A Book Review Essay by Tony Williams.
Any book or article by Joseph McBride is worth reading, especially in this era of mostly dismal films and an unqualified plethora of ignorant internet film reviewers. The author’s latest book (Columbia UP, 2018) on a director who should be more well-known represents a challenging task especially in the light of the many books and articles that have already appeared. Yet, as with all his previous projects McBride has risen to the challenge and succeeded not only by supplementing past achievements by other writers but also in presenting his own critical perspective involving the usually marginalized relationship between Lubitsch’s German and American films.
Ernst Lubitsch is an acquired taste. His work may seem strange on first acquaintance but, like any vintage wine, develops according to the evaluative powers of any unbiased palette whether gastronomic or cinematic. Once one begins to understand the way in which this director operates one appreciates his very unique critical and satirical vision that makes a work of entertainment artistic without any of Andrew Sarris’s “strained seriousness” to which the academic establishment grants its often uncritical seal of approval. Usually, defined by the convenient description “The Lubitsch Touch” which is as inadequate as those other terms “Master of Suspense” or “Bloody Sam” used to categorize and denigrate two other directors, the films of Ernst Lubitsch transcend such narrow parameters in the same way that the work of Hitchcock and Peckinpah escape any rigid form of classification. Acknowledging the work of his predecessors, the author not only provides a necessary broader perspective towards appreciating the works of one of Cinema’s Master Talents but also makes telling comparisons between the culture that produced them and the miserable twenty-first century that appears to make any approximation or basic attempt to understand the implications of this rich tradition.
Containing an introduction, epilogue in addition to acknowledgements and influences, filmography, notes on sources, and index, this 561-page book contains nine well-informed chapters written in McBride’s familiar, accessible style. It will be required reading for any of those college courses left that are allowed to teach Lubitsch rather than “popular” fare ordained by department Chairs who have never heard of most Hollywood directors and think students incapable of rising about the Transformers series. (McBride can be forgiven for justifiably not including it in the index, though Michael Bay is!)
The book’s title derives from a sign on the wall of Billy Wilder’s Hollywood writer’s office that served to stimulate a disciple to never disappoint the spirit of his late master. McBride then describes Lubitsch’s importance:
Lubitsch became Hollywood’s most acute commentator on sexual mores, countering American puritanical hypocrisy with European sophistication, and making his adopted countrymen enjoy it. His audacity became more elaborate and subtly stylized in his romantic comedies of the early sound years; sound enabled him to add new layers of depth in exploring the differences between what people say and what they mean. Lubitsch virtually created the romantic comedy genre in both Germany and the United States and brought it to perfection with his cleverly risqué yet touchingly tender masterpiece of and bout the Depression era, Trouble in Paradise (1932). (2)
It is no accident that a studio still from that film appears on the book’s cover. While Robin Wood once mentioned that he could never take Lubitsch seriously because he regarded him as being on the level of Franz Lehar, McBride does take the director of that delightful 1934 film version of The Merry Widow very seriously pointing out not only its cinematic achievements but also a critical perspective that is certainly within the text. Along with McBride’s examinations of Lubitsch’s silent and sound films, we should certainly evaluate the different arguments of past critics along with the text, and here McBride proves himself superior in this particular context.
Transcending the useful but limited “Lubitsch Touch” definition, McBride demonstrates that it is much more than lighthearted fun, though innuendo and pleasure characterize his most remarkable achievements:
The Lubitsch Touch is about laughter, but it is also about character and the endlessly inventive and fresh ways the director found to tell stories. That he avoided storytelling clichés in favor of cleverly oblique methods of revealing character was a large part of what Welles called Lubitsch’s “talent and originality.” Lubitsch’s method was an intricate blend of unexpected vantage points, character interactions, and surprising uses of the camera and soundtrack. Part of his rare directorial skill was his respect for the audience’s intelligence; he lets us participate in filling in his ellipses. (4-5)
After providing some samples (or “crowning touches”) of what will await the reader before beginning this cinematic gourmet feast that is never heavy on the stomach, let alone reader comprehension, McBride explains the loss of that special cultural and historical tradition that allowed Lubitsch to flourish making him now one of cinema’s “forgotten men” to the general audience as John Ford was decades ago before McBride began his critical work on that director. We are now in the era of “the brain-dead Transformers series…and alleged romantic comedies featuring jokes involving vomiting and defecation (Bridesmaids), and the screen is dominated by superhero fantasies aimed primarily at the adolescent male sensibility.” (9) (1)
Although “the Lubitsch Touch” can be seen today as “either a compliment or a subtle devaluation” (27), McBride cautions that sexuality is “far from being his entire preoccupation” (27) since the Touch itself “is part of a style that subtly deals with so many other aspects of human life and society” that also encompass social criticism and political overtones though sexuality itself is part of this wider context of human experience. McBride obviously recognizes a type of “vulgar Lubitsch” interpretation very similar to “vulgar Freudianism” and “vulgar Marxism” that also prevented appropriate recognition of the complexities of the subject matter. That is why the films appear so modern today once ill-informed prejudices decline. They appear far more mature than the current output of Hollywood today. As an émigré director who was fully aware of his position “as an exile in a city of illusion” (21), Lubitsch “worked out a filmic language all his own, which was his way of speaking in a code in order to address the audience over the dense heads of the Hollywood censors; ironically, he hid his meanings in plain sight but always with a sly, self-protective deniability” (21).
