Movie Marathon Wrap-up #02: Ernst Lubitsch

BEST PICTURE:
To Be or Not to Be

All of Lubitsch’s strengths in top-form and mixed seamlessly into a smart, biting satire of Nazi Germany. Wit and humor are fired in rapid fashion and hit their mark perfectly.

The acting troupe from To Be or Not to Be


BEST ACTOR:

James Stewart, The Shop Around the Corner

A charismatic and charming performance, laced with subtlety and nuance, fitted perfectly for Lubitsch’s sophisticated style.

James Stewart from The Shop Around the Corner


BEST ACTRESS:

Miriam Hopkins, Trouble in Paradise & Design for Living

Yes, I it’s a tie. Miriam Hopkins and herself again because one Miriam Hopkins is not enough. Feisty, sexy, vibrant and impassioned, she easily is able to give life to any picture she’s in.

Miriam Hopkins in Design for Living


BEST SCENE/MOMENT:

“Heil Myself”, To Be or Not to Be

The single scene in the entire marathon that made me literally laugh way out loud in an instant. Lubitsch’s funniest moment, and the surprise factor is essential for the gag to work.

Tom Dugan as Bronski as Hitler in To Be or Not to Be


BEST “LUBITSCH TOUCH”:

“Concentration Camp Ehrhardt”, To Be or Not to Be

One of the smartest things about it is how it’s used once in an already fairly amusing fashion, and then again later in a scene that is genuinely comedic and bitingly satiric at the same time. 

Jack Benny and Sig Ruman in To Be or Not to Be


MARATHON SCORE:
 74/100

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Design for Living (1933)

Gary Cooper, Miriam Hopkins and Fredric March in Design for Living

After watching Trouble in Paradise, the one thing that I said I wanted more of was Miriam Hopkins. I got that in Design for Living. In the film, Hopkins works within the confines of a love triangle once more and chews up the scenery yet again. The recipients of the brunt of her performance this time are Gary Cooper and Fredric March as best buddies who become rivals vying for the heart (or body?) of Hopkins. This is not a romance though. This instead is a film more about passions and carnal desires more than romantic love. And as always, Lubitsch’s light touch and comedic treatment is able to make the material funny and breezy.

Gilda Farrell (Hopkins) is a commercial artist who draws artwork for advertisements. While on a train in Paris, she meets a two roommates: Struggling artist George Curtis (Cooper) and a struggling playwright Tom Chambers (March). She takes a liking for them instantly; and them for her, which ends up with Gilda sleeping with both of them secretly, much to the chagrin of her long-time friend Max Plunkett (Edward Everett Horton). Naturally, this causes trouble when it becomes clear to everyone that Gilda has been cheating on both roommates with the other. A confrontation with the three of them ensues and the resulting arrangement has Gilda living in but having sex with neither of them. Instead she simply remains as their “Mother of the Arts” to help them both succeed with their respective pursuits. The sexual tension however, is palpable, and the arrangement is soon broken, which throws the trio against each other once again.

Design for Living has the always-dependable Lubitsch wit, class and sophistication, but remarkably the least so out of the top-tier Lubitsch films. The dialogue is smart, snappy and witty, though that’s always the case with this director’s films. Hopkins is marvellously feisty, saucy and painfully sexy, while Horton is as reliable as needed being a frequent collaborator of Lubitsch. Cooper and March however, are both merely serviceable in their roles. While far from being “bad” per se, they don’t exactly make the story vibrant either. Cooper in particular has been maligned by some as being this film’s weak link, but most of those criticisms are gross exaggerations. His performance is typified by being more brawn and less finesse, which is slightly antithetic to the Lubitsch aesthetic, but still fairly decent. March, on the other hand, is characterized by a certain haughtiness that makes me think the role could have been more apt and appealing if played more sympathetically.

