The title is nearly As I Lay Dying, rather more as a matter of fact, As I Lay Dead.
Lubitsch portrays Ernst, Ernst Lubitsch, it’s a custom of the silents to be oneself on occasion, or nearly.
A game at the chess club calls him away, his mother-in-law locks him out.
They think he’s dead, he answers an ad for a valet, in disguise.
Who falls for him but the mother-in-law and is sent packing?
Three-quarters of the film remains at present, intermittently.
“I wear the pants in this house,” he says.
“You mean the underpants,” the mother-in-law says, regarding him.
A Mozart of the shoe trade, whose expulsion from school and dismissal from one shoe shop leads to his hiring at another, where the art of selling shoes to women begins to dawn, and that prepares the great revelation.
The beautiful footwear is credited right after the stars to Emil Jacobi’s Berlin firm, Friedrichstr., Taubenstr.
Das fidele Gefängnis
A fast three acts of Straussian comedy on married life in half the time, five reels.
The wife’s suitor goes to jail for a kiss, the roving husband is unmasked at a costume ball, the drunken perspective gives the maid away at last.
The German titles, the charm of its realism, the bravura enjoyment of the players, make The Jolly Jail enchanting.
The Eyes of the Mummy
Die Augen der Mumie Ma is clearly inspired by one of those tourist paintings (John Singer Sargent, even) depicting a dancing girl in Egyptian garb, the rest can be deduced.
Variety was not alone in its infamous condemnation, such things were fashionable.
Ma (Pola Negri) works the eyes in a tomb, the painter Albert Wendland (Harry Liedtke) rescues her and smites her keeper Radu (Emil Jannings).
She’s a hit at the Alhambra à la Scheherazade, Radu is brought to Europe by Prince Hohenfels, stabs Wendland’s painting of Ma, then kills her and himself.
“Too late!”, Wendland says, finding her body.
The remarks in Picture Play are rather perceptive and deserve to be cited extensively.
“...until you see Pola Negri, you never have seen a real, honest-to-badness Carmen. Ernest Lubitsch, who also directed Passion, has drawn the screen story from the novel by Prosper Mérimée and not from the ‘doctored’ libretto of Bizet’s opera.
“Carmen, as she is depicted on the operatic stage, is a beautiful, elegantly gowned and high-spirited gypsy girl who is just a bit of a flirt. Triana, the gypsy quarter of Seville, is a colorful but clean place. The cabaret, conducted by Lillas Pastia, looks like a modern Palais de Danse and the smugglers are like irreproachable gentlemen garbed for a fancy dress ball.
“Lubitsch and Pola Negri have discarded all the tinsel and trappings. La Carmencita, as played by Miss Negri, is a disreputable, low-down and rowdy gypsy girl. Her clothes are in atrocious taste, her finery is shabby, and her morals are unquestionable. That is to say, they are unquestionably bad. Miss Negri doesn’t try to look pretty, play to the camera, or attempt to be alluring. She simply gives a marvelously faithful picture of a vulgar, ignorant and wanton gypsy girl.
“Triana is shown as a down-at-the-heels and filthy slum. The cabaret of Lillas Pastia is transformed into an ugly saloon, and the smugglers are a set of regular crooks. Even Don José is no hero. He is merely a Spanish peasant who is foolish enough to be taken in by the wiles of an elemental and primitive girl.”
Lubitsch’s dramatic analysis is very useful and deserves, in its turn, the rememoration by Sternberg in The Devil Is a Woman, Wilder in A Foreign Affair, Lang in Moonfleet, and himself as the basis in a roundabout way of The Love Parade.
A key film for Lubitsch, enchantingly realized with great precision, typically.
Meyer aus Berlin
Upon doctor’s orders, earnestly entreated by himself, he must into free Nature go, even leaving behind the maid, away from his wife, to the Tyrol.
Garbed for this, bergstock and all, Meyer from Berlin takes the No. 11, eventually reaching the hotel and a young affianced beauty, rather mountainous, who writes of him to her betrothed as “harmless”.
They climb the Watzmann and spend the night in the berghütte, joined unbeknownst by wife and fiancé.
“Have you ever been up the Watzmann,” Meyer asks the fiancé next morning. The answer is negative. “Then you can’t really discuss it, can you?”
The title role is played by Lubitsch.
The original of Rosita.
“One of the pre-eminent motion pictures of the present cinematographic age” (New York Times).
According to Film4, “it lacks the sparkle this material needs.”
Melbourne Cinematheque, “one of the milestones of silent cinema.”
