Ernst Lubitsch — Portrait of a Director (1932) 🇺🇸

Ernst Lubitsch — Portrait of a Director (1932) |

December 16, 2021

Screenland believes its readers are interested not only in the stars, but in the men behind the scenes — the giants who make the movies. Here, then, is an intimate impression of Paramount’s ace director, Ernst Lubitsch.

by Margaret Reid

On the Lubitsch set the most arresting and least important-looking person is a little man with a dark, merrily wicked face, a lank strand of black hair hanging over his right eye, a big cigar rolling restlessly from one side of his mouth to the other. He never gets in anyone’s way and during the taking of a scene wanders rapidly about back of the cameras, beaming, talking to himself, glancing occasionally at the action. Much of the time, he appears to forget that he may sit down until someone shoves under him a chair marked “Mr. Lubitsch.”

His thick eyebrows beetle over lively, knowing black eyes. His large nose hooks over a wide mouth which, when he smiles, turns up at the corners until it is an inverted arc of merriment. No amount of lotion will keep his black hair from falling into his right eye for more than a moment. His impeccably pressed clothes rest on his stocky body with a niceness that is nearly dapper. His swarthy skin shines, always as if freshly scrubbed, like a russet apple.

His is the genuine and authentic “Lubitsch touch.” It is interesting that this phrase is applied almost solely to Lubitsch’s work. A scene may strike the critical observer as Chaplinesque, or as “reminiscent of Vidor.” But if it suggests the work of Paramount’s fiery little Berliner, it is inevitably noted as a “Lubitsch touch.” No accidental cliché, the phrase aptly conveys the delicacy with which he gives sharp point to individual scenes and which is the pièce de résistance of his work.

Lubitsch doubts that he would have been a successful director had he not been first a musician. His opinion, his insistence, is that music is the art upon which the other arts most depend. Particularly, he thinks, should the motion picture base its form on the largos, the allegrettos, the diminuendoes and crescendoes of musical ebb and flow and climax.

When he was five years old, he began experimenting with the piano that stood, neatly decorated with crocheted doilies and wax flowers, in the tidy sitting-room of Herr Lubitsch’s Berlin home. His parents, a little uneasy lest this practical use of a hitherto decorative object be childish fractiousness which should be disciplined, nevertheless permitted little Ernst to play quietly at the piano every day. When he began to pick out tunes he had heard and make them intelligible, his family’s vigilance relaxed a bit, became amused indulgence which failed, however, to develop into a decision to give him lessons. “When, a few years later, he acquired a cello, their amusement increased, although they listened to his “pieces” with surprised pleasure.

His rebellion against all rules governing learning and thinking began, he says, as early as eight or nine years. He hated school, hated the enforced study of things he cared nothing about, hated the pressure placed on his mental processes and of which he was even then aware. Stubbornly wanting to learn and think for himself, he was no better a little boy than he should have been, a bit difficult around the house The gamble brought blue skies to his studio with the success of a long series of two-reel comedies — written, directed, and acted by Lubitsch.

Those were the days when a director had no corps of assistants or cutters or supervisors. He designed his own sets, told the cameraman how to light his scenes, cut his own film. And, in Lubitsch’s case, wrote his own story. His days were a delirium of chaos and continual emergencies. Gradually, out of their confusions, he evolved a crude, experimental form as he became increasingly familiar with the mechanics of his new medium. Impatient of the narrow horizons which at that time fenced the motion picture, he was constantly ferreting out new technical possibilities.

His series of two-reelers, with Lubitsch as writer-director-staff, became so popular that he was promoted to features. His facility continued to develop and eventually he was asked to do a drama. At this, he balked. A champion of the importance of comedy, of its high status in the field of intelligent craftsmanship, he harboured a profound contempt for the third-rate dramas then being employed by the movies. He refused to abandon comedy until he was offered “Carmen,” with Pola Negri, the sound dramatic ingredients of which story tempted him to make his first experiment in drama. His success with this picture, released in America as “Gypsy Blood,” encouraged him to continue on to “Madame DuBarry,” with Negri and Emil Jannings, which America saw as “Passion.”

Now internationally known — and definitely committed to directing rather than acting — he directed Germany’s greatest stars until that inevitable hand reached across the Atlantic and snatched him to Hollywood. Brought over by Mary Pickford to do her Rosita, he thereafter went to Warner Brothers, and thence to Paramount where, ever since, he has been an integral part of the Paramount scene.

Although for the most part identified with comedy, he is almost equally at ease in such vital dramas as “The Patriot” or “The Man I Killed,” the latter released inexplicably as “Broken Lullaby.” One says “almost equally at ease” because there is a general reluctance to relinquish him to drama even for one picture. That gay, stiletto-pointed “Lubitsch touch” is impossible of approximation by the most sanguine imitators and is in insistent demand by the wistful risibilities of more than one nation. The particular method he created with “The Love Parade,” first musical movie to show purely cinematic form, became crystallized in the superb “Monte Carlo.” And ever since, out of all Hollywood, only Lubitsch has been able consistently to evolve a blithe, sophisticated nonsense that is uniquely the talking screen’s.

It is studio legend that the happy actor is the Lubitsch actor. First making sure he knows his players thoroughly, their capacities and temperaments, Lubitsch himself demonstrates to them exactly what to do — but always in their own individual way. He demands no histrionic miracles and never attempts to force a player into an interpretation of which he is congenitally incapable. He will shoot one scene eighteen or twenty times until he gets exactly the nuance he wants, but since it is a nuance which the player knows he can produce eventually, there is a minimum of nervous tension.

He writes a good portion of every script himself. He cuts every inch of his own film and supervises the scoring. It is especially in the cutting that he devises the musical form which he considers so necessary to a smooth-flowing picture. He is subject, on the set, to infrequent furies which rocket and subside quickly, leaving his paradoxically satanic and cherubic face smiling as widely as before. Between scenes, he usually sits at the little piano which is always placed in some corner of the stage and plays — Mozart or Gershwin, as the fancy moves him — with a touch and skill belying his lack of training. During a scene, if he is not ambling about behind the cameras, he is crouched beneath them, watching the action with demoniac intensity and unconsciously acting out every inflection and gesture and expression.

His stocky body is hard as nails from daily work-outs with a trainer and from habitual riding and swimming. He appears incapable of sitting upright in a chair — after five minutes or so of conversation inevitably sliding around till his legs hang over the arm, with innumerable conversational excitements which catapult him to his feet to pace the floor as he talks.

He has a profound relish for good food, fine liquors, lovely women, good music — a profound dislike for the vulgar, phoney, cheap or stupid. He is the little god of Hollywood’s German colony — no unfortunate compatriot has ever left his presence without a substantial check and a pat on the shoulder that has no slightest hint of condescension in it. At intervals he is reported engaged to Ona Munson. He loves gayety, humor, and is depressed by those parties dependent on excess cocktails for their fun. He is restless but not neurotic, excitable but not hysterical, mercurial, but not moody. He is impatient of the shackles placed on movies, of the assumption that the public is mentally adolescent, but voices few of the complaints common to most of his contemporaries. This because he has, probably more than any other director, magnificent fun making movies!

Lubitsch, the man who gave you “The Love Parade” and “The Smiling Lieutenant”, caught by the camera on his own set while he is planning the next scene. This is Lubitsch the worker, with the inevitable cigar.

Ernst Lubitsch doubts that he would have been a successful director had he not been first a musician. His opinion is that music is the art upon which the other arts most depend. See the Lubitsch hands, at the right.

Collection: Screenland Magazine, September 1932