If anything, Design for Living shows how much Lubitsch’s films depend on his actors as much as it depends on the so-called “Lubitsch touch.” While Hopkins is totally game – maybe even more so than she was in Trouble in Paradise – nobody else really is in the same way, which unfortunately makes Design for Living something of a “lesser Lubitsch” compared to the other four films of his that I included in this marathon. It’s a film that’s fuelled by sassy sexiness and titillating innuendo as much as the comedy but regrettably neither fully comes to life nor reaches its full potential.

Rating: C+ (average)

Ninotchka (1939)

Greta Garbo as Ninotchka

“From what I’ve read, I thought champagne was a strong drink, but it’s delicate,” says Ninotchka as she takes her first sip of champagne. That line alone epitomizes the romance in Ninotchka, which revolves around the title character as played by Greta Garbo and Count Léon d’Algout as played by Melvyn Douglas.

They meet in the film as opposites. He is carefree and decadent. She is stiff and firm.  Through the course of the film however, Leon draws Ninotchka into his world, revealing a sweet and tender side to the Russian that he (or maybe even she herself) didn’t know existed.

Unfortunately – and I will put this as bluntly as Ninotchka would – the leads are just not that good, which sounds like blasphemy considering that Greta Garbo was considered as one of the greatest film stars for three decades. But if greatness is to be found in her acting, I didn’t find it here. Her stone-faced Bolshevik played out like a caricature and her turn of heart for the Count lacked believability. By the same token, Melvyn Douglas neither has the suave and sophistication of a Herbert Marshall in Trouble in Paradise nor the tender charm of a James Stewart in The Shop Around the Corner. Most importantly, Garbo and Douglas just don’t have the chemistry that is required to make the audience swoon with the belief that they were made for each other.

A bigger problem with Ninotchka however, is that its satirical angle seems to miss the point completely. In To Be or Not to Be, Lubitsch executes a masterful satire of the Nazi regime. He ridicules the most blatant bullies of World War II and reveals a truth through comedy that is both poignant and profound. In Ninotchka however, a film that Lubitsch filmed three years earlier, Lubitsch strikes not nearly as flush or witty. This time, instead of Germany, the target of his political commentary resides in communist Russia. However, it’s unclear who is being lampooned; and more importantly, why.

The story of Ninotchka concerns itself heavily with a comparison of opposites just in the same way that the lead characters are introduced: The decadence of France vs. the rigidness of Russia, the plain uniform clothing of the Bolsheviks vs. the extravagant haute couture of the Parisians, the lavish and carefree high society lifestyle vs. the numbing tedium of communist society. Through this, the message is that communist Russia is evil, which is, I suppose a valid and relevant enough message during that time. The only problem is that the film does it at the expense of the people being oppressed themselves.

The butt of the jokes in To Be or Not to Be are the oppressors: Hitler, Nazi Germany and the Third Reich. Here, we see no shots being fired similarly at the Russian government. Instead, what we have to laugh at are Bolshevik envoys sent to Paris who are enamored by French culture. We laugh at Ninotchka’s Russian neighbor who walks as if the life has been sucked out of him. So, while Lubitsch’s heart appears to be in the right place, it seems that his aim is a bit off.

In spite of this, however, the great thing about Lubitsch films is that no matter what criticism may be laid on them, they never really are bad. Rarely are they even mediocre. In Ninotchka, what is left to admire is basically superficial Lubitsch: The classy production design, the grand and majestic air, the breezy pace and delicate touch. There not a lot of meat to sink one’s teeth into, but sometimes, what is experienced at face value may be enough.

Rating: B (good)

The Shop Around the Corner (1940)

James Stewart, Margaret Sullivan and the cast of The Shop Around the Corner

Considering that I grew up in the 90s and that I have a special place in my heart for romantic comedies, I feel like I need to put this out there: I’ve seen and enjoyed You’ve Got Mail eleventy-hundred-thousand times over. So imagine my surprise upon watching The Shop Around The Corner when the narrative takes a turn about half an hour in that plays exactly like a scene from You’ve Got Mail. I had to stop the film for a while and do some Googling because the similarities were too uncanny. Lo and behold, they were that similar because they’re based on the same play. From that point onwards, it was impossible for me to watch the film without the 90’s romcom at the back of my mind; and it’s similarly impossible for me to write this review without comparing the two.

