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15 September 2013

Ernst Lubitsch

Ernst Lubitsch (1892-1947) was a German-American actor, screenwriter, producer and film director, who started his career in the silent cinema of the Weimar Republic. During the 1920s, his urbane comedies of manners gave him the reputation of being Hollywood's most elegant and sophisticated director. His films were promoted as having ‘the Lubitsch touch.’

Ernst Lubitsch
German postcard by Verlag Hermann Leiser, Berlin-Wilm., no. 1926. Photo: Fritz Richard. Collection: Didier Hanson.

Ethnic Jewish Humour


Ernst Lubitsch was born in Berlin, Germany, in 1892. He was the son of Anna (née Lindenstaedt) and Simon Lubitsch, a tailor. His family was Ashkenazi Jewish, his father born in Grodno and his mother from Wriezen (Oder), outside Berlin. Ernst was drawn to the stage while participating in plays staged by his high school, which he quit at 16.

He worked as a bookkeeper at his father's store by day and appeared in cabarets and music halls by night. By 1911, he was a member of Max Reinhardt's renowned Deutsches Theater, where he quickly advanced from bit parts to character leads.

He made his film debut the following year and appeared in approximately thirty films between 1912 and 1920. Lubitsch appeared in a series of very successful film comedies as a character named Meyer in which he emphasized ethnic Jewish humour.

In 1914 he began to write and direct his own films, and made his mark as a serious director with the drama Die Augen der Mumie Ma/The Eyes of the Mummy (Ernst Lubitsch, 1918), starring Pola Negri. He gradually abandoned acting to concentrate on directing and his last film appearance was opposite Pola Negri and Paul Wegener in the drama Sumurun (Ernst Lubitsch, 1920).

Ernst Lubitsch, Ossi Oswalda
With Ossi Oswalda. German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 337/1, 1919-1924. Photo: Zander & Labisch.

Pola Negri
Pola Negri. German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 407/1, 1919-1924. Photo: Rembrandt Phot.

Emil Jannings and Henny Porten
Emil Jannings as the British king Henry VIII and Henny Porten as Anna Boleyn, in Anna Boleyn (1920). German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 645/3, 1919-1924. Photo: Union Film.

Grand Master


As a director, Lubitsch alternated between escapist comedies and large-scale historical dramas, enjoying great international success with both. A triumph was Die Austernprinzessin/The Oyster Princess (Ernst Lubitsch, 1919), featuring Ossi Oswalda, a sparkling satire caricaturizing American manners.

His reputation as a grand master of world cinema reached a new peak after the release of his spectacles Madame Du Barry/Passion (Ernst Lubitsch, 1919) with Pola Negri, and Anna Boleyn/Deception (Ernst Lubitsch, 1920) starring Henny Porten and Emil Jannings. Both of these films found American distributorship by early 1921.

They, along with his Carmen/Gypsy Blood (Ernst Lubitsch, 1921) were selected by The New York Times on its list of the 15 most important movies of 1921. With glowing reviews under his belt, and American money flowing his way, Lubitsch formed his own production company and made the high-budget spectacular Das Weib des Pharao/The Loves of Pharaoh (Ernst Lubitsch, 1921).

Henny Porten, Anna Boleyn
Henny Porten as Anna Boleyn, in Anna Boleyn (1920). German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 401/3, 1919-1924. Photo: Rembrandt Phot. / Messter Film, Berlin.

Henny Porten, Anna Boleyn
Henny Porten as Anna Boleyn, in Anna Boleyn (1920). German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 402/4, 1919-1924. Photo: Rembrandt Phot. / Messter Film, Berlin.

Hollywood


Ernst Lubitsch left Germany for Hollywood in 1922. He was contracted by Mary Pickford to direct her in the film Rosita (1922). The result was a critical and commercial success, but director and star clashed during its filming, and it ended up as the only project that they made together.

A free agent after just one American film, Lubitsch was signed to a remarkable three-year, six-picture contract by Warner Brothers that guaranteed the director his choice of both cast and crew, and full editing control over the final cut. Settling in America, Lubitsch established his reputation for sophisticated comedy with such stylish films as The Marriage Circle (1924), Lady Windermere's Fan (1925), and So This Is Paris (1926).

But his films were only marginally profitable for Warner Brothers, and Lubitsch's contract was eventually dissolved by mutual consent, with MGM-Paramount buying out the remainder. His first film for MGM, The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927) with Ramon Novarro, was well regarded, but lost money.

Ramon Novarro, Norma Shearer, The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg
Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer. German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 98/6. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Publicity still for The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (Ernst Lubitsch, 1927).

Ramon Novarro, Norma Shearer, The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg
Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer. German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 98/10. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Publicity still for The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (Ernst Lubitsch, 1927).