This is the task the author sets himself, namely to describe the particular richness of an authorial sensibility than cannot be defined in any rigid manner. Thus his book intends to be as comprehensive as possible examining all the surviving European and Hollywood films in an integrated manner to define even further and in more detail Andrew Sarris’s reason for including Lubitsch among the “Pantheon Directors” of The American Cinema. Though containing biographical information, it is “not a “biography but a critical study, an essayistic investigation into his work and the artistic and cultural influence of a cinematic master” (26).
The opening chapters deal with Lubitsch’s German period that McBride sees as crucial towards understanding the director’s development from knockabout comedies, wildly grotesque farces, and lavish historical spectacles to the more understated and subtle Lubitsch we know from his American period (35). Although many of Lubitsch’s films are lost and several only exist in fragments, McBride aims at providing the reader with a comprehensive description of many surviving but neglected films, several of which are now available for viewing on YouTube especially his Ossi Oswalda comedies such as I Don’t Want to be a Man (1918) that subversively transcend gender norms in highly sophisticated ways, anticipating Wilder’s Some Like it Hot (1959). Noting the director’s training as an actor that enabled him later to play out roles to each actor in his Hollywood films (69-70, 84, 86-87), McBride sees him moving away from ethnic humor towards more visually sophisticated comedies within four years of his first work. In Oswalda films such as The Doll and The Oyster Princess (both 1919), he “turns the characters into marionettes” and “The strenuously dance-like pantomime of Negri and her fellow players in The Wildcat and its film’s extravagant sets make that fantasy, like The Doll, resemble a live-action cartoon” (100). Although finding Pola lacking in comparison to Ossi in their Lubitsch roles, McBride does recognize the former’s talents which may be seen on YouTube. “That Pola succeeded so well in her vamp persona and is still engaging in her silent Lubitsch films is a tribute to the shameless self-confidence she projects and her strenuous, even voracious sexuality” (115).
Yes, even “old films”, especially silent ones are fun if certain “youngsters” (whose attitudes often reveal the stereotypical “know nothing” attitudes of the supposedly reactionary “older generation”) remove the blinkers from their eyes!
The rest of the chapter examines those “historical spectacles” that brought the director to Hollywood attention and while evaluating their merits and flaws notes their relationship to contemporary unrest in the Weimar Republic, especially Madame DuBarry (1919) as well as the tyrannical role of monarchy as displayed in Emil Jannings’s Henry VIII in Anna Bolyn (1920).
Following his first Hollywood film with Mary Pickford, Rosita (1923), Lubitsch soon moved towards those sophisticated comedies that made his name in classical Hollywood cinema beginning with The Marriage Circle (1924) that continued until the end of his career. In the appropriately titled chapter three “The `Berlin Style’ in Hollywood”, McBride acutely assesses the distinctive nature of the director in the largely immigrant town of Hollywood:
His work benefitted from his continental sensibility, which helped revolutionize Hollywood’s way of looking at romantic love, marital intrigue, and comedy. Lubitsch brought a more sophisticated, urbane approach to American movies, helping counteract the ever-present puritanism that dominated the industry before he arrived and that kept trying to reassert itself even as he continued to outwit it with endless resourcefulness…He played a form of jujitsu with the Hays Office by bouncing off any compromises they demanded so that he could implicitly mock the whole system of censorship. (137)
He did this with his “touch”, a phrase popularized by Herman G. Weinberg in his 1968 book of the same name. Yet the touch was not an isolated segment but an intrinsic part of an envisaged whole in his 1920s films that are “less dependent on touches than on their distinctively complex emotional mood and elegant visual settings” (141). By quoting from a 1924 contemporary reviewer, McBride comments that “the totality of Lubitsch’s seriocomic style in his American work was already appreciated as distinctive and integral to his viewpoint as opposed to being noticeable primarily in brief flourishes” (142). The introduction of sound would add a further component to this distinctive total conception that allowed his style to reach “its most elaborately audacious levels of visual intricacy and near abstraction” (233). In a masterly review of Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925) McBride comments that “The Lubitsch Touches have more to do with the conflicts between emotional needs and class structures than with sexuality per se” (206). In that film he trusts his audience by showing “with dazzling artistry, just how subtle and complex the cinema can be in conveying the nuances of character and social interaction” (201). The director also learned from masters such as Reinhardt, Griffith, Stiller, and Chaplin to equal “their best work in purely visual storytelling before the silent era reached its end, just as it was reaching its pinnacle of achievement” (203).
