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Old 06-10-2006, 10:56   #1
John Hodson
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The Importance of Being Ernst; The Lubitsch Touch...

Nice piece in The Guardian which deserves a wider audience and also gives me an excuse to start a Lubitsch thread...

From his earliest German silents in 1916, to his Hollywood career in the 1940s, Ernst Lubitsch proved himself a skilled director. Ronald Bergan watched a retrospective of his films at this year's San Sebastian film festival.

To most people, a film festival means a fortnight of screenings of the best new non-mainstream films, some of which, even the best, might never be released. This applies to San Sebastian as much as to any other festival. Except for one important difference. Among the leading film festivals of the world, the Spanish Basque city is renowned for its comprehensive retrospectives of great directors. This year was no exception when it offered no less than 47 of the films of Ernst Lubitsch, practically his entire oeuvre from the earliest German silents in 1916, to his last Hollywood films of the 1940s.

Seeing the films chronologically, one was able to follow the evolution of the artist and the development of his constant themes. Immediately from 1918, in the seven films he made with the exotic Pola Negri such as Carmen, Madame DuBarry and the Arabian Nights tale Sumurun, in which she leads a harem to revolt against their master, Lubitsch created complex female characters who were assertive, unsentimental and able to express their sexual desires, while refraining from offering conventional moral judgements.
Another illuminating aspect of the retrospective was that many of his silent films tended towards the condition of the musical. Not only in the way he choreographed scenes but by providing actual musical numbers (all provided in San Sebastian with piano accompaniments) such as the lengthy foxtrot in The Oyster Princess (1919) and the Charleston in So This Is Paris (1926).

This led naturally to Lubitsch's five musicals, beginning with The Love Parade (1929), his first sound film, for which he realized immediately that musical numbers should grow naturally out of the texture of the work, and culminating with The Merry Widow (1934), one of the most enchanting and polished of screen musicals.

The one surprising element was that Lubitsch, who was so skilled at directing actors, was such a crude and charmless actor himself as seen from the films of 1916, when he played a dummkopf character often called Salomon Pinkus. The Shoe Palace allowed both the character and director to indulge in foot fetishism, something that was to reappear in later Lubitsch films.

Born in Berlin in 1892, the son of a draper, Lubitsch was always fascinated by the mores of the upper classes, especially in the marital comedies of the 1920s, such as the marvellously witty The Marriage Circle (1924) and Lady Windemere's Fan (1925) in which he substituted visual epigrams for Wilde's verbal ones.

These were among his first Hollywood movies, in which the bon viveur Lubitsch, with the inappropriate forename, brought continental manners and hedonism into puritan America. It is significant that out of the 27 American films he made, only three were set in his adopted country. The rest took place in Europe, seen through Lubitsch's eyes as a vast romantic playground, wittier, sexier, more refined and, above all, more glamorous than America. "I've been to Paris, France, but Paris, Paramount is better," Lubitsch admitted. He had the extraordinary ability to hint at what went on behind closed doors. "I let the audiences use their imaginations. Can I help it if they misconstrue my suggestions," he once remarked mischievously.

Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Design for Living (1933) are the jewels in the collection. Then, the 30s over and the world living through its darkest days, Lubitsch came up with one of Hollywood's greatest comedies. Not an escapist one, but To Be or Not To Be (1942), which took, of all subjects, the Nazi occupation of Poland.

The celebrated 'Lubitsch Touch' has been variously defined, but the touch is of a master chef who knows exactly the right amount of spice or sugar to add to a dish. For a rare moment in commercial cinema, thanks to Lubitsch, audiences were treated as sophisticates.
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Old 07-10-2006, 12:10   #2
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Sounds like a fantastic retrospective. (I wonder who San Sebastian will do next year?) I can't remember where I read it, but I always liked the story of the screenwriter who got so frustrated at the critics raving about the director, he stormed in to his office with a script of 120 blank pages and said, "Give THAT the Lubitsch Touch!"
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Old 03-11-2006, 08:51   #3
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News from Kino in R1 on the 'Lubitsch in Berlin' releases:

Kino International is proud to release for the first time on DVD four fully restored feature films, and one short film, directed by Ernst Lubitsch during the period he rose to prominence as one of Germany’s top filmmakers - and before he left his mark in Hollywood. All films in this series were fully restored, in 35mm, by Germany's F. W. Murnau Foundation.

Anna Boleyn
A groundbreaking historical epic from legendary director Ernst Lubitsch. The tragic story of the second wife of England’s Henry VIII is given first-class treatment, complete with opulent sets, beautiful cinematography, and a bravura performance by Emil Jannings (THE LAST LAUGH, THE BLUE ANGEL) as Henry.

The Oyster Princess (plus I Don’t Want to Be a Man)
A hilarious silent comedy from a master filmmaker. A pampered American oyster tycoon decides to buy a husband for his daughter, but things don’t go quite as planned. Along the way there are mishaps, misunderstandings and a foxtrot sequence that must be seen to be believed.

