The German-Jewish director Ernst Lubitsch was the unparalleled master of sophisticated Hollywood comedy, and his witty, charming films will be the subject of a tribute at the Jerusalem Cinematheque starting on September 7 and running until the end of the month.
Not only are his films rarely shown on the big screen, they are seldom shown anywhere these days, and so this is a wonderful opportunity to enjoy some of the best comedies of all time. The program includes most of Lubitsch’s best-known works, as well as some of his less famous films. His influence on movie comedy cannot be overstated. Billy Wilder had a sign over the door of his office that read, “How would Lubitsch do it?” and Lubitsch’s films are revered for a level of intelligence that is sorely lacking in most of today’s movies.
No Lubitsch tribute could be complete without the jewel in the crown of his filmography, To Be or Not to Be (1942). Set during the German invasion of Poland, this darkly comic and very funny film tells the story of a Polish theater company that is staging a play that makes fun of the Nazis, while also performing Hamlet. The married stars of the theater company, Josef (Jack Benny) and Maria (Carole Lombard), are a vain couple who drive each other crazy with their infidelities, and their personal problems provide a backdrop to a story of subversive, covert actions against the Nazis.
Some aspects of the movie need to be put into context. The word “Jew” does not appear in the film, which, of course, will seem bizarre to modern audiences, but those who saw the PBS series about US Jews during the Holocaust will understand how reluctant most American Jews were to call attention to themselves and the plight of European Jews prior to America’s entry into the war, and this included Jews in Hollywood. Several characters in the movie are clearly meant to be Jews and several of the actors are Jewish (notably Jack Benny, although the character he plays is a Polish gentile), but Lubitsch and his collaborators did not directly address the fate of Polish Jewry.
Lubitsch and his co-screenwriters knew something horrible was about to happen to Jews in Europe, but the movie was released in February 1942, before they could have known the scope of it. So when Benny, posing as a Nazi in charge of concentration camps, says, “We do the concentrating and the Poles do the camping,” it was a humorous way to take the Nazis down a peg and to rally support for US participation in the war.
Upon the film’s release, Lubitsch was criticized by The New York Times (a newspaper that, we know in retrospect, downplayed eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust), which wrote, “To say it is callous and macabre is understating the case.”
But Lubitsch defended the movie, saying, “I am accused of three major sins… of having violated every traditional form in mixing melodrama with comedy-satire or even farce; of endangering our war effort in treating the Nazi menace too lightly; and of exhibiting extremely bad taste in having chosen present-day Warsaw as a background for comedy…. What I have satirized in this picture are the Nazis and their ridiculous ideology. I have also satirized the attitude of actors who always remain actors regardless of how dangerous the situation might be.”
However you feel about the movie’s humor, it was arguably Benny’s best screen role. It was also the last movie Lombard, one of the greatest movie comedians of all time, made before she died in a plane crash when she was on her way to sell war bonds. Forget the Mel Brooks remake, this is the version to see.
His silent work
This very comprehensive tribute features one of Lubitsch’s silent films, including The Oyster Princess, which he made in 1919 in Germany. The Smiling Lieutenant, one of Lubitsch’s early Hollywood sound films, starred Maurice Chevalier, Miriam Hopkins, and Claudette Colbert in a tale of a love triangle involving an officer, a princess, and the officer’s violin-playing girlfriend, and was based on a German operetta. Many of his movies were based on European material.
Noel Coward’s play Design for Living was adapted for the screen by Ben Hecht and Samuel Hoffenstein into the 1933 film of the same name. It starred Miriam Hopkins, Gary Cooper, and Frederic March in the risqué-for-its time story of a love triangle, and is considered one of the Lubitsch’s masterpieces.
Hopkins was also in the 1932 film Trouble in Paradise, as a pickpocket posing as a countess who conspires with a master thief (Herbert Marshall) to scam a beautiful woman (Kay Francis) who owns a perfume company.
Marlene Dietrich appeared in the 1937 comedy Angel, about the wife of a diplomat who is mistaken for a duchess and who falls in love with a young American.
Claudette Colbert and Gary Cooper starred in Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938), a comedy loosely based on the Bluebeard legend and cowritten by Billy Wilder.
“Garbo Laughs!” was the tagline on Lubitsch’s 1939 film, Ninotchka. Greta Garbo, known for playing tragic heroines, shined as an agent of the Soviet government sent to Paris who falls for a Russian aristocrat (Melvyn Douglas), without knowing who he really is. Billy Wilder was one of the writers credited on the witty screenplay, and the movie was remade as the musical Silk Stockings.
Probably no Lubitsch movie has inspired as many remakes and reworkings as The Shop Around the Corner (1940), which was itself a remake of a Hungarian play. Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart portray employees at a shop who hate each other, not knowing that they are falling in love as pen pals. If that reminds you of Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail, that’s no coincidence. The 1963 musical She Loves Me was inspired by the film, as was In the Good Old Summertime.
Heaven Can Wait (1943), not to be confused with the Warren Beatty movie of the same name, was the only color movie Lubitsch made. It tells the story of a playboy (Don Ameche) who has to explain his life at the gates of hell. Gene Tierney costars.
Cluny Brown (1946) was the last movie Lubitsch completed. It’s a comedy of manners set in London that opens in 1938. Jennifer Jones plays a down-to-earth young woman who is a gifted plumber and who catches the eye of Adam Belinski (Charles Boyer), a prominent academic and anti-Nazi activist.
Movie buffs should not miss the chance to see the work of one of the greatest Jewish directors of all time on the big screen.