Apart from some exceptions, the early sound films such as The Love Parade (1929) “still seems effortless in [their] smoothly entertaining style, pacing, and delivery, from the cleverly deceptive opening onward” (234). He overcame sound’s initial limitations “by devising innovative ways of taking the static shots of characters singing and talking – static shots that are actually extremely lively in terms of performing content, giving more autonomy to the actors – and surrounding these with clever forms of contextualizing montage” (235). His version of The Merry Widow (1934) not only utilized music to its best effect but also contained “the emotional story of Danilo learning to respond more genuinely to Sonia’s affections” (254) thus giving it an unexpected gravity as well as satire of outlandish Hollywood musical conventions. Although genre conventions, censorship, and happy endings sometimes restricted the director and his writers they often found ways to circumvent such limitations by “irony, reversals of narrative expectations, and other ways of winking at the audience [which] benefit from the complexities of the character relationships” (262) especially in the director’s critical examination of human relationships “at a time when few viewers were questioning gender power imbalances” (265) thus making the musicals both relevant and subversive today.
In his examination of one of Lubitsch’s greatest achievements, Trouble in Paradise (1932), McBride engages in a relevant digression concerning the standard definition of “pure cinema” noting that it can be both verbal and visual even in a Hitchcock film such as Psycho (1960). Trouble in Paradise succeeds here because it is “a direct outgrowth of his experimentation with the interplay of sound and pictures in musicals. It would not have been possible without that evolution” (276). By focusing on people talking, Lubitsch creatively involves the audience into the distinctive interactions of human relationships rather than bombarding the audience with bombastic style and spectacle. Style is present but so is humanity especially in “the degree of intense emotional involvement we come to have with the people involved in the filmmaker’s favorite situation, a three-way love relationship”(287). Within this context, he is as much a master of suspense as Hitchcock according to McBride in his critical evaluation of Angel (1937) featuring the complex interactions of Marlene Dietrich, Melvyn Douglas, and Herbert Marshall.
McBride sees Ninotchka (1939) as not only a sophisticated satire of competing cultural values but also as “one of the rare Hollywood anticommunist films that can be watched today not with embarrassment but with delight” (351). It also functions as a metafilm being “simultaneously a supreme example of a romance, a comedy, and a political satire as well as an overt commentary on those three interlocking elements” (367). To its credit, it does not engage in ideological caricature, but displays a cinematic purity of its own:
Ninotchka owes much of its political savvy and sophistication to giving all sides the best arguments that the writers and Lubitsch can muster for them. The film respects the intelligence of the audience to make up its own mind about the relative merits of each character’s behavior in a very Lubitschean spirit of generosity. (375)
As we move towards the last decade of the director’s career, McBride focuses on the achievements of three films – The Shop Around the Corner (1940), Heaven Can Wait (1942), and Cluny Brown (1946) that display “his richest, most rounded, most profoundly understanding portrayals of human beings. The benevolently paradoxical spirit of loving someone because of his or her flaws, not in spite of them, pervades most of Lubitsch’s later work” (386). Yet that other undisputed masterpiece To Be or Not to Be (1943) also represents a different type of achievement to be set alongside Trouble in Paradise. In his excellent critical survey of The Shop Around the Corner McBride recognizes not only the shared idealism of the romantic couple played by James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan but also “its inevitable clash with the depressing reality of their daily lives, a situation with which Lubitsch’s audience could readily identify” (393). The author also notes the pre-Hitchcock/Mann appearance of the dark side of Stewart (395), something that I recognized recently in After the Thin Man (1936) where the mask drops in his climactic scene.
