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The "Lubitsch Touch"


speedracer5
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I recently started getting into more of Ernst Lubitsch's films.  What sets him apart from some of his contemporaries, in my opinion, are the more sophisticated settings, situations and humor.  His films are similar to two other directors whose films I like: Preston Sturges and George Cukor.  

 

I know that Lubitsch's films are frequently deemed as having "The Lubitsch Touch."  What exactly is "The Lubitsch Touch" ? How are his films different than others who made similar urbane comedies? While I'm enjoying his films, I haven't figured out what it is that separates his films from other films from the same time period.  

 

I've seen Heaven Can Wait, which I love.  I bought it on Criterion.  In that film, first and foremost, it made me a fan of Don Ameche.  I love his voice.  Second, in that film, I love the setting and the storyline.  Third, the cast (Ameche, Gene Tierney, Laird Cregar, Eugene Pallette and Marjorie Main are excellent).  

 

I've also seen most of Design For Living.  I fell asleep during the film--however, that's not because the film was boring or anything like that.  At 32, I am apparently too old to start watching movies at 10pm, without copious amounts of Coke or coffee.  From what I saw of the film, I really liked it.

 

Right now, I'm watching Ninotchka.  I also have The Smiling Lieutenant and Trouble in Paradise saved on my DVR, but I haven't watched them yet. 

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Subtlety, a sly suggestive glance, a sexual innuendo, particularly during the pre-code period. That's Lubitsch.

 

In particular, Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald and Miriam Hopkins, those three performers really prospered under Lubitsch's direction during that period.

 

But one of the greatest of all musical comedies was LOVE ME TONIGHT, a Paramount musical comedy froth from 1932, with songs by Rodgers and Hart, in a film which reunited Chevalier and MacDonald once again.

 

The film has a marvelous supporting cast including Charlie Ruggles, C. Aubrey Smith and Myrna Loy, with much sly innuendo humour.

 

As an illustration of the latter, Loy's character is completely man hungry in the film. At one point Ruggles, in response to someone's illness, encounters Loy and asks her if she could go for a doctor.

 

"Sure," the lady replies, "Bring him in."

 

The only thing is Love Me Tonight is a Lubitsch-inspired film NOT directed by Lubitsch. The man at the helm this time was Rouben Mamoulian, the inventive director of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde the year before. And in the musical genre here he is no less inventive, he and his photographer producing some stunning camerawork.

 

As an illustration of Mamoulian's technique in this film take a look at the following clip. This is the scene that introduced the world to one of the great romantic song classics of all time, "Isn't It Romantic?" (Just ask Billy Wilder, he seemed to use it in half his screen romances).

 

 

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Maybe an example to help understand is two films Lubitsch started at 20th Century Fox, but didn't complete because of failing health, A ROYAL SCANDAL (1945) and THAT LADY IN ERMINE (1948) (he died during the filming of the latter, I believe).  In both cases Fox had Otto Preminger complete them; a more temperamentally less suited director for the material I can"t think of, although he had directed sophisticated stage material.  Anyway, despite game casts and funny Lubitsch-esque situations, their is something leaden with the released films.  Sort of like a souffle that didn't rise.  

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Reading elsewhere about the "Lubitsch Touch" you find quite of bit of - I don't know how to describe it, but I know it when I see it - type of comments.  Some refer to setting or style, and others in the storytelling. 

 

Billy Wilder LOVED Lubitsch's films and his style of storytelling.  Wilder kept a sign over his office door which asked, How would Lubitsch do it?

 

When asked about the Lubitsch Touch, Wilder responded:

"It was the elegant use of the Superjoke.  You had a joke, and you felt satisfied, and then there was one more big joke on top of it.  The joke you didn't expect.  That was the Lubitsch Touch."

 

The story goes, when Lubitsch died in 1947, even at his funeral there was, I believe, a Lubitsch touch. Wilder bemoaned, "No more Lubitsch."  William Wyler responded, "Worse than that. No more Lubitsch pictures."  

 

When I watch Wilder's Sabrina or his Love in the Afternoon, I see his homage and respect to Lubitsch.  When I watch Wyler's Roman Holiday, I see his take on the Lubitsch Touch too.

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I've also seen most of Design For Living.  I fell asleep during the film--however, that's not because the film was boring or anything like that.  At 32, I am apparently too old to start watching movies at 10pm, without copious amounts of Coke or coffee.  From what I saw of the film, I really liked it.

 

Gurl, yu stay away from that nose candy. it ain't gone do nuthin but eat yu alive.

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"gleefully immoral" would be a big part of the Lubitsch Touch- not obscuring, sidestepping, or sugarcoating the greedy and lascivious impulses that REAL PEOPLE in REAL LIFE actually have, but portraying them in a way that is rather humorous and charming....even endearing (as in TROUBLE IN PARADISE or HEAVEN CAN WAIT.)

