Review: Joseph McBride’s “How Did Lubitsch Do It?”

Ernst Lubitsch, James Stewart, and Margaret Sullivan (1940)

Director, screenwriter, producer, and actor Ernst Lubitsch (1892-1947) was considered by film luminaries such as Orson Welles, Jean Renoir, and Billy Wilder to be among the greatest of directors. Over the course of 36 years and 69 films, Lubitsch’s career survived two major transitions: the industry-wide shift from silent film to sound and the director’s own migration from Europe to the United States. He worked with some of the most brilliant screen performers of his time—including Greta Garbo, Claudette Colbert, Maurice Chevalier, James Stewart, Carole Lombard, Gary Cooper, and Miriam Hopkins, among many others—in films such as Trouble in Paradise (1932), Ninotchka (1939), The Shop Around the Corner (1940), and To Be or Not to Be (1942). Along the way, he perfected the romantic comedy, infusing it with sophistication and wit, and with a sexual humor that seems both cutting edge for its time and a breath of fresh air in our present film culture.

Why then is the name of Ernst Lubitsch not a more integral part of the modern film lover’s lexicon? Why do so many of his movies languish in obscurity, unlike the work of his contemporaries Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, and Frank Capra? And what can be done to adjust the unfortunate way that the public has fallen out of touch with this film giant? In his new book, How Did Lubitsch Do It?, film historian and professor Joseph McBride provides detailed information on the 47 Lubitsch films that survive, including those that are only fragmentary, and offers insight into even many of those that do not in an attempt to shed light on Lubitsch’s accomplishments and encourage enthusiasm for his work. The study is thorough, thoughtful, and accessible, and will be of help to film lovers who already are acquainted with Lubitsch and those who are just starting out.

McBride spoke with me about his study at length in Berkeley recently, and both on the page and in person he effectively conveys how important but also how approachable and modern Lubitsch’s films are. As he stressed during our interview, much of what makes Lubitsch movies seem decidedly current is their focus on savvy, urbane characters engaged in suggestive romances. These characters have healthy sex lives, frequently punctuated by love triangles (Design for Living [1933], Trouble in Paradise) and adultery (The Marriage Circle [1924], To Be or Not to Be). In Lubitsch movies, adultery is often depicted as a helpful additive to marriages, something that enables characters to act out desires and repair spousal relationships—a theme that must have been surprising then, as it is now. Provocative conversations about sex abound in Lubitsch films, from the scene at the end of the silent The Oyster Princess (1919)—when a father peeps through the keyhole to his daughter’s bedroom where she consummates her marriage and crows “Now I’m impressed!”—to the suggestive ditty sung by Maurice Chevalier to Claudette Colbert at the breakfast table in The Smiling Lieutenant (1931): “You put kisses in the coffee, such temptation in the tea… You put ‘It’ in every omelet… You put passion in the prunes.” Colbert responds: “I find romance each sweet entrancing moment, every time you touch the spoons… I’m gone when you invade the marmalade!” (“There is no racier song in the cinema,” McBride observes.)

Lubitsch dialogue can be pointed and charged, but his movies also maintain a certain ellipticism. McBride points to the frequent use of door shots in Lubitsch movies, which invite us to guess what is taking place beyond them. (He quotes Mary Pickford as complaining that Lubitsch was merely “a director of doors,” although McBride notes that in her one collaboration with Lubitsch, Rosita [1923], Lubitsch’s door shots are largely absent.) One might also think of the repeated shots of the face of a clock during a long night in Trouble in Paradise, in which the male protagonist played by Herbert Marshall spends the night amusing his lady friend Kay Francis off camera; we hear their voices but can only guess at what they are actually doing. The use of visual and verbal ellipses and oblique references that the audience can fill in with what it chooses is at the heart of what makes Lubitsch Lubitsch.

McBride alludes to this practice indirectly in the book’s title, which is a play on a famous quotation from Lubitsch devotee Billy Wilder. Wilder, a European émigré like Lubitsch who worked with the director on Ninotchka and other projects, famously kept a sign with the words “How would Lubitsch do it?” framed in his office as a means of encouraging himself to solve his film problems in the least clichéd way. McBride’s book takes Wilder’s mantra and rephrases it to draw attention to Lubitsch’s historical craft (how he conceived of, wrote, and directed his films) but also to ask in another sense how on earth he got away with what he did: how he evaded the censors, but also, I think, how he managed to make movies that touched on sex, adultery, and ménages à trois that were nevertheless paragons of refinement, thoughtfulness, and wit. The answer lies in Lubitsch’s powerful use of suggestion and implication to tell stories in unorthodox ways.

