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Ernst Lubitsch

Ernst Lubitsch

Ernst Lubitsch was born on January 28 1892 in Berlin Germany. Though he suffered a massive heart attack in 1943 he continued to work until his heart failed again; he died two months shy of his 56 th birthday in November 1947. His last project – That Lady Ermine (1948) – was completed by director Otto Preminger. Initially an actor in silent films in his native country Lubitsch came to Hollywood in 1922 after receiving an invitation from Mary Pickford to direct her in Rosita (1923). He produced and directed his next film (The Marriage Circle (1924)) for Warner Bros. and American film-goers had a chance to witness his celebrated “Lubitsch Touch” which refers to the director’s unique style: his wit his visual style the characters and the stories (mostly comedy-dramas or romantic comedies) that he chose to produce and direct. Like many complex hard-to-define concepts “you know it when you see it”.

Ernst Lubitsch is heralded as one of the greatest directors of all-time by some of the best among his peers including Alfred Hitchcock Francois Truffaut Orson Welles Billy Wilder and William Wyler. Once he arrived in America his body of work included more than two dozen films most of which he produced and a handful he wrote. Some of his most notable works (chronologically) are:

Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925) – which aired on TCM in November 2004 as part of the channel’s World Television Premiere of the “More Treasures from the American Film Archives” DVD set. It stars Ronald Colman and features May McAvoy in the title role; the story was based on Oscar Wilde’s play. The film was added to the National Film Registry in 2002.

The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927) – which pairs the titled prince Ramon Novarro (under the tutelage of Jean Hersholt) with Norma Shearer.

The Patriot (1928) – one of the most famous now lost silent films which earned writer Hanns Kräly his Academy Award and received several other (unofficial) nominations.

The Love Parade (1929) – the director is credited with this first pairing of Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald who went on to star in a number of other Lubitsch romantic comedies with music like this one.

The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) – was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. It stars Claudette Colbert; she plays a nightclub singer named Franzi who captivates Maurice Chevalier; when Chevalier (in the title role) must marry a Princess (Miriam Hopkins) to prevent a war he continues his affair with Colbert’s character until she meets Hopkins’s; Franzi pities her and then decides to teach the Princess how to be sexy enough to entice her husband.

Trouble in Paradise (1932) – is certainly one of the director’s best! Thieving con artist soul mates (Hopkins and Herbert Marshall) work together to scam the rich and beautiful owner of a perfume company played by Kay Francis. But Hopkins’s character isn’t sure whether Marshall’s has fallen for their prey who has other suitors (Charles Ruggles and Edward Everett Horton) that are very protective of madame. C. Aubrey Smith also plays a role in this romantic comedy that was added to the National Film Registry in 1991.

Design for Living (1933) – actress Hopkins certainly benefitted from her relationship with the director; this was the third (three of her best) she made with him. Her co-stars Fredric March and Gary Cooper play Americans in Paris that both fall in love with her free-spirited character. Since each enjoys the others’ company they decide to form a gentleman’s agreement to keep carnal entanglements from ruining their friendships. However when March’s character finds work across the English Channel he (rightly) worries about this partnership.

The Merry Widow (1934) – another of the Chevalier-MacDonald films this remake of the 1925 silent was subsequently remade again by MGM as a Musical featuring Lana Turner and Fernando Lamas in 1952. Winning an Academy Award for its Art Direction it’s a story about a “lady’s man” Count (Chevalier) that must court the titled woman (MacDonald) because she pays more than fifty percent of the country’s taxes; the King (George Barbier) is willing to overlook the Count’s affair with his Queen (Una Merkel) in order to keep the widow from moving elsewhere.

Ninotchka (1939) – this is my favorite of the director’s many great comedies; in it he cast Greta Garbo in a typically dramatic role as a stern (to the point of morose) Russian official sent to Paris to reign in three of her fellow countrymen (Sig Ruman Felix Bressart and Alexander Granach) who have been enjoying the spoils of that city in lieu of completing their assignment. However a friend of these men (Melvyn Douglas) is so captivated by her beauty and intrigued by her frigid exterior that he takes it upon himself to crack her icy demeanor. Garbo’s thawing transformation from humorless communist to one that finally notices the frivolity around her is hilarious.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940) – begin with Miklós László’s classic comedy Parfumerie pair Margaret Sullavan with James Stewart as romantic leads sprinkle in some notable character actors (Frank Morgan Joseph Schildkraut Bressart Charles Halton) and you’ve got a comedy that was voted the 28 th Greatest Love Story by American Film Institute voters. Twice remade (most recently by Nora Ephron as You’ve Got Mail (1998) with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan) this original was added to the National Film Registry in 1999.

That Uncertain Feeling (1941) – is not as well respected by fans of the director as his other comedies. Still it has its moments of truth (essential for any good comedy). Merle Oberon plays an overindulged unfulfilled wife whose steady dependable husband (Douglas) is just not exciting enough. Her quack psychoanalyst (Alan Mowbray) says that her hiccups are symptomatic of a larger problem in her marriage. At his office she meets an artistic loser named Sebastian played perfectly by Burgess Meredith with whom she begins an affair. Throw in Harry Davenport as Douglas’s attorney (and wisecracking Eve Arden as his secretary) and the result is several funny scenes if not the entirely satisfying picture that Lubitsch frequently delivered.

To Be or Not to Be (1942) – Ninotchka writer Melchior Lengyel also provided this satire set in Poland during World War II which portrays Nazis as buffoons that can be fooled by Jack Benny’s ham acting troupe that works with the Resistance to befuddle the occupying force’s plans. This was Carole Lombard’s last film; she plays Benny’s competitive actress wife who’s thought to be unfaithful with a young Polish officer (played by Robert Stack) by her husband. However all work together to foil the brutish German Colonel (Ruman) in charge and his spy. This too was added to the National Film Registry in 1996.

Heaven Can Wait (1943) – during which Lubitsch suffered his first heart attack; this Technicolor effort earned the producer his only Best Picture Oscar nomination and his last Best Director nod; Edward Cronjager’s Color Cinematography was also nominated. It stars Don Ameche as the womanizing husband of Gene Tierney whom he’s always loved despite his extramarital affairs. The story spans several decades and is notable for character actor Charles Coburn’s lively performance as Ameche’s spirited Grandpapa.

© 2007 Turner Classic Movies – this article originally appeared on TCM’s official blog

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