 

I don't recommend DESIGN FOR LIVING, even though j'adore Mimsy Hopkins- there's just not a lot to it and Cooper really can't keep up with the talent involved.

 

I HIGHLY recommend CLUNY BROWN (1946) tho- it was Lubitsch's last completed film and it is AN UTTER DELIGHT FROM START TO FINISH.

 

In fact, I can't think of any other classic film I would recommend more to someone who hasn't seen it than CLUNY BROWN.

 

(it shows up on youtube from time to time, and Fox Movie Channel,  Tcm showed it once on Christmas Eve years ago.)

 

...there is also a Lux Radio Version, but it's not as good as the movie and the audience that Boyer and Jennifer Jones are performing in front of keeps cracking up at the jokes- as well they should- but it distracts and gives the whole affair kind of a sitcom feeling.

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The only thing is Love Me Tonight is a Lubitsch-inspired film NOT directed by Lubitsch. The man at the helm this time was Rouben Mamoulian, the inventive director of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde the year before. And in the musical genre here he is no less inventive, he and his photographer producing some stunning camerawork.

 

I love Lubitsch, but Mamoulian as you say was a great innovator. I don't think I would call Love Me Tonight, one of the greatest of all musical movies, a Lubitsch-inspired film. They were both inspired in their choice of subject by the operetta trends of an earlier time -- as Noel Coward was with Bitter Sweet -- but Love Me Tonight is very much Mamoulian's own brilliant concoction. I was recently admiring Mamoulian's earlier Applause (1929), in particular the shot of postpartum Helen Morgan, with her dancer colleagues admiring her and the baby, from the supine Morgan's perspective, as "Turkey Trot" is being performed onstage in the background. Great shot.

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Reading elsewhere about the "Lubitsch Touch" you find quite of bit of - I don't know how to describe it, but I know it when I see it - type of comments.  Some refer to setting or style, and others in the storytelling. 

 

Billy Wilder LOVED Lubitsch's films and his style of storytelling.  Wilder kept a sign over his office door which asked, How would Lubitsch do it?

 

When asked about the Lubitsch Touch, Wilder responded:

"It was the elegant use of the Superjoke.  You had a joke, and you felt satisfied, and then there was one more big joke on top of it.  The joke you didn't expect.  That was the Lubitsch Touch."

 

The story goes, when Lubitsch died in 1947, even at his funeral there was, I believe, a Lubitsch touch. Wilder bemoaned, "No more Lubitsch."  William Wyler responded, "Worse than that. No more Lubitsch pictures."  

 

When I watch Wilder's Sabrina or his Love in the Afternoon, I see his homage and respect to Lubitsch.  When I watch Wyler's Roman Holiday, I see his take on the Lubitsch Touch too.

If there were no Lubitsch, there would not have even BEEN a Billy Wilder as we know him. He was his direct directorial descendant.

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For some reason, I tend to prefer Lubitsch's later work at Fox-- especially HEAVEN CAN WAIT and CLUNY BROWN (both have rather contrived stories, but they're fun). 

 

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However, my favorite Lubitsch picture from his period at Paramount in the 30s is one nobody talks about-- BLUEBEARD'S EIGHTH WIFE. I refuse to believe people haven't heard of it or seen it. It's too good to pass up! In fact, anyone who hasn't watched it deserves a good spanking.

 

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For some reason, I tend to prefer Lubitsch's later work at Fox-- especially HEAVEN CAN WAIT and CLUNY BROWN (both have rather contrived stories, but they're fun). 

 

Screen%2Bshot%2B2016-09-11%2Bat%2B1.52.4

 

However, my favorite Lubitsch picture from his period at Paramount in the 30s is one nobody talks about-- BLUEBEARD'S EIGHTH WIFE. I refuse to believe people haven't heard of it or seen it. It's too good to pass up! In fact, anyone who hasn't watched it deserves a good spanking.

 

Screen%2Bshot%2B2016-09-11%2Bat%2B1.52.1

 

Bluebeard's 8th Wife is a fine comic film.    How could it not be with a screenplay by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder and with Lubitsch at the helm.      Lubitsch was able to get fine comic performances from Cooper.

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Bluebeard's 8th Wife is a fine comic film.    How could it not be with a screenplay by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder and with Lubitsch at the helm.      Lubitsch was able to get fine comic performances from Cooper.

 

Yes-- a winning combination of behind the scenes and on-camera talent. Another thing that stands out is the art direction by Hans Dreier and Robert Usher as well as those exquisite set pieces by A.E. Freudeman. It's a gorgeous film.

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