Musicals


Lubitsch seized upon the advent of talkies to direct musicals. With his first sound film, The Love Parade (1929), starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, Lubitsch hit his stride as a maker of worldly musical comedies and earned himself another Oscar nomination.

The Love Parade (1929), Monte Carlo (1930), and The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) were hailed by critics as masterpieces of the newly emerging musical genre. Lubitsch served on the faculty of the University of Southern California for a time.

His next film was a romantic comedy, written with Samson Raphaelson, Trouble in Paradise (1932). The cynical comedy was popular both with critics and with audiences. But it was a project that could only have been made before the enforcement of the Production Code, and after 1935, Trouble in Paradise was withdrawn from circulation. It was not seen again until 1968.

Maurice Chevalier and Jeannette MacDonald
Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald. Dutch postcard. JosPé, no. 402. Photo: Paramount.

Maurice Chevalier & Miriam Hopkins in The Smiling Lieutenant
Maurice Chevalier and Miriam Hopkins. German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 5976/1, 1931-1932. Photo: Paramount. Publicity still for The Smiling Lieutenant (Ernst Lubitsch, 1931).

Running Paramount


Ernst Lubitsch continued to specialize in comedy, whether with music, as in MGM's opulent The Merry Widow (1934) and Paramount's One Hour with You (1932), or without, as in Design for Living (1933).

He made only one other dramatic film, the anti-war Broken Lullaby/The Man I Killed (1932).

In 1935, he was appointed Paramount's production manager, thus becoming the only major Hollywood director to run a large studio. But Lubitsch had trouble delegating authority, which was a problem when he was overseeing sixty different films. He was fired after a year on the job, and returned to full-time moviemaking.

Maurice Chevalier
Maurice Chevalier. Dutch postcard, no. 196. Photo: Paramount. Publicity still for The Smiling Lieutenant (Ernst Lubitsch, 1931).

Maurice Chevalier
Maurice Chevalier. German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 6709/1, 1931-1932. Photo: Paramount.

Garbo Laughs!


In 1935 he married British actress Vivian Gaye. They had one daughter, Nicola Lubitsch in 1938. And in 1936, he became a naturalized US citizen.

Lubitsch moved to MGM, and directed Greta Garbo in Ninotchka (1939). The famously serious actress' laughing scene in this satirical comedy was heavily promoted by studio publicists with the tagline "Garbo Laughs!"

In 1940, Lubitsch directed The Shop Around the Corner, an artful comedy of cross purposes. The film reunited Lubitsch with his Merry Widow screenwriter Raphaelson, and starred James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as a pair of bickering co-workers in Budapest, each unaware that the other is their secret romantic correspondent.

Roland Young, Genevieve Tobin, Jeanette MacDonald, Maurice Chevalier
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 6732/1, 1931-1932. Photo: Paramount. Publicity still for One Hour with You (Ernst Lubitsch, 1932) with Roland Young, Genevieve Tobin, Jeanette MacDonald, and Maurice Chevalier.

Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Ninotchka
Belgian collector's card by Kwatta, no. C 181. Photo: MGM. Publicity still for Ninotschka (Ernst Lubitsch, 1939) with Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas.

Heaven Can Wait


Lubitsch went independent to direct That Uncertain Feeling (1941, a remake of his 1925 film Kiss Me Again), and the dark anti-Nazi farce To Be or Not to Be (1942). A heart condition curtailed his activity, and he spent much of his time in supervisory capacities.

Heaven Can Wait (1943) was another Raphaelson collaboration. Then, Lubitsch worked with Edwin Justus Mayer on the scripting process of A Royal Scandal (1945), a remake of Lubitsch's silent film A Forbidden Paradise. The script was written and prepared under Lubitsch, and he was the original director of this film, and directed the rehearsals. He became ill during shooting, so hired Otto Preminger to do the rest of the shooting.

After A Royal Scandal, Lubitsch regained his health, and directed Cluny Brown (1946), with Charles Boyer and Jennifer Jones. In 1947, he was awarded a Special Academy Award. Ernst Lubitsch died later that year in Hollywood of a heart attack, his sixth. His last film, That Lady in Ermine (1948) with Betty Grable, was completed by Otto Preminger and released posthumously.


Meyer aus Berlin/Meyer from Berlin (Ernst Lubitsch, 1919). Source: Bob Toomey (YouTube)


Trailer for Ninotschka (Ernst Lubitsch, 1939). Source: OscarMovieTrailers (You Tube).

Sources: Ephraim Katz (The Film Encyclopedia), William McPeak (IMDb), Wikipedia and IMDb.

1 comment:

Bunched Undies said...

Amazingly productive career but still died relatively young. I learned a lot form this post.