Tuesday, August 15, 2006


One of the things I like about the films of Ernst Lubitsch is that his movies have an unusual amount of thematic weight to them. By this I mean that a Lubitsch comedy is often built around a set of themes or recurring ideas and all the jokes flow from them; running gags aren't used just for comedy value but to remind us periodically of what the movie is about. So almost every joke in To Be Or Not To Be has something to do with the contrast of the theatre with real life (and the way the theatre merges with real life until they become indistinguishable); the equation of sex with theft runs throughout Trouble in Paradise, and sex and music are linked in joke after joke from The Smiling Lieutenant. Truffaut once said that there were no extraneous shots in a Lubitsch film, but he might have added that there are very few extraneous jokes.

This kind of strict adherence to the theme of the movie can have its disadvantages, and makes Lubitsch's lesser movies seem a little stodgy. As I've said before, Lubitsch was one of the few great comedy directors who was a genuine control freak: he never deviated from the written script; he almost never let actors improvise business, and in fact coached them in all their movements and line deliveries. Normally, great comedy directors tended to be loose, improvisational types like Leo McCarey, who would make gags up on the set and encourage the actors to do likewise; Lubitsch was a comedy director who planned and structured his comedies with extreme seriousness, and it's part of his genius that he somehow makes that work.

Anyway, here are a couple of clips from not-currently available Lubitsch films. One is his last completed film, Cluny Brown, which I wrote about a couple of years ago so I don't have to write much about it now. It's based on the popular novel by Margery Sharp about a free-spirited young woman who shocks English society with her interest in plumbing. Lubitsch, of course, fell in love with Sharp's obvious parallels between an interest in plumbing and an interest in sexual matters (the novel has a scene, which the movie cuts, where the character of Mr. Ames tries to seduce Cluny through the sex-appeal of his wonderful modern bathroom); and the joke that plumbing = sex runs through the whole movie in one form or another.

This scene is the one that introduces Cluny (Jennifer Jones) as she arrives to fix a sink for Mr. Ames (Reginald Gardiner) and meets the refugee professor Adam Belinski (Charles Boyer). Jones is very charming in this movie, though her attempt at an English accent is one of the worst ever.

And a short but famous example of Lubitsch's ability to say a lot in very little time: a sequence he wrote and directed for the anthology film If I Had a Million (1932), about what various ordinary people do when they unexpectedly get a million dollars. In Lubitsch's sequence, Charles Laughton plays a meek clerk who reacts impassively to the news but promptly carries out what we assume is his lifelong dream; the shot of the cold, vast white-collar work atmosphere was more or less borrowed by Billy Wilder for The Apartment.

And one more point I'll make: doesn't it seem odd, from today's vantage point, that many of the most respected and prestigious directors in the '20s through the '40s were directors who specialized in comedy? Chaplin, Lubitsch, Sturges, Clair, McCarey: these directors were idolized and held up as examples of the best things the cinema had to offer, and they built major reputations on the basis of their comedy work. I doubt that could happen today; making movie comedies seems to be thought of as the realm of hacks, or at least guys who aren't quite Good Enough to make dramas.

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