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Still courtesy of the Stanford Theater

Our Dinner With Greta: Melvyn Douglas and Ina Claire sit down for cocktails with the new commissar in town in Ernst Lubitsch's East-West comedy 'Ninotchka.'

The Importance of Being Ernst

Director Ernst Lubitsch gave Hollywood a dose of European sophistication in the 1930s

By Richard von Busack

ORSON WELLES called director Ernst Lubitsch a "giant." Greta Garbo, Lubitsch's star in Ninotchka, said that he was "the only great director out there"--"out there" meaning Hollywood. And if ever Hollywood needed some of the qualities that Ernst Lubitsch possessed in abundance, it's now.

Jan. 28 is the birthday of the noted film director, and to mark the anniversary, the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History is presenting a retrospective of five of his films once a month through May 28. There will also be an all-day Lubitsch marathon on The Movie Channel on the 28th (see sidebars for details on both).

Lubitsch was the most sophisticated director in the American cinema, our only answer to talents like Max Ophuls and Jean Renoir overseas. But Lubitsch (1892-1947) was also the only actor who really reached a position of power in the studio system in the Golden Age of Hollywood. Lubitsch was appointed head of production at Paramount in 1935, and thus "his influence at the Paramount Studio is thus comparable," notes critic Andrew Sarris, "to Zanuck's at Fox, Thalberg at MGM ... and all the brothers Warner put together."

Lubitsch, then, deserves much of the credit for guiding the most erotic and urbane of Hollywood studios, the home of Betty Boop, Maurice Chevalier, the Marx Brothers, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West and, later, the sexy farces of Preston Sturges.

With his continental background (Lubitsch was born in Berlin and immigrated to the U.S. in 1923), Lubitsch often chose adultery as a spur for comedy. It underlies three of his five films at the Santa Cruz retrospective, including the series' opener, the silent film So This Is Paris (1926), the marvelous Trouble in Paradise (1932), and the director's finest work, To Be or Not to Be (1942).

Today, something like The End of the Affair is considered adult, profound and troubling when it takes stock of the damage done by infidelity. "The war was the biggest pimp of them all," notes Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes) as he surveys the ruin of a marriage. But an affair is one of the pleasanter byproducts of a war in To Be or Not to Be. In this prime comedy, a married actress (Carole Lombard) self-justifies her crush on a handsome pilot on grounds of national emergency.

By presenting the fling in a sympathetic light, Lubitsch was going against the rules of the movie business. Decades ago, the Motion Picture Production Code laid down the law: "The sanctity of marriage and the home shall be upheld. ... Adultery, sometimes necessary plot material, must not be explicitly treated, or justified, or presented attractively."

That code may have been erased, but moviegoers can see the outlines of the letters. Many of our smarter contemporary films are almost nothing but cautionary tales about the grisly damage done when married people cheat: Happiness, Your Friends and Neighbors, Magnolia, American Beauty and Eyes Wide Shut (the moral of which, as I understand it, is "Don't even fantasize about adultery!")

Lubitsch, however, proposes that love, like a river, sometimes overflows its bounds. He observed that in marriage, trouble threatens from without while boredom threatens from within. He calmly considers the possibility of distraction. Such diversions are not the end of the world, or even the end of a marriage. In comedy, at least, marriage ought to be a laughing matter.

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Lubitsch on TV: On Jan. 28, The Movie Channel presents a day of Lubitsch films.

Lubitsch at MAH: The Museum of Art & History hosts a series of screenings beginning January 27.

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THE SO-CALLED "Lubitsch touch" is a sophisticated attitude toward extramarital affairs, but it also comprises a number of other qualities. It is visual compression, telling us all we need to know about a couple in one image, one sentence or one inflection on a word.

It is the old satirist's trick of setting a story in a faraway land--Poland or Hungary or Italy--so that the audience can show amused tolerance of morals easier or sterner than their own. It is also the ability to make these faraway locations homely, in order to remind us that the foreigners put their pants on one leg at a time. (The opening shot of Trouble in Paradise follows a shadowy gondola gliding along a Venetian canal; the gondolier, singing beautifully, is revealed to be a garbage man when the light hits him.)

Most of all, the Lubitsch touch is a brilliant use of inference. Forbidden by the censors to say what goes on behind closed doors, Lubitsch merely shows the closed door, and audiences figure it out for themselves.

Trouble in Paradise gives us the progress of an affair, its waxing and waning, from the accent of doors shutting and a series of clocks tolling the hours as a wife waits for her husband to return.

In To Be or Not to Be, Lubitsch makes the first six words of Hamlet's soliloquy a signal for lovers that the coast is clear. In the film, the Nazi occupation of Poland is mirrored by the cuckolding of a ham actor named Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) famous for his terrible performance as the Prince of Denmark. His wife (Carole Lombard) is far too beautiful for such a fool.

Still, the movie notes that, ultimately, just as the brave deserves the fair, the vain deserves the straying. It's one of the most affectionate treatments of a wandering woman in the Hollywood movies, then as now.

Lubitsch died relatively young, in his mid-50s, and his style of comedy was one of the casualties of World War II. His films were dismissed as fluff. Consider director Otto Preminger's somewhat biased view of what Lubitsch's works looked like to audiences sobered by the war: "They laughed, but they hated themselves for laughing."

Sarris writes, "American audiences had regained their emotional adolescence in their quest for seriousness and significance. It was as if Lubitsch had never come to these shores with his expansive smile, his cigar and his gourmet tastes."

If the movies are a constant stream of progress, better with every passing year, Lubitsch's art is the foundation on which new filmmakers will keep building. If--which is more likely--movie history is a constant cycle of learning, forgetting and relearning, there's a chance that the Lubitsch touch will re-energize new filmmakers, who will replace the gross with the sophisticated, and the pious and lecturing with the sympathetic and generous.

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From the January 26-February 2, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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