A Touch of Sophistication


Laughter in Paradise

byScott Eyman.

Simon & Schuster. 414 pages.


“THERE is Paramount Paris and Metro Paris,” Ernst Lubitsch said, “and of course the real Paris. Paramount’s is the most Parisian of all.” He was in a position to know. Before crossing the Atlantic, in 1922, Lubitsch had been, according to Scott Eyman, “the most famous film director in Europe."He came to direct Mary Pickford, at her behest. He stayed because he saw that in Hollywood he could create the best possible Paris and Budapest and Warsaw, a fake movable feast replete with champagne. caviar, badinage, and seduction— and because his native Germany was roiling with unrest.
In America he outdid himself, producing and directing a sheaf of masterpieces —Trouble in Paradise, The Merry Widow , Ninotchka. The Shop Around the Corner, and To Be or Not To Be—along wiih several near-misses, and inspiring a catchphrase meant to do justice to his brilliance: “the Lubitsch touch.”
It was something of a misnomer. Well before the cameras rolled. Lubitsch ordained every detail of his films in drawnout meetings with his collaborators, notably the writers Billy Wilder, Charles Brackett, and the invaluable Samson Raphaelson, and in rehearsals with his casts, whom he coached by acting out their parts as he wanted them played. He “touched” his material in the sense of stroking it exhaustively.
Nor was there a unitary Lubitsch approach. In this solid hut awkwardly written book Eyman in effect divides Lubitsch’s American work into two periods: the early one of coruscating comedies and musicals, culminating in that magnificent panegyric to worldliness. Trouble in Paradise: and the later one of more emotionally engaging works, such as Ninotchka and The Shop Around the Corner.
Yet the phrase has staying power. During his years at Paramount (1928-1938) Lubitsch helped create the studio’s glossy look—a blend of suffused lighting and angular decor which seems to envelop actors in full-body halos. And his hand was never heavy. Given a choice between hammering a point home and leaving it to be inferred, he counted on audiences’ getting it every time. For all his movies’ other virtues, it’s their consistent polish and fluency that linger in the mind, and examining his “touch” still makes for an agreeable entree into Lubitsch’s work.
YOU find it in his nimble shorthand. In The Merry Widow, when it’s time for Jeanette MacDonald to leave off mourning and earn her epithet, her clothes and other chattels miraculously change from black to white—not excluding her tiny dog. In Trouble in Paradise you learn that Kay Francis and Herbert Marshall are consummating their flirtation from a number of fleshless clues: clocks skipping hours, doors strategically opening and closing, the couple’s upright shadows merging on a bed’s dual pillows.
Doors, for that matter, were rarely just fixtures on the Lubitschean set. The director reveled in working variations on their uses: to let in, to shut out, to tantalize, to divide milieus, to require waiting, to prompt speculation as to what’s going on behind them, to stir prurience. His fellow director Joseph Mankiewicz recalled that Lubitsch even homed in on door handles, which he liked to have placed “higher or lower [than normal], that way we can see what is going through [characters’ minds] as they try to open a door.”
Often a door swings across a sexual threshold. Lubitsch’s funniest racy portal sequence occurs in Ninotchka, when a trio of male Soviet commissars, newly arrived in Paris, lounge behind a hotelroom door while at intervals waiters enter bearing deluxe capitalist food and drink. As the camera lingers outside in the hall, each arrival of a new treat sets off a volley of aaahhhhhs. When a bevy of cigarette girls disappears into the room, the welcoming chorus rises to a scene-closing crescendo.
You find the touch in the way Lubitsch dealt with the Production Code as a batch of rules to be bent and prudes to be outfoxed. When, in To Be or Not To Be, Carole Lombard recapitulates pilot Robert Stack’s boast of his bombing skills— “Lieutenant, this is the first time I’ve ever met a man who could drop three tons of dynamite in two minutes”—she’s got another kind of releasing prowess in mind. When, in Cluny Brown, Jennifer Jones reminds Charles Boyer, “You know what plumbing does to me,” she’s alluding to more than one kind of pipe.
