Friday, August 24, 2018

Touched by Lubitsch: Smiles on a Summer’s Night

Why Lubitsch?  It’s been a hot, sticky summer, marred in my home state by actual fires, rather than the flames of passion. So I decided to chill out with two pre-Code Ernst Lubitsch confections. Lubitsch people, it seems, live in places like Paris, sip cocktails at all hours, wear tuxedos (men) and slinky satin gowns (women), and make amorality into a fine art. They don’t all have money, but they know how to get it, or how to live beautifully without much at all. In these films from the early 1930s, made several years before the Hays Code imposed rigid moralistic restrictions) the outside world (of politics, of economics, of conventional behavior) rarely intrudes at all.

Lubitsch, a German Jew who began as an actor, came to Hollywood in the silent era, imported by Mary Pickford to direct her in a film called Rosita. Their collaboration didn’t go well, but he was soon snapped up by the major studios. His first outing as a director of talkies, 1932’s Trouble in Paradise, is considered his very best by many film historians, including my buddy Joseph McBride, whose new book is titled How Did Lubitsch Do It? This spritely comedy—which features the sexy and well-dressed triangle of Herbert Marshall, Miriam Hopkins, and Kay Francis—is the story of two grifters determined to pilfer the expensive jewels and accoutrements of a naïve but beautiful widow, heiress to a cosmetics fortune. When Marshall and Hopkins first meet over a romantic dinner in Venice, they are both posing as aristocrats. The scene in which they discover their mutual talent for pickpocketry is priceless. Suffice it to say, they steal each other’s hearts (along with a wallet, a gold watch, and a garter), but Kay Francis’s more soignée charms become for Marshall a serious distraction.

The witty screenwriter for Trouble in Paradise was a Lubitsch regular who became a Hollywood favorite: Samson Raphaelson. (Among other things, he wrote the play that ultimately became The Jazz Singer.) A different kind of writing talent was on display in Lubitsch’s next feature, 1933’s Design for Living. Though it was based on a hit Noel Coward stage comedy, the Lubitsch version had entirely different characters and structure. Coward had written the roles of two men and a woman engaged in a jolly ménage à trois to accommodate himself and good friends Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Apparently he’d dabbled in giving them exotic backgrounds (with himself cast as a Chinese gentleman), but settled for making them posh, artistic Britishers, one male  a successful playwright, one a much-admired painter. Since the men’s longtime friendship much pre-dates the entrance of the charming Gilda into their lives, their intense attachment to one another is another aspect of the triangle, and suggests glimpses of Coward’s own not-so-covert homosexuality.

The Lubitsch version (script by the great Ben Hecht) turns all three characters into Americans abroad, first seen on a train in their down-and-out days. In a tour-de-force opening sequence, Gilda (Miriam Hopkins) first encounters the two men (Frederic March and Gary Cooper) in a third-class compartment, snoring away. Nothing daunted, she proceeds to sketch them. When they awaken to discover this vivacious young blonde and her sketchpad, all three launch into fluent traveler’s French, as they hotly discuss the merits of her work. The legendarily laconic Gary Cooper speaking French?  And engaging in sparkling repartee?  All part of the Lubitsch touch.

Director/screenwriter Billy Wilder, himself famous for such charming films as The Apartment and Some Like It Hot, posted a sign in his office: How Would Lubitsch Do It? We’d still like to know.

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