Contrary to legend, To Be or Not to Be was no box-office failure. Though it appeared at a crucial time in world history, “it is precisely because To Be or Not to Be came out when it did that it is so extraordinary and so valuable as a time capsule of a great artist’s highly personal, idiosyncratic response to a world crisis” that “still makes it seem so fresh today” (404). Pages 417-422 contain a remarkable analysis of this important film that I will not comment on but suggest the reader immediately view it again (or discover it for the first time) before proceeding further. Like the vast majority of McBride’s contribution to cinema studies, this book reveals great intuitive criticism and I could find little, if anything, to disagree with as opposed to his Spielberg book. These values occur again in his analysis of Lubitsch’s other two significant achievements Heaven Can Wait and Cluny Brown, especially in his treatment of marriage in the first film making us aware that the status of a so-called “happy marriage” is “based on compromises, deceits, and betrayals” (433) while the latter “often resembles a Jean Renoir film in its satire of class issues, its sympathetic treatment of outsiders, and its approach to transcending those social barriers as well as in its fluid, graceful camerawork that emphasizes group interaction with natural ease” (454).
McBride ends his book with a twenty page epilogue “The Importance of Being Ernst” – quoting Peter Bogdanovich’s comments after a 2003 screening of Trouble in Paradise. “What happened? When was America that sophisticated? When was the world that sophisticated? And how could we have gone so far in the other direction? (461) One of the merits of this book is that it considers other relevant factors in addition to the general neglect of its subject matter in contemporary times. The cultural climate has certainly changed and though films appeared that reflected Lubitsch themes such as Billy Wilder’s Avanti! (1972) they often failed at the box-office or, as adaptations, such as Mel Brooks’ s To Be or Not to Be (1983) or You’ve Got Mail (1998) missed “the qualities that make the originals so memorable” (466). Despite the fact that an unprejudiced viewing of Lubitsch’s films reveals their contemporary relevance, in an era of demeaning gross-out comedies are they to be categorized as a “lost art”? McBride’s insights here are suggestive.
It is an open question whether the director’s cultural influence can be revived yet there is always a possibility of hope despite reading one of the grimmest sentences in this book within the acknowledgements section – “In a time when film studies are threatened on many fronts…” (491) Film departments once offered students the opportunity to see such classics but in the age of digitalization and media (often mediocrity) studies such opportunities are few and far between. But certain beacons of hope exist. I’ve found at least two Lubitsch sites on Facebook (one providing links to the directors films on YouTube) that offer welcome sources of information similar to Dan Van Neste’s Ricardo Cortez (1900-1977), Silents Please, Jerry Fielding, Talking Pictures TV Discussion Group (a group devoted to a UK cable channel that runs classic black and white films in contrast to their neglect on broadcast stations and most cable sites), Jean-Luc Godard Appreciation Society, S.T. Joshi Enthusiasts, and other reputable sites. If the possibilities of low-budget digital filmmaking (478) offer routes towards non-expensive means of production, then these sites may take the place of film departments that once in a non-corporate controlled era offered students the possibility of exposure to different types of cinema and the opportunity to engage in unique forms of alternative representations that the industry actively discourages. Since universities are no longer the creative centers of civilization, as F.R. Leavis once hoped they would be, then appropriate channels of film history may survive where they originally began, namely outside a dehumanizing academic environment with its demeaning structures of grades, metric statistical evaluations, and “dumbing down” according to a perverse interpretation of what both Art and Popular Culture involve.
The first chapter of How Did Lubitsch Do It? significantly concludes with the question are Lubitsch’s achievements a “lost art’” thus framing the entire book in an appropriate circular structure paralleling Lubitsch’s The Marriage Circle. Today and even back in 1967 Billy Wilder thought likewise. But one goal of this book is to revive the spark of that “missing spirit”. If audiences and contemporary Hollywood cannot see the difference between past excellence and present corporate mediocrity, then it is no fault of this critic who has contributed again to his already renowned reputation in adding to that wealth of cinematic historical studies that benefits greatly from his own personal experience and love of the medium.
- I remember well a course by a former Chair in my English department titled “Irony in the Public Sphere” featuring Spice World (1998), Wayne’s World (1992) and other carefully selected mediocre examples designed to show the instructor’s contempt for cinema rather than appreciation of past achievements – an attitude that led to him calling me an “elitist” when I said the films of Howard Hawks were much better!
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies in the Department of English, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Author of James Jones: The Limits of Eternity (2016) and co-editor with Esther C.M. Yau of Hong Kong Neo Noir (2017), he is also a Contributing Editor to Film International.