By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
Lubitsch specialized in satiric social comedies and lavish historical romances. Well before he turned 30, he was Germany's most celebrated director. At once sophisticated and vulgar in his taste for orientalism and theatrical bric-a-brac, Lubitsch was a cannier, less pretentious and more cosmopolitan entertainer than his peers Fritz Lang and F.W. Murnau — closer in his showbiz sensibility to the Hollywood moguls. ("Bourgeois, Jewish, nouveau riche to the tip of his fat cigar," in Raymond Durgnat's phrase.) In 1922, America's aging sweetheart Mary Pickford hired Lubitsch to direct her next picture. The first of the European émigrés to establish himself in the American movie colony, he adapted brilliantly: "I prefer Paris, Paramount, to Paris, France."
In America, Lubitsch invented his trademark "touch," while creating several successful cycles. The five "continental" comedies he made for Warner Bros. between 1924 and 1926 inspired widespread imitation while putting the hitherto minor studio on the map. (Lubitsch briefly served as Warner's head of production, acquiring the rights to The Jazz Singer before leaving.) Working for Paramount in the early sound era, Lubitsch produced another influential cycle of racy operettas, mainly starring Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier (see The Smiling Lieutenant, screening on July 16, and One Hour With You and The Merry Widow, on July 23). Paramount's production head in the late '30s, Lubitsch remains best known for his late series of plot-driven comedies: Ninotchka, co-written by his disciple Wilder (July 10); The Shop Around the Corner (July 17); and To Be or Not to Be (July 24). Set in Europe and released during World War II, all three have proved resilient enough to be remade and recycled to the present day.
Lubitsch's early career, however, remains insufficiently known. In addition to his German satires, his Warner Bros. silents are a unique synthesis of Euro-couth and American slapstick. The hilarious 1926 silent So This Is Paris (July 30) could lay claim to being Hollywood's quintessential Roaring '20s comedy — a good-natured send-up of sheikhs, jazz babies and would-be wife swappers, replete with binge drinking, outrageous Freudian symbolism and a writhing kaleidoscope that must be the ultimate Charleston scene. Because it's a Lubitsch film, it's all about fantasy, pretense and misplaced identity. An American wife dons a masquerade mask to retrieve her husband from some drunken bacchanal. When she maneuvers him to the couch and removes her mask, he's nonplussed: "What do you mean by coming in at this hour?"
LAUGHTER IN PARADISE: THE AMERICAN COMEDIES OF ERNST LUBITSCH | LACMA | Weekends, July 9-31 | lacma.org
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