one feel good to be single, Jewish, or an axe murderer.” (8) All sentiment is not alike and MGM, in particular, headed as it was by Herbert Hoover’s pal, Leo Mayer, was a place where sentiment could take easily slide into propaganda and ideology.

Student 03That said, an intelligent film that aims, not to speechify about human goodness, but to inscribe it in clever, particular, persuasive physical detail, is an impressive thing, as much now as it was during the studio era. The Hollywood studio film specializes in exercises of pure, unadulterated freshness, “ceremonies of innocence.” It is often capable of expressing idealism effectively and this needs to be stated without embarrassment. A cinema of idealism and of sincerity is not de facto a puerile cinema. In fact, the history of art shows us that one of the rarer accomplishments is to present goodness in a way that has some blood and substance and is not cloying or propagandistic. There have been a great many more persuasive Lancelots and Satans than there have been Arthurs and Jesuses. A depiction of good that is not bloodless is a rare find in the history of art but not that rare in the Hollywood studio era. If a modern audience gravitates back to classical Hollywood, it does so, not just because it is glutted on the morbid and clinical realism of its contemporary cinema, but also because it is unconvinced by modern efforts at optimism. Contemporary filmmakers have not stopped trying to make “feel good” films and they often make them quite poorly, with unearned happy endings, verbiage substituting for mise-en-scene, and heroism devoid of the careful shading and deft touches. Their pathos is overbearing and they move abruptly and clumsily to catharsis. In short, they lack the touch of the Hollywood studio era.

It is one of Hollywood’s glories that when its uniform dictate against morbidity was carried out by its stronger practitioners, by a Ford or Capra or McCarey (to name a few sentimentalists) or a Chaplin, Lubitsch, Sturges or Wilder (to name a few cynics with a talent for sentiment) it could arrive at an idealism that doesn’t grate. Each of the great directors has their own way of making sentiment work. Sturges likes to catch us by surprise, slipping a moment of sentiment into a moment of outrageous cynicism. His mood, Andrew Sarris wrote, “was invariably mixed. In the very midst of a loud guffaw one is surprised to find a lump in one’s throat and a tear in one’s eye.” (9) Ford tends to draw things out, lending every action a monumental quality so that certain scenes seem writ in marble, inherently sacred. In The Student Prince, Lubitsch is the opposite of Ford. He ratchets things up. Ford is a poet of grace and composure. Lubitsch is, for example, in the film’s highly animated beer garden sequence, a poet of intoxication, toasting the natural conformity of pleasure and goodness. The beer garden sequence is multitudinous in its significance but it is, above all, an ode to joy.

Films like The Student Prince have suffered in esteem because there is, in modern film criticism, something of a devaluing or disinterest in sentiment, a tin ear for the difference between well-crafted pathos and tiresome manipulation, and a disregard for the thoughtful craft that goes into making sentiment work. If viewers find The Student Prince moving, even devastating, in its emotions, they do so because Lubitsch, like his hero, Chaplin, approaches sentiment with great care. He does not just turn on spigots of emotion. Moments of sentiment are chosen with great consideration, built with painstaking deliberation, and inscribed in telling physical detail; they are not poured into the funnel of our ears with treacly words. It is this filmic language of sentiment, a language that is devilishly hard to succeed at, given all the pitfalls inherent in it, that I want to get at in this book. How sentiment works, when it does – this film represents a master study in those questions.

A Quiet Style

The Student Prince has, perhaps, also suffered in critical esteem because, on the surface, it seems so lacking in artistic gravitas. Lubitsch had always valued an invisible style and sneered at overtly “arty” fare, like the films of Dreyer and Eisenstein. But, as he himself emphasized, The Student Prince represented a particularly simple and direct work, even for him. “In The Student Prince,” he said, “I tried for simplicity. It’s a tender, romantic story and I treated it that way.” (10) There are, in this film, no sophisticated art deco sets and none of the hanky-panky of the cultivated rich that gave Lubitsch’s films a cultured veneer even when he was avoiding artiness in his style. The film is shot with a great many more close-ups than is usual in a Lubitsch film, sincere close-ups that strike us as more typical of a conventional MGM love story than an arch Lubitsch film. The film represents one of Lubitsch’s greatest accomplishments in discrete artfulness, not dependent on continental posturing or extravagant stylistic gambits, and yet, nonetheless characterized by meticulous craft and deep, resonant emotion.