Cp. The Eyes of the Mummy, with the same leading players.
Being an English version by Kino of Die Puppe, with amateur titles and piano music replacing the originals.
Which is very funny, because it’s about a shy young man who marries a mechanical doll to give his dowry to a monastery that hides him from forty count ‘em forty women after his knee-shaking self, nephew to the Baron.
The director personally erects the set out of a toybox.
The innkeeper Kohlhiesel’s daughters are an ox, the elder who tends cow and bar with the very same hands, and the younger, a feminine version of this who brings in trade and breaks a phallic object from her vanity table over her piggy-bank to buy a brummagem brooch for showing off with (no-one cares), leaving the piggy-bank unscathed.
This is sometimes called a village Taming of the Shrew but it’s something different, one of the funniest films ever made and one of the best, with rustic titles always amusing, Emil Jannings as the suitor going from Wallace Beery to Zero Mostel, snow scenery around the high village, and both girls played by Henny Porten.
Romeo und Julia im Schnee
An intensely funny homegrown version of the play in the style of Kohlhiesels Töchter.
The Montekugerls and the Capulethofers seek justice in the prelude, “nothing, neither way.”
Juliet has an idiot suitor, who is last seen when all the fuss is done eating fruitcake unconcernedly.
The slave trader and the merchant, the dancing girl and the clown, the harem and the eunuchs, the sheik and the prince.
The girls torture their guardians by dropping balls from a balcony, or fruit.
The world lost a great actor when Lubitsch went behind the camera.
A passionate tale of love and prerogatives out of the Arabian Nights, old Baghdad is a paradise of sorts, the lovers depart from the fountain in its midst like Adam and Eve.
The striking effect of the drama is to see Tudor portraiture come to life or made into a film.
Anne loves Sir Henry Norris, marries the King, repulses Smeaton’s advances, bears a daughter, is denounced and sent to the axe.
A badly-cropped transfer gives no idea of the pictures and is practically useless.
The Catamount shows why “you have to have a circus inside you to play comedy.”
The robber chieftain’s daughter, the original smiling lieutenant, the fortress commander’s daughter, the tearful brigand.
Das Weib des Pharao
The slave girl Theonis, beloved of Ramphis, whose life is spared to work at the quarry.
King Amenes has contracted a political alliance with King Samlak of Ethiopia, whose daughter was to be Queen of Egypt.
And so, there is war with Ethiopia, the slaves revolt, Amenes lies on the battlefield. Theonis rules, with Ramphis as King.
Amenes returns, the two are stoned to death by the crowd, Pharaoh crowned again dies on the spot.
Half the film is missing here or there, replaced by title legends.
The monumentality of the great scenes rivals anything, the wit is in the construction of the story, Ariadne’s thread amid labyrinthine splendors.
The opening swift gag is one of the best by anybody.
It was filmed with the greatest skill in Hollywood, Leisen and Menzies for costumes and sets.
Motion Picture Classics saw that Pola Negri was facing “oblivion” in the same story (The Spanish Dancer, dir. Herbert Brenon) after Lubitsch and Pickford. The New York Times writer did not sign his review, probably carried away, “not a dull moment from beginning to end.”
The King takes to his mistress a beggarly street-singer who has razzed him for spoiling her trade with processions. He sets her up in a grand establishment, her and her dirt-floor family.
An officer has been killed arresting her, the captain who fought him is due to be hanged. Rosita is to have a title by marriage (the servants are laughing) or she leaves, the King is informed. He marries her to the captain, then has him executed.
The Queen, who knows her King, takes a hand at this point. Bergman is decades away, Renoir very soon.
The Marriage Circle
Three couples, unhappily-married, blissfully-married and just-met, comprising five persons in all. A sixth merely figures as a momentary stand-in.
The interplay of characters calls for the Lubitsch deadpan, a flat response to invidious circumstances that covers an armed retreat of the mind to a field of vantage. He is also very good at slow apperception and quick sleights. The dapper sleight-of-hand is from the immemorial stage.
The first husband seeks to shed himself of a loveless wife, who pursues the devoted husband of a jewel beset by a suitor, who in the end discovers the divorcée.
This was not thought to be profound, by Photoplay.
Lady Windermere’s Fan
“Lubitsch’s best silent film,” says the most observant critic, “full of incisive details, discreet touches, nuances of gestures, where behavior betrays the character and discloses the sentiment of the personages.” (George Sadoul)
Variety and The American Cinema criticize the film in terms that suggest the play is not The Importance of Being Earnest, Sarris making it a point to say that Lubitsch has improved Wilde.
