Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Ina Claire. Dir: Ernst Lubitsch
From the list of things about which I am passionate, this film contains at least three. Those things are comedy, Ernst Lubitsch, Melvyn Douglas, movies from the 30’s, and movies from 1939. I realize that a) that’s five, but the list got longer as I typed the sentence; b) some of those things are people; c) 1939 is part of the 30’s; and d) I left out Billy Wilder (one of the screenplay’s writers). So I need to amend the number of things that this film contains about which I am passionate to at least 6 (counting Wilder). In my defense, I did say “at least” in the first place. I just didn’t expect to remember more so quickly.
I’m not really going to talk much about my passion for comedy. It just is.
I have spoken of Ernst Lubitsch before, though not nearly enough. He is my absolute favorite director that isn’t Buster Keaton, and directed my favorite non-Keaton film of all time (Design for Living, if you must know, it stars my #2 and #3 boyfriends). I will now attempt to discuss “The Lubitsch Touch”. Oh yes, it is a thing, only not so much. At this point, if you haven’t already thrown your hands in the air and given up on this post, you may be wondering that the heck I’m talking about and how it can be a thing but not. Let’s start with the phrase’s origin. It was created by studio ad-men (and I cannot verify which studio or when- believe me, I tried, but I’m going to guess it was MGM) to make Lubitsch a brand name, essentially. Nobody can define what specific elements give a movie the Lubitsch touch. Well, I mean, people think they can, but honestly, they can’t. There aren’t any. His movies aren’t all about the same thing, they don’t all employ the same kind of dialog or themes, and he doesn’t insert himself in cameos in each of them. And yet, here are various attempts at defining it.
“The Lubitsch Touch” is a brief description that embraces a long list of virtues: sophistication, style, subtlety, wit, charm, elegance, suavity, polished nonchalance and audacious sexual nuance.” — Richard Christiansen
“The subtle humor and virtuoso visual wit in the films of Ernst Lubitsch. The style was characterized by a parsimonious compression of ideas and situations into single shots or brief scenes that provided an ironic key to the characters and to the meaning of the entire film.” — Ephraim Katz
“A subtle and souffle-like blend of sexy humor and sly visual wit.” — Roger Fristoe
“A counterpoint of poignant sadness during a film’s gayest moments.”
— Andrew Sarris
” . . . The Lubitsch Touch, with its frequent Freudian overtone of revealing previously hidden motivations, the sexual story, by an adroit bit of business or a focus on a significant object. The Lubitsch Touch signals to the audience that the old interpreter is at it again, letting us in on a priviliged perspective, embracing the audience as a co-conspirator of interpretation, an accomplice in the director’s and the camera’s knowingness.” — Leo Braudy
“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….” — Billy Wilder
” . . . a blend of costumed Ruritania and Berliner sexuality toned down for American tastes.” — Kevin Starr
“It was as famous a moniker in its day as Hitchock’s ‘Master of Suspense,’ although perhaps not as superficial. The phrase does connote something light, strangely indefinable, yet nonetheless tangible, and seeing Lubitsch’s films – more than in almost any other director’s work – one can feel this certain spirit; not only in the tactful and impeccably appropriate placement of the camera, the subtle economy of his plotting, the oblique dialogue which had a way of saying everything through indirection, but also — and particularly — in the performance of every single player, no matter how small the role.” — Peter Bogdanovich
Even still, you can tell when you’ve seen a Lubitsch film. It’s like he’s taken a paint can and sprayed “Lubitsch was here” across the screen. I feel like Peter Bogdanovich describes it best. It’s nothing specific, but it’s everything. And it’s magic.
Props to Lubitsch.com for helping me pad my post and make it look longer and more insightful.
Here is a quick list of Lubitsch movies which you may or may not have seen or heard of (but should see):
- The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg
- The Love Parade
- The Smiling Lieutenant
- Trouble in Paradise
- Design for Living
- The Merry Widow
- Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife
- The Shop Around the Corner
- That Uncertain Feeling
- To Be or Not To Be
- Heaven Can Wait
- A Royal Scandal
Keep in mind, I only list these movies because these are the ones I’ve seen. I’m still working on it. The complete list can be found by clinking on the discolored words “list of Lubitsch movies” above. That discoloration indicates that it’s a link.
Now, Melvyn Douglas…he was a dear. Not a deer, a dear. I have yet to find the movie I don’t like him in. There’s just something warm and real about him and every time I see him in a movie, I just want to hug him. For a while. Even when he plays someone rakish, there’s that quality about him that makes you understand the woman who hangs in there until he changes his ways. Ninotchka is probably his most famous film, but he was also in such great ones as Theodora Goes Wild, Captains Courageous, Third Finger Left Hand, That Uncertain Feeling (another Lubitsch), Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, Hud, The Americanization of Emily, and Being There. He rightfully won the Best Supporting Actor Award for those last two, and he won a Tony Award in 1960 for The Best Man, by Gore Vidal, and an Emmy in 1967 for Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.
Here’s a vague plot thingy that I almost forgot to include because I was writing about everything else and so when I got to the end and saw that I forgot it, I decided to insert it here. Almost randomly, but not quite. Greta Garbo plays a Russian envoy who is a cold, hard, emotionless woman. Some jewelry had been stolen from the aristocracy during the Russian Revolution. Three guys are in Paris to sell the jewelry and a Count (Melvyn Douglas) is trying to retrieve it before it is sold. Garbo is trying to make sure the transaction goes through so that she can take the jewelry back to Russia. Ice melts, love happens, credits roll.
Ninotchka was released with the following tag line- “Garbo Laughs”. The reason for this is two-fold. In 1930, when Greta Garbo made Anna Christie, it was her first talking film, thus they gave it the tagline “Garbo Talks”. Well, Ninotchka was her first full-on comedy. There had been comedic moments in her movies before, so it wasn’t like she hadn’t laughed on screen. The first half of Queen Christina, for instance has a lot of laughter in it. The studio was just being cute.
I don’t think it’s entirely necessary to go into why I’m passionate about film from the 30’s and films from 1939. That would take a very long time and is not specifically relevant to this movie. This one point above all others is the most important: If there is an Ernst Lubitsch movie on, whether you’ve seen it 273 times or not, you watch it. You just do.