By 1911 Ernst Lubitsch was a member of Max Reinhardt's Deutsches Theater. He made his film debut the following year as an actor, but he gradually abandoned acting to concentrate on directing.
In 1918 he made his mark as a serious director with Die Augen der Mumie Ma (The Eyes of the Mummy), starring Pola Negri. Lubitsch subsequently alternated between escapist comedies and grand-
His reputation as a grand master of world cinema reached a new peak after the release of his spectacles Madame Du Barry (retitled "Passion," 1919) and Anna Boleyn ("Deception," 1920). Both of these films found American distributorship by early 1921. They, along with Lubitsch's Carmen ("Gypsy Blood," 1920) were selected by the New York Times on its list of the 15 most important movies of 1921.
Lubitsch left Germany for Hollywood in 1922, contracted as a director by Mary Pickford. Lubitsch directed Pickford in the film Rosita; the result was a critical and commercial success, but director and star clashed during its filming, and it ended up as the only project that they made together. A free agent after just one American film, Lubitsch was signed to a remarkable three-
Settling in America, Lubitsch established his reputation for sophisticated comedy with such stylish films as The Marriage Circle (1924), Lady Windermere's Fan (1925), and So This Is Paris (1926). But his films were only marginably profitable for Warner Brothers, and Lubitsch's contract was eventually dissolved by mutual consent, with MGM-
Lubitsch seized upon the advent of talkies to direct musicals. With his first sound film, The Love Parade (1929), starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, Lubitsch hit his stride as a maker of worldly musical comedies. The Love Parade (1929), Monte Carlo (1930), and The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) were hailed by critics as masterpieces of the newly emerging musical genre.
His next film was a romantic comedy, written with Samson Raphaelson, Trouble in Paradise (1932). Later described (approvingly) as "truly amoral" by critic David Thomson, the cynical comedy was popular both with critics and with audiences. But it was a project that could only have been made before the enforcement of the production code, and after 1935, Trouble in Paradise was withdrawn from circulation. It was not seen again until 1968.
Whether with music, as in MGM's opulent The Merry Widow (1934) or Paramount's One Hour with You (1932), or without, as in Design for Living (1933), Lubitsch continued to specialize in comedy. He made only one other dramatic film, the antiwar Broken Lullaby (aka The Man I Killed, 1932).
In 1935, he was appointed that studio's production manager, thus becoming the only major Hollywood director to run a large studio. Lubitsch subsequently produced his own films and supervised the production of films of other directors. But Lubitsch had trouble delegating authority, which was a problem when he was overseeing sixty different films. He was fired after a year on the job, and returned to fulltime moviemaking. In 1936, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States.
In 1939, Lubitsch directed Greta Garbo in Ninotchka. Garbo and Lubitsch were friendly and had hoped to work together on a movie for years, but this would be their only project. The film, co-
In 1940, he directed The Shop Around the Corner, an artful comedy of cross purposes. The film reunited Lubitsch with his Merry Widow screenwriter Raphaelson, and starred James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as a pair of bickering coworkers in Budapest, each unaware that the other is their secret romantic correspondent.
With few exceptions Lubitsch's movies take place neither in Europe nor America but in Lubitschland, a place of metaphor, benign grace, rueful wisdom... What came to preoccupy this anomalous artist was the comedy of manners and the society in which it transpired, a world of delicate sangfroid, where a breach of sexual or social propriety and the appropriate response are ritualized, but in unexpected ways, where the basest things are discussed in elegant whispers; of the rapier, never the broadsword... To the unsophisticated eye, Lubitsch's work can appear dated, simply because his characters belong to a world of formal sexual protocol. But his approach to film, to comedy, and to life was not so much ahead of its time as it was singular, and totally out of any time.