The only compliment more magnificent than Shaw’s envy and deprecation and emulation of Wilde (he did not like The Importance of Being Earnest) is the one paid by Lubitsch and then John Gielgud, that of taking him seriously.
A double faux pas, the second averted through cognizance of the first, and all the machinery of the play is brought to bear on either one.
The secret of the Lubitsch touch in this instance is a complete preparation in The Marriage Circle freeing the director for the most minutely exacting work day by day in the studio, or else his analysis of the play, or else there is no such thing as a Lubitsch touch.
So This Is Paris
The Lubitsch equation, Einsteinian logic. If Mme. Giraud falls for the Sheik, M. Giraud knew the Sheik’s wife in a former marriage.
Das fidele Gefängnis. “I am amused to meet you.”
Monsieur’s stick is abandoned, flittered, reformed, purloined, twirled, dreamed, swallowed, and flung into a fireplace.
It does very well until the student prince at the “ordinary” gasthof is regaled with the virtues of an “impossible” room. “You can sit on it! You can lie down on it! You can’t ask any more from a couch!” By which point, a third into the picture, Lubitsch is in full sway.
Penn’s great lovemaking scene in Bonnie and Clyde here takes place on a flowery hill at night, Lubitsch adds a meteor (the one on little Prince Karl Heinrich’s cap at the bahnhof).
The lovers’ adieu is on this hill, bare of flowers. King Karl VIII of Karlsburg weds Princess Ilse of Altenburg, and there’s an end.
Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times noted the pleasure taken by an audience at the Astor, admired Hersholt and Seyffertitz but not Shearer or Novarro, and to have missed Shearer is to have missed it all (“like Mr. Novarro, she does not respond, as other players have done, to Mr. Lubitsch’s direction”). Hall noted further “his exteriors in Heidelberg, which was a happy idea”.
The Love Parade
The beauty of the plot construction is a figure eight with the marriage of Count Alfred to Queen Louise at its intersection. Paris takes the first half, Sylvania the second (“Pennsylvania”, Alfred’s valet calls it).
The Love Parade is every girl in one, the Queen. “It can be said that this is the first true screen musical,” said Variety.
Truffaut admired the charm, the hard work, the princeliness of Lubitsch, but what he couldn’t believe was Lubitsch’s plots, that they existed. “Everything happens while we are looking at the film.” So far was he beguiled by the Lubitsch touch.
There never was a film better-made in this way, it’s absolutely perfect.
The Count is rebuked for his Parisian imbroglios, the Queen in her turn for wasting the country’s economy.
In that sense, The Love Parade arrives just in time for the stock market crash, to redeem the Lost Generation.
Lubitsch’s greatest and funniest satire, in a way, coming as it does on the heels of the stock market crash.
The Countess won’t marry the rich and quite idle Duke, she’s off to Monte Carlo with one maid and ten thousand francs, planning to acquire a fortune.
Perfectly foolish, but the Count is smitten and even submits to being her hairdresser (added to a staff hired on spec), all his ministrations add up to The Rape of the Lock (cf. Tashlin’s Caprice).
The film was much and intelligently praised on its release, particularly for Lubitsch’s use of sound (including the love song famously delivered over the telephone).
The common point with Ashby’s Shampoo is likely Monsieur Beaucaire, the opera seen onstage for the classic revelation, which sets up the final curious analogy to L’Année dernière à Marienbad.
The Smiling Lieutenant
A variant of The Love Parade, here the emphasis is richly on the princess’s dowdiness.
The plot mechanism that gives the title has to be considered a bolt from the blue.
Flausenthurm is a ludicrous pile next to Vienna, but the girl who intercepts that grin makes it welcome after all.
One hour with you
The great pianist Alfred Brendel is a writer of excellent German verses as well, he was asked once why the English versions he oversees are so much terser. “The sounds,” he said, with his round blue eyes and profoundly musical face, Viennese.
That’s just the sort of anecdote that begins a London Review of Books article, thank God this isn’t one, otherwise it should go on and on and never surpass its incipit. And what, then, is the point?
That has nothing whatever to do with Lubitsch’s remake of The Marriage Circle, but it’s just as well to broach the argument, so as to be done with it.
What matters is that one’s tie is absolutely correct. Fellini’s private eye (Giulietta degli spiriti), Edwards’ dinner (The Party), Pinter’s confrontation (The Collection), Lewis in The Big Mouth attired as Prof. Kelp to pass through a Rolls-Royce and gain entrance at the hotel. The Pumpkin Eater (“Well, you’re not the bloody Duke anyway”).
