Sunday, December 09, 2007

A Few Drops of Lubitsch

Ernst Lubitsch began his career in Germany as a comic actor and later took up directing, developing an international reputation by the the 1920's. Mary Pickford brought him to the US to direct her and he soon became a citizen of Hollywood. His "ouevre" in these years had moved from historical epics to "relationship" dramas and musicals with a certain flair for irony and whimsy.

Although the "Lubitsch Touch" seems to have been a Hollywood studio-concocted catchword it began innocently enough, describing flourishes that introduced a "continental" touch counter to the heavyhanded American approach.
Here, an early description derived from a now-lost movie:

"'Kiss Me Again' has many deft and delightful touches, the outstanding one being where Mr Lubitsch depicts a rain shower in a natural way. The average director resorts to a deluge after a glimpse of darkening skies torn by streaks of lightning.
Mr Lubitsch craftily shows a few spots on the pavement, and even when the shower comes, it is pictured as ordinary rainfall and not as a cloudburst."

Another Lubitsch "waterscene", this from "Forbidden Paradise", caught some attention in 1924. Under the moonlight, two lovers meet by a pond:

"You see the reflection of the two heads in the water as the lovers gaze into each other's eyes. Slowly, very slowly, their lips approach and just as the kiss is about to be given, a dawdling fish shatters the reflection."

As Lubitsch films progressed into the talkies new dimensions of expression came naturally to him, and he continued to find ways to say more in the new medium with elegant economy.

In "Trouble in Paradise" (1932) Miriam Hopkins (Lily) and Herbert Marshall (Gaston), masquerading in Venice as world-weary "nobility", are not aware that each is actually a master thief. They arrange a dinner rendezvous and over the polite chit-chat and relishing of the cuisine (Lily is perhaps gobbling it down a little too enthusiastically for a countess!) they gradually voice their suspicions that the other one is not what they seem. Meanwhile, their fascination for one another begins to steam up the screen as mutual "pickpocketing skills" become evident. Roger Ebert likens this scene to a kind of strip poker game (on a higher level of course!)

Lily: I like you, Baron.
Gaston: I'm crazy about you. By the way, your pin. (He returns her brooch pin - after appraising it.)
Lily: (after suddenly noticing she's missing it) Thank you, Baron.
Gaston: Not at all. There's one very good stone in it.
Lily: What time is it? (She allows him to search for his pocket watch before looking startled. She hands it to him from her purse - after resetting it.) It was five minutes slow but I regulated it for you. (He pockets the watch with a smile.)
Gaston: I hope you don't mind if I keep your garter. (She checks her leg, under the table, and then Gaston holds the garter up high and kisses it to prove his expertise.)
Lily: Darling! (excitedly, she rises and kisses him, flinging herself into his arms) Oh now, darling. Tell me, tell me all about yourself. Who are you?
Gaston: You remember the man who walked into the Bank of Constantinople, and walked out with the Bank of Constantinople?
Lily: Monescu.
Gaston: Gaston Monescu.
Lily: Gaston!*

Unable to hold back any longer, Lily and Gaston are on their feet and in each other's arms. He leads her to the couch and declares his undying love, in the smoothest Marshall tones:
I love you. I loved you the moment I saw you. I'm mad about you. My little shoplifter. My sweet little pickpocket. My darling.

As Lubitsch dissolves the scene we see an empty couch in dimming light and a "Do Not Disturb" sign on the door.
Only Lubitsch could carry off such a scene with the ABSOLUTE seamless ease despite the absurdity - no technological gimmickry or slapstick needed. He has the viewer poised in the palm of his hand.

Like a Lao Tzu description of the Tao, many could recognize the "touch" when they saw it, and it was undeniable that there was such a thing, but no one could conclusively define it much less pass it on or possess it.
The director Billy Wilder (along with Preston Sturges, and later, to some degree Peter Bogdanovich and Woody Allen) was much influenced by Lubitsch and had even worked with him in the 1930's.
Wilder on Lubitsch, "You know, if one could write Lubitsch touches, they would still exist, but he took that secret with him to his grave. It's like Chinese glass-blowing; no such thing exists anymore. Occasionally, I look for an elegant twist and I say to myself, 'How would Lubitsch have done it?' And I will come up with something and it will be like Lubitsch but it won't be Lubitsch. It's just not there anymore."

In Scott Eyman's wonderful book on Lubitsch* he includes an interesting commentary on a Wilder film related by Lubitsch's long-time scriptwriter,Sam Raphaelson. Again, a waterscene conveys the "touch".
"When Sam and Dorschka Raphaelson went to see Love in the Afternoon, they watched a scene wherein a water truck, dousing the early morning streets of Paris, soaks a pair of young lovers who fail to notice. Raphaelson leaned over to Dorschka and said,'What a mistake! Now if I were doing that scene with Lubitsch, we would have first shown the truck spraying water moving toward the lovers. But when the truck gets to them, the water shuts off. After it passes them, then the water starts up again. Now, that's the Lubitsch Touch'"

quotes above were gleaned from:
Dirks, Tim "Trouble In Paradise" see Tim's ABSOLUTELY MASTERFUL description of the movie at
Eyman, Scott "Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter In Paradise".
Thompson, Kristin "Herr Lubitsch Goes To Hollywood: German and American Film After World War I"
Hall, Mordaunt "Appealing Touches In Film Directed by Mr. Lubitsch"


persephone2u said...

So glad to see that you're back on the blogging front again! I thoroughly enjoyed reading your latest entry and just learned something new about a movie I had never heard of before.

Trombonology said...

Ah, I adore Lubitsch! As I read the lines from that delicious scene in Trouble in Paradise, I could just hear and see Herbert and Miriam. My favorite among Lubitsch's films, strangely enough, is one produced, not at his early thirties home, Paramount, but at MGM: The Shop Around the Corner. Such subtlety! Because of its plot, it doesn't suffer for having been produced after the stifling old Code had gone into effect. In February, the Criterion company will release a set of four Lubitsch pre-Code Paramount musicals; I'm looking forward to becoming better acquainted with the Lubitsch touch.

I loved your two Lester Young posts; I am an ardent scholar of Lesterese.

Tom the Piper's Son said...

Thanks for the comment Persephone!
reading your posts and that of my other pals, i don't know how i could've stayed away so long. Glad to hear Lucien is such a fine chap!

Tom the Piper's Son said...


Thanks for the post. Lubitsch has been my favorite of late.

Actually, "Shop" is also my personal favorite of his films. In fact, i chose to write about it in a "research paper" just recently, so i was looking forward to putting a word or two in about something different about Lubitsch elsewhere and "Trouble" was next in line.

I look forward as well to seeing the musicals. Lubitsch was a bit of a musician himself and a great listener as well. I think the musicality comes through in his pacing, the transitions between scenes, the undertones of emotion, his use of silence...certainly "Shop" is one a poem - i wouldn't trade it for any other film right now.

Michael Leddy said...

Great post. I was lucky to happen across the Criterion Trouble in Paradise in the library last year. I like Peter Bogdanovich's comment in the extras: "You think to yourself, 'This was made in 1932 for general audiences.' What happened?"