You get finesse in the acting Lubitsch delivered onscreen. He rarely discovered anybody, but the list of Hollywood veterans who gave him the performance of their lives is long and various: Kay Francis, Miriam Hopkins, and Herbert Marshall, in Trouble in Paradise; Jack Benny. whom nobody else figured out how to direct on film, in To Be or Not To Be; Frank Morgan (the Wizard of Oz himself), in The Shop Around the Corner; Don Ameche, in Heaven Can Wait; and Jeanette MacDonald, in One Hour With You and The Merry Widow.
Lubitsch had a knack for ferreting out the comedian in actors previously written off as strictly staid: Gary Cooper, in Design for Living, and, of course, Greta Garbo, in Ninotchka. His attempt to do the same with Merle Oberon in That Uncertain Feeling ranks as a creditable failure in a hopeless cause.
KAY Francis is a special case. A sleepy-eyed, soft-voiced brunette who shared with her contemporaries Marlene Dietrich and Elmer Fudd the foible of pronouncing her rs as ws, she spent much of her career playing noble sufferers and decked out like a duchess, her name a byword for “best-dressed.”
Francis took roles that other, savvier actresses turned down, and overexposed her modest talent. It’s hard, in fact, to think of another star who made so many deservedly obscure movies. She said she couldn’t wait to be forgotten, and her career fizzled out in the mid1940s. But there will always be Trouble in Paradise, to whose tone of airy amorality she is crucial. As Madame Colet, the perfume tycoon’s widow who hardly minds being seduced and swindled by Marshall in cahoots with Hopkins, Francis seasons her smugness with charisma. She slinks through her Deco mansion, tossing off Wildean quips and strewing mangled rs, leading and following Marshall along a Möbius strip of sexual pursuit, so witty and soignée it’s a wonder the whole country didn’t start baby-talking.
Only Lubitsch was able to raise her to this level of supernal stylishness. Without him Francis needn’t have waited long to be forgotten; because he worked with her, she never will be.
It took cunning to pack so much artifice into movies that were supposed to please a mass audience. It also took long hours. Lubitsch’s life, a friend commented. “was an uninterrupted ribbon of film.” His overworking habits helped cut short his two marriages and contributed to his death from a heart attack in 1947, at the age of only fifty-five.
UN FORTUNATELY, where Lubitsch had hands, his biographer has paws. Also the author of a Mary Pickford biography. Scott Eyman seems to have amply researched the new book. His knowledge of Hollywood history and sociology is sound; his judgments are shrewd. He can coin a nice phrase in isolation, as when he calls Ben Hecht’s dialogue for Design for Living (a complete rewrite of the Noel Coward play) “crinkly cellophane aphorisms.”But he regularly garbles his syntax, dangles his modifiers, and blunts his sentences with the passive voice. Here’s an omnibus example: “Sitting in the rushes with Thalberg, Loos’s line was spoken.”(Translation: While sitting in a projection room and watching the rushes with Irving Thalberg, Anita Loos heard a line of hers spoken.)
When Eyman imagines Lubitsch stepping up to explicate his art, the content is right but the construction ungainly: ‘“This,”[Lubitsch] says to the audience with the genial smile of the master confectioner, ‘is artificial, it is candy, and we both know it. But no one can make it like I can.’" Eyman"s ragged prose does a disservice to Lubitsch, who, despite using an immigrant’s faulty, strongly accented English, always spoke with impeccable elegance in his chosen medium.
Once, when he was working for Warner Brothers, Lubitsch received a pointed telegram from Harry Warner. “YOU HAVE PICKED YOUR OWN STORIES AND MADE YOUR OWN PICTURES WITHOUT INTERFERENCE,” it reminded him, “BUT [YOU] MADE THEM TOO SUBTLE THE WORLD WANTS THRILL AND EXCITEMENT.”The next word was “STOP,” but Lubitsch didn’t. He wagered his career on the hunch that Warner was wrong, that subtlety could be thrilling and exciting and that the world wanted it.
Not all his movies made big money, but not many flopped either. Altogether they hold their own artistically with the oeuvres of Griffith and Ford, of Hawks and Hitchcock. And with most of Lubitsch’s best work now available on video, the world still thrills to his touch.