Lubitsch, in Wilder’s eyes and also McBride’s, was a master of the fresh and original, of “doing that, without doing that,” and yet Lubitsch has (through no fault of his own) become associated with one of the great clichés of modern film culture, one that is ironically related to his innovative techniques: the idea of the so-called “Lubitsch touch,” an aspect of Lubitsch movies that is hard to describe but that involves telling stories through the inventive, sophisticated conceits Wilder loved. McBride described the “Lubitsch Touch” in person as a concept that was “useful in spite of its clichéd nature,” particularly as a way of evoking Lubitsch’s intriguing mystique to newcomers. Although the “Lubitsch touch” originated as a marketing ploy and can sound like vague hype, it does help critics to stress the intangible quality that is so often a part of his films. As Lubitsch himself said, “I don’t know what the ‘Lubitsch’ touch is. But whatever it is, I’m sure that it must be in the script.”

McBride’s favorite Lubitsch film is Trouble in Paradise, a story about a love triangle involving two jewel thieves and the woman they scam that is perhaps Lubitsch’s best known film today and the film that is easiest to speak of in terms of “Lubitsch touches.” The section on Trouble in Paradise is by far the lengthiest of McBride’s studies, and he makes a good case for its place at the top of the Lubitsch canon: its wonderful triangle with relationships that are “among the subtlest, most nuanced in the director’s body of work,” its charming lead actors (Herbert Marshall, Miriam Hopkins, and Kay Francis) who are all at the peak of their powers, its use of omission and ellipses, its visual and verbal gags, its witty opening, and its daring sexuality: “…no romantic comedy could ever hope to surpass [its] grace, elegance, charm, wit, intricacy, and audacity…,” he asserts.

McBride praises Lubitsch and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson for giving the movie’s female leads (Hopkins and Francis) characters who are distinct but equally appealing; in their shared romance with the Herbert Marshall character, “you could see him running off with either one in the end,” something that intrigues McBride, who is particularly interested in well-developed female characters and directors who cultivate them on screen. This accounts in part for his fondness for Lubitsch, who directed female actresses in so many intriguing roles. (Our in-person conversation began with a discussion of the more recent film The Graduate [1967], during which McBride criticized the unsympathetic characterization of the famous suburban temptress Mrs. Robinson, played by Anne Bancroft. Our conversation about that movie and other more recent films implicitly underscored how differently their female characters would have been handled by Lubitsch and his screenwriters.)

You might say that Trouble in Paradise is an easy sell to the uninitiated: hilarious, touching, sophisticated, and provocative—“perfect,” in McBride’s words. Historically, perhaps the most difficult sell of Lubitsch’s career was To Be or Not to Be, his comedy about the Nazi invasion of Poland starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard. Dismissed in its own time for what people perceived as inappropriate subject matter and tone, and also presumably affected at the box office by Carole Lombard’s untimely death in a plane crash at the time of the premiere, To Be or Not to Be has since transformed into one of Lubitsch’s most famous comedies, one that modern audiences respond well to. In conversation, McBride attributed its newfound success to our receptivity to political black comedies, which were not common in the 1940s and “did not achieve widespread success in movies until [Stanley Kubrick’s] Dr. Strangelove [1964].”

Among other notable qualities, To Be or Not to Be also dares to feature an obviously Jewish character named Greenberg, played by frequent Lubitsch collaborator Felix Bressart, who several times in the film recites Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice—this at a time when overt references to Jews in Hollywood productions were rare, Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) being a notable exception. When Greenberg recites Shylock’s speech, he does replace “Jew” with the tamer, more universal “we.” Still, McBride argues that the final scene in which Greenberg performs the speech before the Nazis is “perhaps the most powerful scene in any Lubitsch film,” and he is possibly right. I should note that To Be or Not to Be does not flinch at other historical realities involving Jews during the war, such as the existence of concentration camps. (McBride also reiterated in person the disturbing fact that Greenberg does not appear to be among the survivors in the movie’s final scene, something explored by Joel Rosenberg in his 1996 essay, “Shylock’s Revenge: The Doubly Vanished Jew in Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be.”)