Student 02First-time students of Lubitsch are often surprised by his appearance. This man, whose films represent the quintessence of a continental charm and sophistication was a stocky fellow with a coarse visage who chomped a cigar and had a taste for loud suits. Lubitsch had a contentious relationship with the cultural elite. He was not a success as a student and nursed a grudge against formal education and elite culture that plays out in all of his films. A default bias for the serious and artistic drove Lubitsch nuts. He sneered when Hollywood kowtowed to the world of literature. “We, in Hollywood,” he said, “acquire the finest novels in order to smell their leather bindings.” (11) And of course he’s right, Hollywood rarely embarrassed itself more than it did in its “prestige” productions, stuffy, lumbering translations of classical novels, for example, or static filmed version of plays. These are the kinds of works that took Hollywood furthest from the unpretentious, joyous energy that characterized its best work.

Lubitsch was suspicious of a cinema that wore its artiness on its sleeve. His artistic ideal was a work that was “great yet not obviously great. For when art begins to be apparent, to show itself as a definite studied effort to be artistic, its ceases to be art . . . true art needs no label.” (12) Here Lubitsch betrays the classical bent that was such a significant part of the studio director’s makeup. The first rule of Lubitsch’s aesthetic was to not call attention to his art. He was not alone. Most of the great studio directors are on record extolling invisible technique and devaluing obviously artistic shots, particularly in the postwar cinema where an Orson Welles-inspired expressionist technique was starting to infiltrate the austere studio craft. Despite the paradings of a Von Stroheim here and there and despite their final billing in the Hollywood credits, Hollywood directors tended to be a humble lot, when it came to their craft. They shied away from the word “art,” seeing it, as Robert Frost did, as a praise term, something someone else said about your films. They were more comfortable with the language of craftsmanship and when they praised a film tended to do so by saying something along the lines of “there were some good things in that film.” They tended to look at films as workshops, places where a new and curious kind of expression, a new trade, was being forged. When Peter Bogdanovich asked Howard Hawks if Hawks though of film as an art, Hawks said no. When Bogdanovich asked him what he did think of it as, Hawks answered curtly: “business, fun.” (13)

The result of this attitude is films that are as long on style as they are short on pretense, films that are characterized by extraordinary craft, but a craft that keeps itself in check. A Hollywood script, Billy Wilder said, “needs that kind of architectural structure which is completely forgotten once you see the movie. We have to put those pillars in or that beautiful ceiling is going to come crashing down.” (14) Scott Eyman makes a comment that is strikingly similar to Wilder’s when he describes in Lubitsch’s films, “a foundation of grave, methodical intent supporting a blithe, carefree, beautifully textured surface structure.” (15) Both comments speak to the dire labor involved in creating works of charm and ease. The essential paradox of the Hollywood studio film is that, at its best, it arrived at films of charm and simplicity via a complex craftsmanship that was forever obsessing over issues of pacing, balance, originality of expression and minutiae of detail. The problem with much modern criticism, even criticism that is inherently sympathetic to this kind of filmmaking, is that it is so often hoodwinked by the “blithe carefree surface” that it turns a blind eye to the architecture below the surface. In the studio era of Hollywood, the most carefully crafted films are often those where the craft is least obvious on a first viewing.

Student 04The complexity of architecture, the fineness of construction in these films is all the more impressive given their time and financial constraints and that they were made within the dictates of a commercial system bent on profit. One of their charms is that they are, despite the commercial medium from which they issue, more artful and better made, than many a film by directors unfettered in their artistic vision. As Truffaut observed when speaking of the years when he and his fellow Cahiers du Cinema hoped to free the Hollywood directors from their anonymity and studio slavery, “We said that the American cinema pleases us, and its filmmakers are slaves; what if they are freed? And from the moment they were freed, they made shitty films.” (16) The paradox of Hollywood films is that they were more artful the less they thought of themselves as artists.

