February 2, 2010  |  An Auteurist History of Film
The Lubitsch Touch
The Marriage Circle. 1924. USA. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch

The Marriage Circle. 1924. USA. Directed by Ernst Lubitsch

These notes accompany the program The Lubitsch Touch, which screens on February 3, 4, and 5 in Theater 3.

Ernst Lubitsch (1892–1947) was more responsible than anyone for bringing a continental flavor to the largely Anglo-Saxon American cinema. Although Erich von Stroheim preceded him, von Stroheim’s obsessions were too outré to be fully integrated into the American (Hollywood) sensibility. While Lubitsch remained fixated on European subjects and locales, his broadly humanistic humor did resonate with Americans in ways that von Stroheim’s esoteric naughtiness did not. Von Stroheim returned to Europe after World War II; Lubitsch died a Hollywood insider.

Lubitsch’s journey from Berlin took a few atypical turns. Starting in 1914 he directed himself in several crude comedies with an emphasis on a Jewish stereotype. Some of his more sophisticated satires (Die Austernprinzessin, Die Puppe, Romeo und Julia im Schnee) hold up well and reflect Lubitsch’s stage training with Max Reinhardt. He first gained notice in America with his ersatz D. W. Griffith spectacles (Madame DuBarry, Anna Boleyn), and Mary Pickford brought him to Hollywood to do the costume drama Rosita (1923), which she subsequently tried to destroy. Fortunately, Warner Brothers signed him to a contract, which resulted in a series of adult comedy/dramas, of which The Marriage Circle and So This Is Paris are representative.

Charles Chaplin, at the height of his fame as the Tramp, decided to make a film in which he appeared only in a brief cameo. A Woman of Paris (1923) was praised for its subtlety and sophistication and had an enormous impact on Lubitsch. American film audiences had seldom experienced stories of marriage and adultery in which women were allowed to operate on a more-or-less level playing field. Heroines had previously been largely represented by either wily yet vulnerable child/women portrayed by Lillian Gish or Mary Pickford, or unscrupulous vamps. Lubitsch opened up the possibility that women were just women, with needs and intellects corresponding to those of men. Although The Marriage Circle is a film that handles its subject matter with deftness and delicacy, Greg S. Faller has pointed out that there is a superficiality (endemic to the period) to Lubitsch’s threatening of the status quo: “An essentially solid relationship is temporarily threatened by a sexual rival. The possibility of infidelity serves as the occasion for the original partners to reassess their relationship…. The lovers are left more intimately bound than before.” All this is presented with a visual panache that ultimately came to be deemed “the Lubitsch touch.”

Of all the great directors, Lubitsch is perhaps the least remembered for striking imagery. He might draw upon the master studio set-designers to create an appropriately palatial environment for his human dramas, but there is practically no concern with visual effects, landscape, spectacle, or so many of the qualities for which we use the shorthand term “cinematic.” However, his gifts lay elsewhere. He—in league with Maurice Chevalier—rescued the musical from the vulgarities of Al Jolson and the studio-promoting vaudeville reviews that proliferated in the early days of sound. In the 1930s, he was responsible for some of the most enduring romances ever produced, including Trouble in Paradise, Desire (produced by Lubitsch and directed with luxuriant Lubitschean luster by Frank Borzage), Angel, Ninotchka, and The Shop Around the Corner. Rest assured, he’ll be back later in this series.

Many thanks to the Film Foundation for their help in preserving The Marriage Circle.

A side note: on February 4, there’s another chance to catch a screening of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, thanks to Jenny He’s Tim Burton and the Lurid Beauty of Monsters exhibition.