While the films do have many similarities, the finer details of the story are what sets this 40’s film and its 90’s version apart. The Shop Around the Corner revolves around the lives of a group of gift shop employees, which Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) is a part of and Klara Novak (Margaret Sullivan) later joins. You’ve Got Mail on the other hand, revolves for two hours around Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. The genius of the setup of The Shop Around the Corner is that we aren’t drowned with the romance of the two leads for the entire film. Where You’ve Got Mail treats its supporting cast merely as characters whose lives seem to revolve around Hanks and Ryan without desires and passions of their own, The Shop Around the Corner fleshes out its ensemble a lot more.

The film explores the relationships between the various employees and their employer, Hugo Matuschek. There is interaction, drama and subplots removed from the central romance, which serves to enhance the story further and give it layers that its modern-day counterpart just doesn’t have. There is a duplicitous, two-faced antagonist. There is how Matuschek casts a fatherly aura on his employees, which the film explores as we are treated to his day-to-day interactions with everyone from his most trusted and tenured employee down to the ambitious, precocious delivery boy. Considering the film is almost half an hour shorter than You’ve Got Mail, it’s notable how much more the viewer has to sink their teeth into. In addition, Stewart and Sullivan’s easy chemistry as the adorable leads, with the light and gentle manner in which Lubitsch treats the material only serves to enhance it even further.

Yes, the general structure of The Shop Around The Corner and You’ve Got Mail are exactly the same: Man meets woman. They hate each others’ guts. Man and woman are in love with their respective penpals. Man then discovers that the woman is in fact, actually his mysterious penpal. He decides to keep it to himself. Afterwards, the man befriends the woman, they fall in love, and he reveals himself to her in the story’s heartwarming climax. It’s a romance so saccharine that it easily appeals to the hopeless romantic; thus, it easily appeals to me. So ultimately, with a backbone as solid as Miklos Laszlo’s Parfumerie to bank upon, one really can’t go wrong with either film. The Shop Around the Corner in particular though, is just the more taut film that manages to say more in less time.

Rating: B+ (great)

To Be Or Not To Be (1942)

Jack Benny, Carole Lombard and the theater group from To Be or Not To Be

When To Be or Not to Be was released in 1942, the world was in the throes of war. The film mocked and satirized the Nazi regime. Naturally, there were people who questioned if it was something that should have been made.

Its main plot focuses on a troupe of Polish actors led by the husband and wife team of Joseph and Maria Tura (Jack Benny and Carole Lombard). As a clever, self-referential touch, the company is introduced by Lubitsch as producing a satirical play about the Nazis at the height of tensions between Germany and Poland. Once the Germans invade Poland however, all operations stop. The Turas and their cohorts are then thrust into a tight situation when a certain Polish Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges) is suspected of treachery and tries to recruit Maria as a spy. From here on, the film deftly juggles mystery, suspense and intrigue along with biting satire to make what is easily the most brilliant of all the pictures I’ve seen from the director.

While there’s something oddly subversive about such a film being directed by a German right in the middle of World War II, it’s still classic Lubitsch at its core: It’s light, elegant and sophisticated despite the theme. He gets solid work from the entire ensemble down to the supporting cast, and even though the central narrative is not nearly as strong as the comedic commentary that accompanies it, it makes for a sturdy enough backbone for the film’s loftier plans.

Those plans are typified by Lubitsch’s ability to extract the most brutally honest hilarity during the bleakest moments of human history, as all great satires are able to do. The jokes are sharp, witty, well setup and impeccably timed. Most intriguingly though, they are cleverly multifaceted, with the dialogue and situations often repeated – not for the sake of emphasis – but because the differing contexts give rise to layers that make the film profound and poignant in more ways than one.

At one point in the film Joseph Tura poses as a certain Col. Ehrhardt of the Gestapo in an attempt to pacify Siletsky. In the course of their conversation, the professor tells him of his reputation in London.

“You’re quite famous, Colonel,” he says. “They call you Concentration Camp Ehrhardt.”

