Ernst Lubitsch — First Wit of the Films! (1935) 🇺🇸
Ernst Lubitsch is more colorful than the stars he directs! Read about him in Screenland’s series of famous director close-ups.
by Adele Gregory
All your life — or at any rate, all your movie-going life — you’ve been hearing about Ernst Lubitsch. A reputation, planted and grown to flower in Europe, was transplanted to the golden soil of Hollywood, where it spread to such proportions that the name behind it began to acquire something of the halo which surrounds a star’s — no mean feat in the comparatively recent days when a director was just a director and so much spinach to the average moviegoer.
Now that the average moviegoer has been educated to see beneath the surface, and the director — together with other workers in the vineyard — is coming into his own, the genius of Lubitsch among the dozen blazing directorial lights of Hollywood remains unique. Wizard of high comedy, master of innuendo, arch-priest of that form of humor that tickles the discerning palate like a piquant sauce, his pictures are so plainly stamped with his personality that they hardly need that hallmark of distinction — An Ernst Lubitsch Production — to proclaim them his.
As a matter of fact, you’d probably recognize a Lubitsch film far more readily than you’d recognize the maker. Even today the unwritten law of movie publicity demands that, to the general public, a director should remain little more than the embodiment of an idea. His personality doesn’t matter, except as it reveals itself through his work.
His person doesn’t matter at all.
Yet fans are beginning to be almost as curious about the Lubitsches and the Capras and the Cukors as about the stars themselves. So let’s commit a technical breach of the law and present Ernst Lubitsch in person.
Your first impression as he appears on the set is of a stocky, swarthy-skinned man, rather forbidding — whether because of the glowering cast of his heavy features, lighted only by a pair of deep-glowing eyes, or because of his prodigious reputation, you can’t be quite sure. One strand of dark hair threatens to escape from the coiffure slicked down over his big head. A large cigar sticks out of the corner of his mouth — so integral a part of his _ make-up that those who know him well will tell you his face looks extraordinarily naked without it!
While the cameras are being lined up, Lubitsch paces to and fro, hands locked behind him — to and fro, up and down, across and back, over coils of cable, under supporting beams — his features set in a morose mask. You try to make yourself as inconspicuous as possible. You shudder at the thought of what must happen to anyone crossing his path unsolicited. Then you see a girl heading straight for him — straight for the jaws of doom, from your point of view. You hold your breath as you wait for the blast to strike. So what happens? So he smiles. The somber face breaks into a wide grin — a grin so cordial, so ingratiating that you stand and gape at the change it works in his face. When it disappears, you hang on to the memory of it. Remembering it, you doubt whether Lubitsch could ever frighten you again.
Now he goes into action. Quiet and mild-spoken though he is for the most part, you can’t but be conscious of the dynamo working within him, that fires not only himself but everyone on the set. His darting eyes are all over at once. The errant strand of hair makes good its threat and flops across his forehead. His lips work away at the cigar, which may or may not be lighted. It doesn’t seem to make much difference. Lighted, he puffs at it furiously. Unlighted, he chews at it just as furiously. Despite his inner excitement, his patience seems inexhaustible. Again and again he explains what it is he wants. Suddenly he explodes, and you tremble — yes, in spite of the remembered smile. But after you’ve watched him for a while, you begin to realize that these rare explosions are brought on only by some act of sheer stupidity on the part of a fellow-worker. Intent on bringing the scene before him into harmony with the vision behind his own eyes, he refuses — like all yearners after perfection — to let fools mar his labor.
Otherwise he seems the most reasonable of men.
He will jump into the part of any of his actors, male or female, on the slightest provocation. “No — not that way. Like this. Look!” And wide hips swaying, gruff voice fluting, big feet mincing, he will launch into an impersonation of a coy damsel which, ludicrous though it may be in form, remains exquisitely true in feeling.
“You know why I do it?” he inquired once, with that glint in his eye which looks like artless delight, but don’t let it fool you. “Because when they watch me they say to themselves: ‘Pooh! I can do it better.’ And then” — he all but crowed at his own guile — “then they go out and do it better!”
Sooner or later he gets the effect he’s after. He’s bound to get it by the simple expedient of refusing to lay off until he does — which admirable habit of perseverance he carries with him into all his undertakings.
He has, for example, a cherished dog — Fritz, a Great Dane — heavier than his master and, when he rises to lay affectionate paws on the latter’s shoulders, taller as well. Not long ago Lubitsch was having a house built on a site marked by an embankment twenty feet high.
“Right there,” he said, gazing dreamily at the embankment, “is where I want my living-room.”
“All right,” agreed the architect. “We’ll have to level it.”
“You can’t level it,” Lubitsch pointed out firmly, “because Fritz needs it for his exercise. I want the living-room, and I want the embankment on the place, too.”
He got them both — the living-room where he wanted it — the twenty-foot hill, dedicated to Fritz’s gambolings, moved a little distance away.
Asked about the famous Lubitsch touches, without mention of which no review of a Lubitsch picture seems complete, he will laugh to scorn the notion that they’re spontaneously conceived. They’re the result, he will tell you, of long and painful hours “on ze desk.”
“Sometimes I get an idea of my own,” he explained. “Or I read a book or I see a play. If I have not enough, I go through the material in the studio to find more ideas. I select the story. I select the writer. Which means that I write with the writer together the script. It takes me about three months. Which means not so-called story conferences, but actual work from nine in the morning till five in the afternoon. I shoot exactly from the script. All those touches you talk about are there when we begin production. Naturally, if I get an idea on the set, I don’t throw it away. But I do not rely on those ideas, because when I finish working on the desk, I count that my script is finished. Then comes production. Then comes the cutting. I cut my pictures with my cutter together. Then comes the preview, and we see what is wrong and fix it — if we can. Then comes the release. Then —” dawns the smile, which has in it at once something bashful and impish, like that of a half trusting, half derisive gnome — “then we read the reviews. Sometimes applause — sometimes not so much applause. Then you forget it and start all over again.
“Every picture is a gamble.” He was all seriousness now. “I always start a picture because I believe in it. Maybe later I am wrong. It takes so much pain and so much hardship to make a picture that in the end you are not any more a fair judge. But this I know. There doesn’t exist such a thing that you may say: Now I am making a successful picture. There isn’t such a thing to say what people say foolishly sometimes — give the audience what the audience wants. You know what they wanted yesterday — not what they want tomorrow. If you give them what they wanted yesterday, then they don’t want it any more.
“My favorite actors?” He threw me a reproachful glance. “You want to make trouble for me, what? But I don’t let you. As soon as you are in the show business, you learn to be diplomatic. I am in the show business since 1911, and if I did not learn by this time to be diplomatic, I never will. I will tell you —” another of his characteristic chuckles, as he flung out his arm in a large gesture — “I love them all!”
Meet Lubitsch himself, cigar and all! Right, guiding Miriam Hopkins through a difficult scene. Miriam is only one of the many players Lubitsch has discovered.
Source: Screenland, March 1935