Thursday, August 23, 2007

Pants Does Lubitsch

Elegantly Dressed Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas

Woody Allen has been eulogising Bergman, Scorsese crooning for Antonioni so now I’m nailing my colours to the mast for a filmmaker who brought joy to many a lousy rainy afternoon when I was a child. Between 1939 and 1942 (not that I was even thought of then, obviously), Ernst Lubitsch made three classic comedies that were virtually on continuous television rotation along with the Ma & Pa Kettle films and My Little Chickadee during school holidays when I was wee. Now that’s what I call a classical education!

Lubitsch’s light touch and layers of characterisation created a lovely contrast to the soft-focused, simple-plotted romantic comedy star vehicles that were pouring out of Hollywood after the Great Depression and before the US involvement in World War 2. Mistake me not; I judge the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers films Top Hat and The Gay Divorcee sublime. The sophisticated Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant couplings The Philadelphia Story and Bringing Up Baby demand sublime up its game. The comic support turns in some of these films are wonderful. Roland Young say, as Uncle Willie in The Philadelphia Story responding to an early morning pony trap ride wearing a raging hangover with an imploring, ‘wouldn’t we be more comfortable on pogo sticks?’ And Edward Everett Horton was like a one man Three Stooges in black tie, creating chaos whenever lovers and destiny were in the same orbit. But these were ultimately escapist comedies.

There is nothing and no-one to match the sheer genius of Lubitsch for marrying the public taste for sophisticated comedy with his own desire to bring some understanding of the impending and subsequent meltdown in Europe to the general public without all the baggage of politics; which they were almost certain to reject.

Berlin-born Lubitsch was not a refugee like so many of his fellow European directors. He’d arrived in Hollywood in 1922, at the invitation of silent screen star Mary Pickford. He directed a string of silent films and successful musicals but it wasn’t until the release of the incredible Ninotchka in 1939 with Greta Garbo (strap line - Greta laughs!), that he really hit his stride and established the Lubitsch template through a dashing trilogy of political comedies.

Ninotchka had a jolly good laugh at Communism in that deliriously innocent moment in time before the cold war and grave events like the executions of the Rosenbergs in the US brought a rather different curtain down.

‘The show trials were a great success,’ announces Commisar Nina Ivanovna Yakushova as she arrives to curb the persuasion of her three erstwhile comrades to the seductions of Paris,'we are going to have fewer but better Russians.’ Ninotchka introduced the classic Lubitsch staples. The ‘stars’ would invariably appear shabbily dressed for a large part of the film, due either to permanent or subsequent circumstances; and they would play ensemble. The star turn in a Lubitsch film of this era was the comic trio, invariably led by Felix Bressart.

Lubitsch followed Ninotchka up in 1940 with The Shop Around the Corner featuring Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart as squabbling co-workers who are secret affectionate pen-pals. The tension in this film, as with all Lubitsch’s romantic comedies is that Subject A (Male) and Subject B (Female) may or may not end up as Objective C (Marriage). Running interference, as always, is the bumbling supporting cast who may or may not be capable of screwing the whole deal up at any moment. The Shop Around The Corner was remade as the lacklustre You’ve Got Mail in 1998. Nora Ephron, sadly, just didn’t get Lubitsch. She couldn't live with the tension and the movie was the poorer for it.

My all time favourite Lubitsch film is the pinnacle of the classic trio, To Be or Not to Be (1942). You’re going to think – she would say that wouldn’t she, but honestly it’s so funny not even Mel Brooks could improve on it. His 1983 remake wasn’t a patch on the original. But he did redeem himself with The Producers – which owes a huge amount to the central conceit of this film which is that the Nazis are comic figures. More seriously, it’s difficult to reconcile the claims I’ve heard all my life about the world being totally unaware of the atrocities occurring in Nazi Germany with my very early understanding of what this mainstream entertainment was telling us. ‘So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt?’ is the secondary running joke in this film, which is basically about the necessity to hide either Jews or Jewishness, on threat of death.

When Spielberg’s The Terminal came out, I got incredibly excited about it because it’s a film made exactly in the Lubitsch mould. The mandatory political revolution is accompanied by an improbable romance, supported by a bumbling comic trio who may or may not screw the whole thing up. I thought this was a brilliant film, not least of all because of the lovely and very simple premise that someone who spends their whole life under an oppressive regime claiming to set individuals free might well want to connect with an individual whose suffering is similar despite their being not aware of just how parallel their lives are run. That was Lubitsch. Spielberg understood. My mum didn't though. I got the DVD out last time I visited and I've never known her to go to the toilet so many times during a film. She wasn't even roused by the superb cameo by Benny Golson which I thrill to every time, even though I know it's coming. Everything about this film that I loved because it was pure Lubitsch , she hated because she found it unrealistic. In some ways that makes a lot of sense because when I was sitting on the mustard vinyl sofa on a rainy afternoon mainlining Lubitsch, my mum was out working, and not in a Lubitsch type place. Sometimes you get so lucky that you end up with a secret that will last for ever. I think Lubitsch is mine...


Wisewebwoman said...

I so agree with you on Lubitsch. Underrated and so sublime. However, I'm with your mum on The Terminal. Between the bad editing and an insufferable Tom Hanks (whom I normally very much admire)I cringed all through it.

That's so pants said...


I know, I'm pretty much alone on this one. The friend I originally saw it in the cinema with was unmoved too. I loved everything about it - and I'm not a Tom Hanks fan at all. How can you not love Gupta? That scene where he spins the plates and juggles hoops is priceless.



R.H. said...

Bad news: Noosa under water.

That's so pants said...


Yes, I spoke to my Mum on Friday and she was dealing with a collapsed skylight but it seems as if the high tide has passed without problems