It is, then, a central purpose of this book to explore the hidden artfulness of Lubitsch’s Student Prince, those hidden pillars and “grave, methodical intent” to which Wilder and Eyman refer. Grave and methodical are the right words, no matter how frothy the Lubitsch film. A close look at the structure of this film reveals a fanatical attention to detail of craft. And the meticulousness of the craft is all the more impressive for how little it calls attention to itself. This is the most artful of filmmaking and in no small measure because it refused to trumpet its art.

The Problem of “Content”

If, at first glance, The Student Prince, can seem less sophisticated in form than other Lubitsch films, so it can also seem particularly devoid of serious content. Lubitsch was an aesthete, who not only generally avoided politics in his film, but tended to mock political extremists and trends whenever they appear in his films. There is some irony in his having recently become the darling of certain leftist film critics, like the Ljubljana critics. In Trouble in Paradise, when a Russian Bolshevik accosts Madame Colet for having purchased a handbag for 125,000 francs in a time of economic depression, it is the Bolshevik, not the wealthy Madame Colet, who is satirized. Lubitsch comes down firmly on the side of gorgeous handbags. Even when Lubitsch was still making films in Germany, social-minded critics like Siegfreid Krackauer and Lotte Eisner faulted Lubitsch for his lack of depth and political commitment. Eisner saw in his aesthetic eye the “the former draper’s assistant.” (17)

But The Student Prince seems light even for Lubitsch. At least he took on Russian socialism in Ninotchka and Nazis in To Be or Not to Be. Even Trouble in Paradise traffics in complex sexual politics, with its cynical intermingling of the worlds of sexual and financial lust. These are the ideas that have attracted the attention of the Ljubljana critics. The Student Prince, on the other hand, seems like typical MGM hokum, a boy meets girl/loses girl story of the simplest order. Composer Carl Davis admitted to me that he was dismayed by the superficiality of the film when he first was given the task of creating a new orchestral arrangement for it. Davis was fresh off the experience of creating a score for Vidor’s The Crowd, a film that has something overtly significant to say about its time and the human condition. He was put off, as many first-time viewers of The Student Prince are, by what he perceived as the schmaltziness of the love scenes on the flowered hill. Studying the film’s careful rhythms changed his opinion and he treasures the film now.

In the end, though, a film like The Student Prince does have content, though not perhaps the kind that translates easily into tidy summaries. Samson Raphaelson said of Lubitsch, in one of the most precise summaries of Lubitsch’s art that I know of, that he liked “ideas more than anything else in the world except his daughter.” (18) But, ironically, what Raphaelson (and Lubitsch) meant by an “idea” is something, not only different from, but diametrically opposed to, our conventional notion of the term. What Lubitsch meant by an “idea” was not an explicit thought or something that expresses the meaning of his film, though often his “ideas” do accumulate to the point where they foster critical interpretation. What he meant was a clever bit of business – a gesture, a gag, an ellipsis – that actually masked an idea, that relieved him of the bland responsibility of stating that idea directly, that incarnated an idea, memorably, curiously, rather than spat it out like so much ticker tape. In short, what Lubitsch meant by an idea was something clever and concrete that helped him avoid expressing ideas. Raphaelson’s reference to Lubitsch’s daughter (Lubitsch was a doting father) testifies to just how much Lubitsch saw this process of working around ideas—of expressing himself cleverly, concretely and obliquely—as the be-all and end-all of his trade.

the_student_prince_in_old_heidelberg 01And yet when you start to play with Lubitsch’s “ideas,” to ask yourself why he chose to emphasize this little gesture or object, why he cut away from something just at the moment other directors would close up on it, these little concrete “ideas” start to erupt with the meaning that we more conventionally associate with the word “ideas.” They start to coalesce, to add up, to a “weltanschauung,” or worldview, that makes the film as weighty and relevant as any film that concerns itself with more obviously serious fare or world events.

