Billy Wilder idolized Ernst Lubitsch, and he had a sign over the door of his office that said “What Would Lubitsch Do?”

Ernst Lubitch doing what he liked best: directing and laughing

Ernst Lubitch doing what he liked best: directing and laughing

Lubitsch (born Berlin, 1892; died Los Angeles, 1947) worked in movies from 1912 until his death 35 years later. His contribution to film and his enormous influence on other directors is hard to overstate (as Jean Renoir told Peter Bogdanovich, Lubitsch invented modern Hollywood), though he isn’t exactly a household word outside cinephile circles. He is today most famous for the kind of movie he created in the early sound era, and Trouble in Paradise was not only Lubitsch’s favorite among his films, it is consistently at the top of lists of the greatest comedies ever made.

The movie begins in Venice. You know how that’s normally indicated to an audience—an establishing shot, a long shot of the city, perhaps with the city ‘s name printed over it, with some kind of instantly recognizable landmark and music we automatically associate with the location. But what did Lubitsch do? He shows us a garbageman at work, collecting garbage. We could be anywhere. But then the man begins to sing “O Sole Mio” and we see that he has not a garbage truck but a garbage gondola, and that is how we know we are in Venice.

That’s not all we know (this is where the genius comes in). We are in one of the most romantic cities in Europe, and to paraphrase Hamlet, “Something is rotten in Venice.” This is too subtle to register on most of us upon first viewing. But here we are in this incredibly romantic place, and right off the bat we are being winked at, told that things are not as they seem.

Trouble in Paradise garterNext we see a long shot through a window of a man knocked out on the floor. He tries to get up, fails, and falls back down. Instead of going into the room the camera keeps its distance and moves along the outside wall of the building, until we arrive at the terrace of the baron’s (Herbert Marshall) suite, where he is ordering supper from a waiter while gazing at the moon. The waiter pulls a small leaf from the baron’s jacket and gives it to him. Now Lubitsch has established a connection between the man on the floor in the suite (Number 253,-5,-7, and -9) and the baron, who appears to have been doing a little climbing…

Some Hollywood publicity man invented the phrase “the Lubitsch touch,” which is why it doesn’t mean any one thing. But as much as anything else it refers to a way of conveying complex information in a single stroke or image, or an object that suggests a great deal about the story.

Madame Colet (Kay Francis) and Monsieur LaValle (actually Gaston Monescu, both played by Herbert Marshall)

Madame Colet (Kay Francis) and Monsieur LaValle (actually Gaston Monescu, both played by Herbert Marshall)

This is from the Lubitsch entry in World Film Directors: “In a moment of exasperation Mary Pickford had referred to Lubitsch as a “director of doors,” and there is justice in the charge. As Arthur Knight has pointed out, “prior to The Marriage Circle [1925], almost any decoration would do—either wholly nondescript for a routine film or, for a more elaborate production, rooms choked with bric-a-brac and overstuffed chairs set off by loudly ornamental drapes and busy wallpaper. Lubitsch cleared away the clutter, providing clean playing areas for his action. The advantages were so immediately apparent that they were incorporated into the majority of pictures from that moment on. Few directors, however, have quite his ability to use settings to their fullest advantage. To Lubistch, a door was always more than simply a way to get into or out of a room; it was a way to end an argument, to suggest pique or coquetry or even the sexual act itself. Corridors, stairways, windows—all had a dramatic function in the Lubitsch films.”

In this film there’s the running gag about Monsieur Filiba’s suite, (“Numbers 253, -5, -7, and -9”), which tells us how rich he is and also reminds us of the robbery and of Gaston’s daring as well as the fact that this is a story about thieves—and not just Lili and Gaston. Another running gag, “I have enjoyed the confidence of this family for more than 40 years,” is another thief’s claim of legitimacy, this one on the board of directors. He will not be called to account for his crimes because it would embarrass the company. The wealthy and virtuous talk a good game, Lubitsch tells us, but their morals are as expedient and slip-shod as the more straightforward crooks they feel superior to.

Stairways, yes—the stairway in Mariette Colet’s (Kay Francis) house is a Lubitsch joke, and all three of the principals run up and down it indicating the direction and flush of desire in a particular moment. Herbert Marshall had lost a leg up to the hip in WWI, and he walked with a noticeable gait. Lubitch films him (and so everyone else) from the hips up and sitting or standing; he never walks very far. And when he runs up or down the stairs (as he does many times), it is not Marshall we are seeing but  a double who can move quickly and lightly.

Lubitsch plays with style constantly. The actors often deliver their lines with great dramatic weight, as if we’re watching a melodrama. And the musical score, too, is often melodramatic. This plays against the incredible delicacy and airiness of the story, characters, and dialogue. It provides a dramatic counterpoint and another layer of irony.

Trouble in Paradise Horton Ruggles

Gaston and his women

Gaston and his women

Gaston has the better triangle, with a stunning blonde and brunette vying for his attention, while Mariette has two nebbishes. Perhaps this is a comment on the dullness of respectability. Only the Major and Monsieur Filiba speak of marriage; Gaston and Lili live in carefree sin, while Madame Colet (Mariette) is interested in sharing Gaston’s bed and company, but not his name. While Gaston may be smitten with Mariette, but he belongs with Lili, a woman who appreciates him for the master thief he really is.

Colet et Co, the source of the money Gaston and Lili are angling for

Colet et Co, the source of the money Gaston and Lili are angling for

The film is an Art Deco dream. The costumes, sets, and furnishings are all exquisite. It’s the perfect physical expression of this jewel box of a film, whose delights have not diminished with the years. Lubitsch left us far too soon, but he left us a catalogue of movies including Ninotchka, the Shop Around the Corner, and To Be or Not to Be, that still convey the generous spirit of their maker, a man who loved to laugh.

I’ll give Andrew Sarris the last word: “A poignant sadness infiltrates the director’s gayest moments, and it is this counterpoint between sadness and gaiety that represents the Lubitsch touch, and not the leering humor of closed doors. Describing Lubitsch as the continental sophisticate is as inadequate as describing Hitchcock as the master of suspense. Garbo’s pixillated speech in Ninotchka is pitched delicately between the comic and the cosmic, and in one breathtaking moment Garbo and Lubitsch sway on the tightrope between grace and purpose.”

David Manners, Marian Marsh, and Warren William in Beauty and the Boss

David Manners, Marian Marsh, and Warren William in Beauty and the Boss

Our second film, Beauty and the Boss, is one of the countless movies marked by Lubitsch’s influence.  It’s set in Europe, it concerns a sexually adventurous bank president played by the wonderful Warren William as a variation of the industrialist/executive cad he played so often in pre-Code, and his secretary (the lovely Marian Marsh), a poor, innocent girl who is smart enough to run the bank herself. He hires her because she’s all business, and she is determined to keep his mind on his work, but they go to Paris for negotiations and… things happen.

Beauty and the Boss Marsh WilliamI had never heard of it until TCM played it last month, but I found it charming and naughty in a very pre-Code way. It’s no Trouble in Paradise, but I’m glad I found it and hope you’ll enjoy it and see Lubitsch’s mark on it. It’s lighthearted and sweet-natured, without an iota of shame or guilt.

Sources:

American Cinema, by Andrew Sarris

The Lubitsch Touch, by Herman G. Weinberg

World Film Directors, Vol. 1, 1890-1945

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