As the meeting goes on, with Tura needing to stall the professor, he quips, “Concentration Camp Ehrhardt, huh?” and then again and again to comically break the awkward silence, “So they really call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt!”

Then, later on in the film, with Tura now posing as the professor, he meets the real Col. Ehrhardt and echoes the lines of Siletsky, “Colonel, you’re quite famous in London. You know what they call you? Concentration Camp Ehrhardt.”

To which the real, bumbling Ehrhardt reacts, “Oh, they do, do they? So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt!”

“I thought you would react just that way,” Tura responds. And laughter ensues.

We laugh first and foremost because it lampoons the Nazi army. But more accurately, we laugh because the cold-hearted nature and extreme cruelty of the oppressors rings true. It is comedy as a reflection of life, which makes for the best comedy in that it is hilarious and at the same time chilling. So, while easily the funniest Lubitsch that I’ve seen, with the jokes coming in such rapid-fire succession unseen from the other of the director’s films, the brilliance of To Be or Not to Be is in how it manages to be a sharp and witty reflection of truth in the midst of all the laughter.

To the question of whether or not it should have even been made, as the great satirist Kurt Vonnegut once said: “Jokes can be noble. Laughs are exactly as honorable as tears. Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion, to the futility of thinking and striving anymore. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward — and since I can start thinking and striving again that much sooner.” I would imagine that Lubitsch had the same thing in mind when he and his cast and crew set out to make To Be or Not to Be right in the middle of World War II.

Rating: A (excellent)

Trouble in Paradise (1932)

Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall from Trouble in Paradise

It’s been said that Miriam Hopkins was an actress who often tried to upstage her fellow actors. She supposedly had a tendency to overact, and the purpose was to outshine everyone else. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of that story, but if that was the goal in Trouble in Paradise, then consider it a success. The only thing I wanted more of after watching it was Miriam Hopkins.

In the film, she plays the role of Lily, a svelte thief masquerading in Venice as a Countess. The target of her next score being a certain Baron Lavalle who – unbeknownst to her – is also a fellow crook named Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall), and she is his next score. In one of the film’s funniest scenes, they expose their true identities to each other over dinner. As if a potent aphrodisiac, the revelation makes them fall lustily for one another. They team-up and then swing from Venice to Paris where a third party enters the story in the form of Madame Mariette Colet (Kay Francis). Initially eyed by the thieving couple only for her bejeweled purse, an amusing turn of events eventually puts Gaston in Colet‘s household as her secretary with Lily as his assistant. From here, it doesn’t take very long before Madame Colet is captivated by Gaston and shows jealousy towards Lily.

The dialogue is witty, clever and snappy, and the plot is evidently something that will be borrowed from by romcoms and con films for many decades. But what characterizes Trouble in Paradise the most is that it’s a film filled with silky sophistication. From the romantic setting to the high society crowd that Colet surrounds herself with, everything in the film floats with softness and grace. Marshall’s performance in particular is the epitome of the cool and composed smooth-talking gentleman, while Francis sashays elegantly across the screen with every move of her body. Even the camera follows in theme as it glides from side to side and up and down as Lubitsch himself chooses to move the frame and transition with fade ins and outs instead of employing quick cuts.

As beautiful and light the film is to behold though, everything seems like it’s a little bit insincere. There’s a hint of something hidden beyond face value. There is playful innuendo, but no action. There is disappointment, but no anger. There is worry, but no distress. It’s a film about people being fooled and robbed, but all the emotions seem stifled, which makes the film occasionally uninteresting. It keeps on gathering momentum, but never really takes off.

The exception to this of course, is Lily. In a picture where everything is made out to look sleek and where characters maintain the utmost poise, Miriam Hopkins gives a performance that doesn’t care if things have to be loud and dirty. Hers is a role that wears her heart on her sleeve and that is what makes Hopkins shine. That is why people want to see more of her. When she is happy, she is ecstatic. When she is mad, she is livid. In a picture full of tempered emotions, she is the one that gives the film life, fun, passion and spirit.

Rating: B (good)