Sunday, September 23, 2018

Joseph McBride: How Did Lubitsch Do It?

Joseph McBride: How Did Lubitsch Do It? New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. 576 p.

This is a book I have been looking forward to, and as soon as I had it in my hands it bypassed all others. I love Joseph McBride's books on Hawks, Ford, Welles, Spielberg, and (with reservations) Capra.

Lubitsch is a different subject altogether, perhaps the most difficult director to assess. Many have tried, and I have enjoyed them all. Herman G. Weinberg's The Lubitsch Touch is not only my favourite book on the director but one of my favourite books in general. Weinberg created a Lubitsch companion in the spirit of the master. He saw these films when they were new and conveys something of the flavour of their original reception, including of films now lost.

Weinberg was also a friend of Lubitsch, and he refrained from discussing his private life. Later biographers have no such hindrances. McBride writes with insight about the discrepancy of the master of romantic comedy being unhappy in his personal love life.

At his most rewarding McBride is in his extended and original discussions of Lubitsch's films. They include some of the best writing about them. He brings the films to life on the page, and illuminates convincingly why they are timeless.

Inevitably, he also writes about the term "the Lubitsch touch" which Lubitsch himself and most others have rejected: there is no such thing. Myself, I find it useful as long as it is not over-used. For me, a Lubitsch touch is a moment of mordant cinematic wit, a dark illumination seasoned with a tender sense of generosity. Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, and many others were influenced, but only Ernst Lubitsch himself possessed the secret, and even for Lubitsch himself it was probably not conscious and certainly not calculated.

I have also been involved in an Ernst Lubitsch book project. In 1987 we screened at Cinema Orion the first complete Ernst Lubitsch retrospective in Finland. I wrote the program notes and took further notes of all the films; I usually saw them twice. Peter von Bagh took notes, as well, wrote many wonderful pages, and suggested that we should write a book together. But he had also 15 other book projects in development, and this one was shelved.

We were a bit tired of the "Erotikon – A Woman of Paris – The Marriage Circle" narrative about the genesis of Lubitsch's mature style, based on Weinberg. But McBride now states the case of Erotikon as Lubitsch's greatest influence more powerfully than anyone, based on the statements of Billy Wilder to Cameron Crowe and others. Having seen Erotikon, "That was when Lubitsch became Lubitsch" (Billy Wilder).

A chapter important in American cinema that McBride decides to omit is the genre of the sophisticated comedy of the 1920s, directly inspired by Chaplin and Lubitsch, with directors such as Monta Bell, Harry d'Abbadie d'Arrast, Paul Bern, and Malcolm St. Clair.

Mostly I agree with McBride about the favourite Lubitsch films. One Hour With You I rate much higher than he. For McBride it is an inferior remake of The Marriage Circle. For me, it's a wonderful and original musical. Peter von Bagh appreciated the "Brechtian" approach of Maurice Chevalier's interpretation. At Midnight Sun Film Festival, Paul Morrissey chose it as the film he would take to the desert island.

That Uncertain Feeling is another film that leaves McBride without enthusiasm. (It is also a remake, this time about a lost masterpiece, Kiss Me Again, found by many as Lubitsch's best film). I happen to like also That Uncertain Feeling very much, probably due to the fact that it was one of the first films I possessed on VHS video. I proudly showed it many times to friends, and it kept getting funnier. Egészségére!

A wonderful book, but the manuscript would have benefitted from one more round of editing. There are needless repetitions as the text stands now.


How Did Lubitsch Do It?
Joseph McBride
Columbia University Press

Orson Welles called Ernst Lubitsch (1892–1947) “a giant” whose “talent and originality are stupefying.” Jean Renoir said, “He invented the modern Hollywood.” Celebrated for his distinct style and credited with inventing the classic genre of the Hollywood romantic comedy and helping to create the musical, Lubitsch won the admiration of his fellow directors, including Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder, whose office featured a sign on the wall asking, “How would Lubitsch do it?” Despite the high esteem in which Lubitsch is held, as well as his unique status as a leading filmmaker in both Germany and the United States, today he seldom receives the critical attention accorded other major directors of his era.

How Did Lubitsch Do It? restores Lubitsch to his former stature in the world of cinema. Joseph McBride analyzes Lubitsch’s films in rich detail in the first in-depth critical study to consider the full scope of his work and its evolution in both his native and adopted lands. McBride explains the “Lubitsch Touch” and shows how the director challenged American attitudes toward romance and sex. Expressed obliquely, through sly innuendo, Lubitsch’s risqué, sophisticated, continental humor engaged the viewer’s intelligence while circumventing the strictures of censorship in such masterworks as The Marriage Circle, Trouble in Paradise, Design for Living, Ninotchka, The Shop Around the Corner, and To Be or Not to Be. McBride’s analysis of these films brings to life Lubitsch’s wit and inventiveness and offers revealing insights into his working methods.

About the Author

Joseph McBride is a film historian and professor in the School of Cinema at San Francisco State University. He is the author of many books, including Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success (1992), Steven Spielberg: A Biography (1997), Searching for John Ford (2001), and What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?: A Portrait of an Independent Career (2006).

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