Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Series: German-Hollywood Connection, part 4: Ernst Lubitsch

Ernst Lubitsch was born in 1892 in the Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg into a middle-class Jewish family. Uninterested to follow his father's footsteps and enter the tailoring business, by 1911 Lubitsch had become a member of Max Reinhard's Deutsches Theater, which to this day still is one of Germany's most prestigious theatres. The following year Lubitsch started acting in films but gradually abandoned acting to become a director. His first film of note was the 1918 The Eyes of The Mummy, starring Pola Negri who subsequently became a Lubitsch regular. From the on, until his emigration in 1923, Lubitsch made nearly 20 films, most of which were critically as well as commercially successful, most noteworthy among them are The Oyster-Princess (Germany 1919), Madame Dubarry (Germany 1919), Die Puppe/ The Doll (Germany 1919), Sumurum (Germany 1920), and The Mountain Cat (Germany 1921).

Lubitsch's success as a film director did not escape Hollywood, which by this time started draining the Berlin film studios of their talent. Lubitsch followed a call from Mary Pickford, went to Hollywood for what was meant to be an interlude of a few years, and took his muse, Pola Negri, along with him. Due to differences, the Pickford-Lubitsch collaboration was short-lived, yielding only one film, Rosita (USA 1923), after which Lubitsch accepted an offer from Warner Bros. for which he worked the following three years with increasing success. By 1926, Lubitsch was under contract to Paramount, with which he would remain for well over ten years, at some point even becoming head of production. Lubitsch's early Hollywood period was marked by costume dramas and, following the introduction of sound, by musicals, some of which starred the French import Maurice Chevalier, who rose to star status due to his success in Lubitsch film such as Love Parade (USA 1929) and One Hour With You (USA 1932).

Today, Lubitsch is mostly associated with the sophisticated salon comedies he made between 1932 and his untimely death in 1947. Films like Trouble in Paradise (USA 1932), Design For Living (USA 1933), Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (USA 1938), Ninotchka (USA 1939), or The Shop Around The Corner (USA 1940), have since all become classics and are also typical examples of the so-called Lubitsch-Touch, which has become synonymous with subtly, comically, succinctly and elegantly expressing the unexpected.

After 1933, Hollywood turned into one of the major destinations for refugees from Nazi Germany, particularly after the Anschluss and Reichskristallnacht in 1938 and after 1939, when those refugees stranded in France needed to escape the advancing German army. However, unlike Lubitsch, who by 1933 had long become one of Hollywood's most successful and pre-eminent directors, many of his fellow emigrants were not quite as lucky. To help those who had fallen on hard times, on the instigation of his friend Paul Kohner, the European Film Fund was founded, of which Lubitsch became president. Liesl Frank, wife of the writer Bruno Frank, and Charlotte Dieterle, wife of William, became the heart of the organisation by raising and disbursing funds, supplying affidavits, and aiding newly arrived refugees in finding jobs and adequate housing. In an attempt to help the increasing number of refugees, Lubitsch hired many refugees for his films either as actors or as in the case of Billy Wilder and Walter Reisch, as screenwriters.

Germany's invasion of Poland inspired Lubitsch to one of his best and most sophisticated comedies, To Be Or Not To Be (USA 1942), based on a play by the Hungarian refugee writer Melchior Lengyel, who had already supplied the original story for Ninotchka.

In 1946, Lubitsch had his first heart attack, from which he never really recovered. He died in 1947, with his last film still in production (That Lady In Ermine, USA 1947), which subsequently was completed by Otto Preminger.