Ernst Lubitsch and the ‘Lubitsch Touch’

Ernst Lubitsch (1892 – 1947)

Ernst Lubitsch (1892 – 1947)

On January 28, 1892, German American actor, screenwriter, producer and film director Ernst Lubitsch was born. His urbane comedies of manners gave him the reputation of being Hollywood’s most elegant and sophisticated director.

Ernst Lubitsch was born in Berlin and was apprenticed as a merchant. However, the son of a fashion designer and tailor quickly became the student of Max Reinhardt. Reinhardt was back then an important an influential person and the artistic director of the German Theater in Berlin. Lubitsch started out with small plays and cabaret shows before becoming an actor at bigger theater stages in Berlin. After acting in several movie productions, Lubitsch started directing his own films and made his mark as a serious director in 1918 with ‘The Eyes of the Mummy‘. In this period, Lubitsch began filming historical dramas, comedies as well as short films, earning a great reputation internationally. In 1921, Lubitsch’s films were selected in the list of the 15 most important movies by the New York Times. In the same year, Lubitsch sailed to the United States in order to explore the American film industry. Even though he was not received very gladly, Lubitsch decided to leave Germany for Hollywood one year after.

His first productions were a critical and a commercial success and Lubitsch was able to sign a three-year, six-picture contract with Warner Brothers that guaranteed the director his choice of both cast and crew, and full editing control over the final cut. However, the financial success for the film company decreased and Lubitsch’s contract was dissolved early. In the following years, the German director started working together with MGM Paramount and was very successful with his movie ‘The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg‘ from 1927, but unfortunately the expected financial success failed to set in again. Still, Lubitsch was appointed Paramount’s production manager in 1935 and ran the largest Hollywood studios at the time.

Lubitsch not only directed his own films, but increasingly supervised other directors as well. This time, the German film maker had troubles overseeing all of the sixty different films and got fired. Lubitsch decided to devote his life completely to full-time movie making and became a citizen of the United States in 1936.

In 1939, Lubitsch moved to MGM, and directed Greta Garbo in Ninotchka. Garbo and Lubitsch were friendly and had hoped to work together on a movie for years, but this would be their only project. The film, co-written by Billy Wilder, is a satirical comedy in which the famously serious actress’ laughing scene was heavily promoted by studio publicists with the tagline “Garbo Laughs!

In 1940, he released one of his most famous movies, ‘The Shop Around the Corner‘. The movie starred James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan as well as Frank Morgan and ranked #28 on AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Passions, and is listed in Time’s All-Time 100 Movies. During his last active years as a director, Lubitsch worked at 20th Century Fox and it has been claimed that the last picture made by the director with his distinctive “touch” was ‘Heaven Can Wait‘, released in 1943.

In March 1947, Lubitsch was awarded a Special Academy Award for his “25-year contribution to motion pictures”. Presenter Mervyn LeRoy, calling Lubitsch “a master of innuendo“, described some of his attributes as a filmmaking: “He had an adult mind and a hatred of saying things the obvious way.”

Lubitsch died of a heart attack on November 30, 1947 in Hollywood. His last film, That Lady in Ermine with Betty Grable, was completed by Otto Preminger and released posthumously in 1948. Leaving Lubitsch’s funeral, famous director Billy Wilder ruefully said, “No more Lubitsch.” William Wyler responded, “Worse than that. No more Lubitsch pictures.” Wilder had a sign over his office door, which read “How would Lubitsch do it?” [6]

At yovisto academic video search, you may enjoy the movie ‘That Uncertain Feeling‘ by Ernst Lubitsch from 1941. In it, the happily married Jill baker is persuaded to see a psychoanalyst about her psychosomatic hiccups.

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