Trouble in Paradise
If there is a Lubitsch touch, it is here in spades, so that there is no mistake about it.
You will note that even after the crash there is aplomb and larceny and gossip.
Truffaut was busy following the plot. Blake Edwards was not.
Lubitsch couldn’t care less, even the jokemeisters at RKO have nothing on him, nobody has.
Chaplin (Monsieur Verdoux) and Elaine May (A New Leaf) are onto it also, among many others.
“Not good cinema,” said Variety. Mordaunt Hall insisted, positively insisted, “surely” after all it “points no moral and the tale it tells is scant and innocuous” and etc.
If I Had a Million
“It is better to give than to receive.”
Eighty minutes of genius on the subject, supervised and partly directed by Lubitsch.
Design for Living
It’s all a question of artistic economy. Our girl, the advertising artiste, shows our boys how to triumph in the West End and the Louvre, or something quite like it, but she marries the boss and China receives their exile.
The boss is too dull for words and pictures, she lights out with the boys.
Coward, Hecht, Lubitsch, any one of these is sufficient, two impossible, all of them entirely too much.
The Merry Widow
Lubitsch at M-G-M, gloriously rich beyond his wildest dreams, exercises it all for that last scene in the jail cell, the widow and Count Danilo in the same boat.
Here again is the variant of The Love Parade and a central film in itself.
Much has been written on the waltz scenes, less on the paroxysm at Maxim’s.
The influence is profound on Richard Lester (Finders Keepers), Terence Young (Black Tights, Petit’s “Deuil en 24 heures”, also Triple Cross for the women’s ward), Gordon Flemyng (Great Catherine, with several Lubitsch themes), Roman Polanski (the flock in Chinatown), and many others.
The structure is deceptive, an armature of Lubitsch jokes that must be carefully analyzed to reveal the actual workings, and that is another of the best jokes.
The material is gone over later and definitively in That Uncertain Feeling, here the maximum of mirror-play and ambiguity makes for an appearance of carelessness, even.
The diplomat is a bore with his telegrams and subcommittees, but the world is headed for war. The lover is a fool for his Angel, but she is a gift from the gods.
The world can go hang, in the end.
Paroxysms of the Lubitsch touch (Truffaut admired the dinner scene greatly) lead to the exact opposite, a pie in the face (the chartered plane).
Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife
Even American critics had a hard time understanding this, what with pajama tops and bottoms, Czechoslovakia spelled backwards to induce sleep, the penurious nobleman yet to appear in Neame’s The Million Pound Note, the bathing harbor at Nice not yet in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief, the Museum of Fine Arts in Hannibal, Michigan (“my home town”, says Cooper), Louis XIV’s washbasin and Madame Du Barry, the League of Nations, the boxing beard, Colbert’s gold lamé gown (an impossibility for Gehry, a snap for Wright), America in for France, generations of it, six months before the Munich Pact.
“I have no gift of prophecy, but I see you ending up with a library.”
Truffaut’s analysis applies here above all. “His cinema is the opposite of the vague, the imprecise, the unformulated, the incommunicable. There’s not a single shot just for decoration; nothing is included just because it looks good. From beginning to end, we are involved only in what’s essential.”
Baudelaire’s “Landscape” is indicated for the source and center of the movie. “We have the high ideals, and they have the climate.”
Some qualities of the theme are further considered in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Sweet Bird of Youth, others in To Be or Not to Be and Doctor Zhivago (Halliwell’s notion that the last half-hour “certainly sags” is a particularly giddy view).
Nowadays she dresses in corporate fashion, which means a suit that doesn’t fit or Sessue Hayakawa’s Kwai uniform and hair that hides, but she says the same things, and she’s an American, or even a European.
The Shop Around the Corner
The simplicity of construction has fooled nearly all the critics, after all there is only the shop clerk grown rich and gaudy on handouts from his mistress, the proprietor’s wife, and a second theme of two clerks with intellectual passions who meet as pen pals.
If this doesn’t constitute a defense of The Shop Around the Corner, it has no defense and is only the bit of charm Lubitsch said it was, rather than the centrally important figure of his very “best” film, as he put it also.
James Joyce’s Dubliners has an almost related story, and Marshall’s Goldwyn Follies is almost parodied. Arthur Miller’s A Memory of Two Mondays, memorably filmed, is almost adjacent, and the proprietor is almost Dickens’ Fezziwig.