But a warning to the viewer. These ideas are not new. Lubitsch’s cinema is conservative by nature. It favors, as all of Hollywood did, a classical aesthetic and a traditional content. The ideas that Lubitsch’s gags and touches refer to, or incarnate, are universal, timeless, old world truths, the kind that, in his mind, transcend historical context. Lubitsch does not subscribe to a worldview in which the world is on the mend thanks to the benevolent influence of liberalism, a world engaged in a linear, forward moving social amelioration. In fact, he generally mocks that attitude in his films. Lubitsch tends to posit a static moral universe, where the things that help us get by never change. What does Lubitsch concern himself with in The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg? The beauty of youth, its generosity and easy comradery, its natural conformity to love, its transience; the ethical practicality of a certain rural ascetic virtues; the consolations offered by food, drink; the powerful relationship between love and music; the electric feel of young love – things that were as well known to people 2,000 years ago as they are today.

The French critic and filmmaker Eric Rohmer appreciated “the character of universality of themes” in American films. “Of course,” he wrote, “you will say most of them are no more than platitudes. But I prefer ideas that are as old as the hills, and unashamedly so, to the flat echo of turn-of-the-century writing that Europe is wont to take as its inspiration.” (19) Rohmer, the most conservative of the French New Wave directors, saw a richness in the Hollywood’s new translations of ancient ideas that stood up nicely to what he saw as a hollow novelty in more contemporary (and more respected) modernist art. It is in its translation of old ideas into a new language, its novel forms of expression, its new way of looking at an old world, that Hollywood justifies its significance in the twentieth century.

Lubitsch was driven to distraction by critics who were as voluble about Hollywood’s superficiality as they were blind to its creativity. When one critic famously mocked Chaplin’s A Woman in Paris in Lubitsch’s presence, dismissing this film that Lubitsch fairly worshipped as “merely a very ordinary story,” Lubitsch was aghast. “But the treatment – the treatment,” he stammered. (20) He had, finally, to abandon the interview. For Lubitsch treatment was everything. He bent himself with mind-boggling assiduity to the task of reviving old truths in clever bits of business, and, in doing so, making those truths fresh and vibrant. The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg is a film to be taken seriously, but not in its “big ideas.” It’s a film to be appreciated, as it was by that early critic, for its “one thousand and one delightful touches,” its dizzying array of ideas, its diamond-like, multi-faceted rendering of what Lubitsch sees as life at its best, or most dramatic or most touching or most painful or most ironic. The Student Prince is not a didactic film. It does not present us with so many ideas that can be pulled out of the film like objects from a box. Rather, it presents us with a world that bristles with filmic invention.

John W. Fawell is professor of humanities at Boston University. He is the author of Hitchcock’s Rear Window: The Well-Made Film (Southern Illinois University Press, 2001, 2004), The Art of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West: A Critical Appreciation (McFarland, 2005), The Essence of Chaplin: The Style, the Rhythm and the Grace of a Master (McFarland, 2014).

Notes

1. Herman Weinberg, The Lubitsch Touch (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1968), 92.

2. Scott Eyman, Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), 135.

3. Andrew Sarris, Interviews with Film Directors (New York: Avon, 1969), 199.

4. Weinberg, The Lubitsch Touch, 267.

5. Kristin Thompson, Herr Lubitsch Goes to Hollywood (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006), 30.

6. Eyman, Ernst Lubitsch, 133–35.

7. Weinberg, The Lubitsch Touch, 91–92.

8.  Ethan Mordden, The Hollywood Studios (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988), 153.

9. Andrew Sarris, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet: The American Talking Film, History and Memory, 1927–1949 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 319.

10. Weinberg, The Lubitsch Touch, 92.

11. Weinberg, The Lubitsch Touch, 283.

12. Eyman, Ernst Lubitsch, 130.

13. Peter Bogdanovich, Who the Devil Made It (New York: Knopf, 1997), 373.

14. George Stevens, Conversations with the Great Moviemakers: Hollywood’s Golden Age (New York: Knopf, 2006), 315.

15. Eyman, Ernst Lubitsch, 85.

16. David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), 4.

17. Eyman, Ernst Lubitsch, 63.

18. Weinberg, The Lubitsch Touch, 274.

19. “Rediscovering America,” in Cahiers du Cinema: The 1950’s, Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave, ed. James Hillier (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), 139.

20. Eyman, Ernst Lubitsch, 130.

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