We perhaps expect a substantial treatment of both Trouble in Paradise and To Be or Not to Be in a book that approaches Lubitsch’s career in a chronological fashion such as McBride’s does. More unexpectedly, How Did Lubitsch Do It? offers commentary on some of Lubitsch’s most obscure films, especially the silent German films, which have historically been much less accessible and harder to garner interest in, both because they have been challenging to locate and because the general public’s tolerance for silents diminishes with each passing year. Fortunately, many of Lubitsch’s German silents are now available online, and McBride mentioned to me that if he were to recommend one of these to newcomers, it would be The Oyster Princess (1919), in particular a short sequence from it known as the Fox-trot Epidemic, which is charming and extremely silly. (It involves an entire wedding party, including the servants, succumbing to the music of a live band, whose members perform an infectious tune, including one musician who “plays” a man’s cheeks by slapping them repeatedly.) Like many of Lubitsch’s German silents, The Oyster Princess features silent film actress Ossi Oswalda, who was known as “The German Mary Pickford” due to her comparable popularity in that country but whose career would dwindle with the advent of the sound era. Oswalda is a treasure, as evidenced in her performance as an American shellfish magnate’s daughter in The Oyster Princess but also in Lubitsch’s silent comedy The Doll (1919), in which she plays a woman who pretends to be a sort of full-sized sex doll in a film world where it is possible to manufacture, woo, and marry such a thing. McBride finds a great deal of value in both The Oyster Princess and The Doll, which involve perhaps a coarser style of humor than the later Lubitsch films but share much of their wit. He is right to stress that the foundations of so much of Lubitsch’s later comedies can be found in the German silents, but they are delightful in their own right. It is wonderful to know that for people who have seen a great deal of Lubitsch’s well-known American sound productions, there is so much left still to explore in the silent period that is satisfying.

While McBride praises much of the Lubitsch canon, he is also not hesitant to weigh in on Lubitsch’s failures, of which he chronicles a good number, including Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938; its abysmal trailer can be viewed here), The Man I Killed (1932), and That Lady in Ermine (1948), the latter of which Lubitsch was making when he died. But McBride makes it clear that even the displeasing Lubitsch movies can help us to appreciate what we love about Lubitsch. Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, for example, is Lubitsch’s entrance into the screwball comedy genre, a genre that McBride dislikes due to its violence and brutality and that he believes Lubitsch was unsuited for because of his sensitivity.

Which brings us back to where we started, with Lubitsch’s legacy and what it means that his films are not more popular today. I mentioned to McBride that a comparable director such as Alfred Hitchcock, who similarly began making silents in Europe, emigrated to America, and had a striking signature style and trademark subject matter, has a reputation that has grown tremendously since his death—catalyzed during his own lifetime by François Truffaut’s collection of interviews with him. McBride liked the comparison but noted that one of the reasons Hitchcock’s reputation flourishes today is because he “appeals to darker times.” He does point out that some modern attempts to channel the Lubitsch spirit have been satisfying, such as Truffaut’s The Man Who Loved Women (1977) and Peter Bogdanovich’s maligned At Long Last Love (1975). But overall he points to the coarsening of American culture as a direct correlation to the lack of Lubitsch elements in modern American film, referring in the book to films such as the Transformers series (“movies about giant robots smashing into each other”) and Bridesmaids (one of many “alleged romantic comedies featuring jokes involving vomiting and defecation”) as chief indicators of this trend from which recovery is a long way out of sight. As long as film continues along this path, he implies, the possibility of an industry-wide revival of Lubitsch-style storytelling diminishes. Billy Wilder said himself in 1975 that Lubitsch “would have had big problems in this market”—it is easy to envision the problems he would have today.

But McBride also indicated in conversation that in Lubitsch’s own time, his signature style seemed to have a peak. In short succession during the Depression, Lubitsch made some of his greatest films, all about people living lives of wealth and ease: Trouble in Paradise about posh thieves living it up in Paris, Design for Living about a ménage-à-trois among bohemian artists also set in Paris, and The Merry Widow (1934) about the wooing of a rich widow in the Ruritanian country of Marshovia. Around this time, to appease Depression-era audiences, studios began to seek out projects that reflected a more workaday, proletarian context. McBride pointed to Capra’s wildly successful It Happened One Night (1934) as an example of the sort of dressed-down stories that were to become more commonplace—featuring Claudette Colbert as a millionaire’s daughter who nevertheless travels through the movie wearing what McBride described as a “cheap-looking sweater” and embarking on a regional bus trip during which she sings the popular “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze” with a group of disheveled passengers. Lubitsch would create effective portraits of working-class people during his American years in films such as The Shop Around the Corner (1940), but the glitz of his celebrated thirties comedies, which I particularly cherish, had had its day.

And yet the fact that Lubitsch comedies seem to emerge from another world, even in their own time, means that they are eternally equipped to invite us into settings that we might otherwise feel estranged from, in order to transform our perception of the possibilities of human behavior, intelligence, and humor. They will likely always seem like a refreshing alternative to the status quo. And in today’s film culture, which is rife with escapist fantasies involving superheroes, monsters, and fantasy worlds that differ so much from the normative, perhaps there can be a place for Lubitsch’s sparkling societies as well.

On a final note, McBride does locate hope for the future of Lubitsch appreciation in his students at San Francisco State University, where he is offering a course on Lubitsch this fall. He does not worry about persuading them to like Lubitsch’s movies: “If you show them the films, they like them.” That is indeed encouraging, given that many of his students aspire to be filmmakers themselves. And what does he begin the semester with? Trouble in Paradise, of course. I imagine that is how Lubitsch would do it, too.