That Uncertain Feeling
You have seen them at cocktail parties and art openings and concert evenings, you may have been one yourself on occasion, they just don’t know what to make of it.
Critics, of course, hated this film.
Homage to Charles Ives, rejection of æstheticism.
The degree to which Lubitsch remade his own Kiss Me Again (1925, Warner Brothers, inexplicably lost) may be gauged from the New York Times review.
“Here we have Loulou Fleury (Marie Prevost), a vivacious but susceptible young wife who finds that the music as played by Maurice Ferriere (John Roche) interests her far more than the affectionate glances and loving expressions of her husband, Gaston, impersonated by Monte Blue. Really, this flighty young person can’t tell the difference when the waltz, “Kiss Me Again”, is played by the impecunious musician and when it is rendered through the medium of the pianola.
“Gaston is more cunning than his wife believes him to be. He agrees to help her get a divorce, and the question is on what grounds. Dr. Dubois, the lawyer played by Willard Louis, suggests after a conference at which the wife is not present that Gaston slap his wife just as a stenographer enters the office. The latter, the lawyer points out, can be an impartial witness. Thereupon Gaston prepares himself for the stroke of cruelty toward his wife. He is to slap Loulou just as Grizette (Clara Bow) opens the door, but finds it is not as easy to do as he imagined. He lifts his hand but he can’t get up enough courage to go through with the deed. His hand always falls harmlessly by his side. He tries again and again and finally goes behind a screen and resorts to a little stimulating drink. This causes him to feel still less like chastising his wife. They have to seek other causes for divorce, neither being willing to be the defendant.
“One of the amusing chapters in this picture reminds one of Oscar Wilde’s play, The Importance of Being Earnest, as Gaston pretends to carry on a conversation with Grizette through a door when the girl is not in the room. He tells his wife that Grizette will not release him for less than 100,000 francs and when Loulou hands over her jewels to her husband to satisfy Grizette, the latter, while Gaston is pretending to be dickering with her in the other room, suddenly appears, with the result that Loulou finds herself in the happy position of being able to pretend she believes Gaston, while she has Grizette hidden behind a screen.”
To Be or Not to Be
The compulsion of plot could not perhaps be understood by Truffaut even twenty-five years later (“An hour later, or even if you’ve just seen it for the sixth time, I defy you to tell me the plot of To Be or Not to Be. It’s absolutely impossible”).
Truffaut cannot mean to say that the events of the film do not make sense, but the inner logic was not evident.
It’s about a Hitler Youth given a toy tank to cajole him into betraying his father to the Nazis, and a Polish aviator who walks out on the nation’s greatest actor in Hamlet to fly the troupe ultimately into London exile.
Some of the flap stems from a critical oversight. Although Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) is hardly seen onstage at all, and Maria Tura (Carole Lombard) never, they give performances on behalf of the Polish underground that amply justify their reputation. This oversight is pointedly corrected in the Brooksfilms version directed by Alan Johnson.
Truffaut made use of the material in Le Dernier métro.
In this latter day, Hogan’s Heroes has been censured by TV Guide (under new management) as one of the worst shows ever on television, in view of its morally objectionable subject. This (with the East Side Kids, Stalag 17, and The Great Escape) was the model.
Heaven Can Wait
Henry King’s David and Bathsheba gets the joke, Powell & Pressburger don’t waste any time putting together A Matter of Life and Death.
Lubitsch’s King David pleads before the lord of hell, for entrance.
It should not be presumed that any answer to his critics was meant, but Crowther had said “Nero fiddling” of To Be or Not to Be. “If I’m called a bad poet,” Nabokov says, “I smile. If I’m called a bad scholar, I reach for my heaviest dictionary.”
You will appreciate the “negative capability” in Russell’s Mahler.
Lubitsch’s insouciance toward the Nazis is even more pronounced than in To Be or Not to Be. Lubitsch’s insouciance toward everything that is unworthy of his care is utterly remarkable.
So we shall ignore the British critics who savaged it in their day, and those who pay it backhanded compliments now. Chaplin is the British director Lubitsch most admires, The Great Dictator above all.
That Lady in Ermine
Lubitsch’s last laugh is fairly obscure, which accounts for its weaker reputation, and utterly refined.
The Biblical precedents are evident in the setup, which builds to a dream of exaltation granted by the title character, barefoot as Char’s poesy.
The present-day (nineteenth-century) descendant marries the jerk, quenching him.
Preminger’s role in the production is uncredited, the technical mastery of effects like the centuries-old paintings come to life is the sign of an exquisite consideration.
“Some demand for it the reprieve of armor...”