Sumurun
A rebellious harem girl rejects the old sheikh and instead falls for a charming clothing merchant in this exotic spectacle that is one of the key early works of the celebrated director. The cast includes Pola Negri as a traveling dancer and Lubitsch himself as a hunchbacked clown.

The Wildcat
A charismatic lieutenant newly assigned to a remote fort is captured by a group of mountain bandits, thus setting in motion a madcap farce that is Lubitsch at his most unrestrained. A wonderfully anarchic and playfully subversive satire of military life from one of the great comedy filmmakers.


More details here.
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Old 21-03-2008, 19:25   #4
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Ernie's thread has been languishing for awhile, but a bump is in order. Not only did his early sound films get released in Eclipse's Lubitsch Musicals set recently, but BFI will be releasing Cluny Brown in May, according to Amazon.
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Old 22-03-2008, 07:28   #5
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It's just dawned on me that I have nothing of Ernst Lubitsch on DVD. (I've still got quite a bit on VHS). Does anyone know which Lubitsch DVDs have good picture quality? Obviously I have no wish to spend money on DVDs whch look no better than my old video tapes.

Thanks in advance.
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Old 22-03-2008, 15:43   #6
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Quote:
Originally Posted by JoelCairo View Post
It's just dawned on me that I have nothing of Ernst Lubitsch on DVD. (I've still got quite a bit on VHS). Does anyone know which Lubitsch DVDs have good picture quality? Obviously I have no wish to spend money on DVDs whch look no better than my old video tapes.

Thanks in advance.
Not knowing which films you have on VHS makes it a little more challenging, but I can give a brief rundown on what I have, all R1:

Lubitsch Musicals - The Love Parade, Monte Carlo, The Smiling Lieutenant, and One Hour with You - the prints on the first two are a little banged up, but The Smiling Lieutenant looks excellent

Trouble in Paradise - grainy, but still fairly good and typical of early '30s elements

Design for Living (in Universal's Gary Cooper Collection) - better than Trouble, not terribly sharp, but very good and the whole set is significantly cheaper than Criterion's release for Trouble in Paradise

Ninotchka - the transfer is superb on the WB disc

The Shop Around the Corner - ditto the above

To Be or Not to Be - another good Warner Bros. image, but maybe a little bright?

Heaven Can Wait - I like the film and the Technicolor a lot, and it's one of Criterion's lower-priced releases. I've read some mild concerns, but it still looks better than the majority of Fox's Technicolor DVDs.

I don't own the Kino silent set because I'm holding out for MoC's release so I can't help there.
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Old 23-03-2008, 23:33   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by clydefro View Post
. . . I can give a brief rundown on what I have, all R1:

Lubitsch Musicals - The Love Parade, Monte Carlo, The Smiling Lieutenant, and One Hour with You - the prints on the first two are a little banged up, but The Smiling Lieutenant looks excellent

Trouble in Paradise - grainy, but still fairly good and typical of early '30s elements

Design for Living (in Universal's Gary Cooper Collection) - better than Trouble, not terribly sharp, but very good and the whole set is significantly cheaper than Criterion's release for Trouble in Paradise

Ninotchka - the transfer is superb on the WB disc

The Shop Around the Corner - ditto the above

To Be or Not to Be - another good Warner Bros. image, but maybe a little bright?

Heaven Can Wait - I like the film and the Technicolor a lot, and it's one of Criterion's lower-priced releases. I've read some mild concerns, but it still looks better than the majority of Fox's Technicolor DVDs.

I don't own the Kino silent set because I'm holding out for MoC's release so I can't help there.
Many thanks.

I think I'll buy Ninotchka as it has such good picture quality. I'm not a big fan of Garbo but I am a big, big, big admirer of Melvin Douglas: in my opinion one of the most skilful and subtle of all Hollywood actors. As a matter of fact, it has always been my subversive and heretical opinion that Garbo was not funny in Ninotchka: it was Melvin Douglas's comedy playing and in particular his reactions that made Garbo seem funny. (Don't tell any Garbo fans I said that. They'll get really angry and indignant!)

To Be Or Not To Be has always been brightly lit - at least in the pretty old and presumably faded prints I have seen. So that DVD might be an accurate recreation of the film's original look. To Be Or Not To Be is my favourite Lubitsch movie; and I love Carole Lombard, in my opinion one of the all-time great movie stars . . . . and she's so sexy in To Be Or Not To Be.

Last edited by JoelCairo; 04-04-2008 at 16:56.
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Old 03-04-2008, 16:53   #8
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Disappointing artwork for Cluny Brown.
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Old 23-05-2008, 03:35   #9
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I'll keep the Lubitsch fires burning. I have Cluny Brown here and it'll be up for review early next week. The artwork is different from what Play have there in my previous post. It instead (and more appropriately) has Jones with Charles Boyer. No extras on the disc aside from a trailer. A 10-page booklet with the original NY Times review of the film and a short Lubitsch biography. The disc is single-layered. In short, and not to spoil my review, but an essential purchase since the price is low and it's a good Lubitsch film, but not a ton of care from BFI on this release.
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