It’s hard to comprehend how Ernst Lubitsch — one of the wittiest, most subversive filmmakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age — could be so overlooked by today’s film fans. Luminaries adored him: Alfred Hitchcock counted the German-born director as an influence, and Billy Wilder had a sign in his office that asked, “How would Lubitsch do it?” But popular opinion has been less reverent.
Here to remedy the oversight is film historian Joseph McBride, whose new book, “How Did Lubitsch Do It?,” reacquaints readers with the director’s genius while pondering how he slipped from our collective memory.
Revisiting the German-born filmmaker’s singular vision is a worthy task. “Through his eyes,” McBride writes, “we can live vicariously in that artificial, largely imaginary world he created and which he made so much more alluring than the messy world outside the movie palaces or the video screens of our day.”
Lubitsch films, McBride declares, became known for “embodying an ever-fresh, delightful, tantalizing, slyly witty blend of style and substance” known as the “Lubitsch touch,” and he was a pro at getting around the censors. When two characters begin to kiss in “Trouble in Paradise,” for example, the camera cuts to a hand hanging a “Do not disturb” sign on the door. That may seem cliche now, but in the early 1930s, it was a sly maneuver to conjure up a steamy scene without actually showing one.
The director himself may have said it best when he said, “I do not make German or American films, but rather Lubitsch films.” Like Quentin Tarantino or Wes Anderson today, the filmmaker crafted stories that could only happen in a Lubitsch world. He was also ahead of his time with depictions of sexually liberated themes. As early as 1918, he toyed with gender roles in “I Don’t Want to be a Man.”
At Paramount Studios, Lubitsch created some of the first integrated musicals, including 1929’s “The Love Parade” and “One Hour With You” in 1932. That year, Lubitsch also made one of his most beloved films, “Trouble in Paradise,” a romantic comedy about two criminals falling in love featuring dialogue replete with censor-dodging double entendres.
These early sound films used what McBride calls “visual shorthand” that baited the audience by dancing around taboo subjects, often involving sex, class, gender or nationality. Mary Pickford once described Lubitsch as a “director of doors,” because he used doors the way other directors used cigarettes. Instead of showing the aftermath of a sexual encounter with two people smoking — a common trope in classic films — he encouraged us to imagine what was going on behind the image of a closed door.
Lubitsch made a series of edgy films during the “pre-code” era, before censorship employed rules instead of loose guidelines. A film such as “Design for Living” (1933), about a risque living arrangement that leads to a love triangle, wouldn’t get made after the code got its teeth. Lines such as, “It’s true we have a gentleman’s agreement, but unfortunately I’m no gentleman,” would be too hot for the times. In fact, the film was the first to be condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency. Its re-release was prevented for years, and remakes were also forbidden by censors.
As formal censorship took hold in Hollywood, Lubitsch found himself in a difficult spot, unable to produce the sexually progressive films that made him famous. After rethinking his approach, Lubitsch managed to direct some remarkable films, such as the sly anti-communist “Ninotchka” (1939), which features a cunning, sassy and witty Greta Garbo, “You’ve Got Mail” precursor “The Shop Around the Corner” (1940) and the sharp anti-Nazi yarn “To Be or Not To Be” (1942).
Since Lubitsch’s day, McBride observes a consistent decline in sophisticated comedy, which has been replaced by shock humor and profanity. The author fears that “the trends that have dumbed down our society” — such as “the decline of our educational system, the widespread loss of interest in the past, the frenetic acceleration of the pace of life, [and] the aggressive forces of political ignorance” — explain, in part, why interest in historic films has waned.
However, McBride remains optimistic. Access to films new and old is on the rise, which means that more people may discover hidden gems, sparking renewed interest in Lubitsch and other Golden Age filmmakers. McBride’s study serves as both a biography and a cultural history of Europe’s influence on Hollywood that will be a great companion for those interested in underexplored comedies in film history.
Chris Yogerst is the author of “From the Headlines to Hollywood: The Birth and Boom of Warner Bros.” He is working on a book about the 1941 Senate investigation of motion picture propaganda.
By Joseph McBride
Columbia University Press. 576 pp. $40