Lubitsch's Last Hurrah

New AFS Essential series covers the 'Touch' from prewar to 'Cluny Brown'

<i>Cluny Brown</i>
Cluny Brown

Ernst Lubitsch's best and most loyal acolyte once recalled, in the closing scenes of his own storied life, his onetime boss/mentor/friend in the same manner that Hollywood has desperately tried to emulate, but largely failed. Three years before his death, writer/director/producer Billy Wilder (1906-2002) told Cameron Crowe:

"William Wyler and I were pallbearers [at Lubitsch's funeral], and when we were walking away, I said, 'What a shame, no more Lubitsch.'

"And then he said something better. He said, 'And worse, no more Lubitsch pictures.'"

That – "and then he said something better" – that's moviedom's mythical "Lubitsch Touch." That's what Lubitsch asked of all his writers. "How do we do it better? How do we make it different?" How can we make it funnier?

Since Tinseltown invented the brand, the two remain one: Chaplinesque, Capra-esque, Hitchcockian. Names themselves are trademarks: Ford, Kubrick, Jonze. The Lubitsch Touch remains synonymous with urbane comedies, but the Berlin-born actor-director didn't invent witty repartee. Rather, the Lubitsch Touch marries the überpunchline – the joke after the joke – with its visual counterpart.

Curious, prone to propriety, but sometimes downright leering, his camera goes where you would crane, averts its gaze where discretion dictates. Naughty, playful, and knowing, jokes rule the roost in Lubitsch land, but only through a brand of voyeuristic collusion with the films' own underlying narrative. Lubitsch's silent films, always utilizing a bare minimum of intertitles (consider his dramatic Oscar Wilde adaptation Lady Windermere's Fan), might be judged somehow more humorously pure than his soundies if not for the jaw-dropping double entendres and ribald innuendo unfathomably allowed by Hayes Office censors.

In Scott Eyman's research-rich 1993 biography Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise, he recounts an audience preview card for greatest hit Ninotchka that nails his appeal in a manner that doubled over the director himself.

"Great picture. Funniest film I ever saw. I laughed so hard, I peed in my girlfriend's hand."


In truth, the Grand Poobah of addition and submission – his reliance on any audience's simple arithmetic skills (1+1+1) – began dying well before Wilder 'n' Wyler traded quips (no doubt in German) at Lubitsch's grave site after his death on Nov. 30, 1947.

Flush with the back-to-back box office success of fearless 1942 Nazi satire To Be or Not To Be and melancholic masterpiece Heaven Can Wait a year later, Lubitsch celebrated two decades in Los Angeles by collapsing at a party thrown by Norwegian skater-turned-actress Sonja Henie. A lengthy hospital convalescence followed the cineaste's first heart attack. His brother had succumbed to cardiac arrest during sex, and sister Elsa died of the family fatality while he convalesced.

Samson Raphaelson, the director's favored collaborator and author of nine Lubitsch films, including top titles Trouble in Paradise (1932), The Shop Around the Corner (1940), and Heaven Can Wait (1943), paints a grim bedside scene in his essay "Freundschaft: How It Was With Lubitsch and Me":

"I reassured him ... [but] Lubitsch smiled wanly. 'I know, I know. But when I die, this is what I'll die of.'"

He did too, with timing better than that of his sibling Richard. Lubitsch's final attack occurred post-coital – though, according to Billy Wilder, on the clock.

Coronary artery disease was then still more than a decade removed from the first U.S. heart bypass, so Lubitsch reported back to 20th Century Fox in the first months of 1944. Doctors nixed directing, but Darryl Zanuck agreed to let him produce. Two years and two good-behavior pictures after his initial infarction – Otto Preminger's conflicted A Royal Scandal and Joseph L. Mankiewicz's messy Dragonwyck – Lubitsch undertook what became his last completed film.

If World War I made Lubitsch, so did its sequel. Avoiding the draft because his father had fled similar regimentation in Russia, the youngest of four also skirted a tailor-made future in his family's garment business for the theatre in a town where it mattered most. A 22-year-old actor when war broke out, Lubitsch's first directorial essential came out a month before the armistice. In 1918's unbelievably assured I Wouldn't Want To Be a Man flickers a vastly sexier precursor to Blake Edwards' 1982 cross-dresser Victor Victoria.

Four years later, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks imported the renowned director for posterity, and Lubitsch never lived anywhere else. Seventy-plus features, with more than 30 boasting screen time from Lubitsch himself (one Berlin silent had him as a half-naked devil), all funneled down to one final production: 1946's Cluny Brown.

World War II dropped Ninotchka, The Shop Around the Corner, That Uncertain Feeling, To Be or Not To Be, and Heaven Can Wait all in a row, but with Cluny Brown, Lubitsch laughed last.

One Good Bang

"There was nothing particularly important going on in London on a quiet Sunday afternoon in June 1938. The most exciting event of the day was Mr. Hilary Ames' cocktail party – and even that was exciting only to Mr. Ames."

Lubitsch rarely resisted written introductions to his films. Cluny Brown's doubles the Lubitsch Touch with its aside. In Cameron Crowe's Conversations With Wilder, Wilder's best example of the LT opens Bluebeard's Eighth Wife, Wilder's first screenplay assignment in the States. He and Charles Brackett also scripted Ninotchka for Lubitsch the following year, but Cluny Brown's ripest comparison lies in a Wilder touchstone: Sabrina. Before Audrey Hepburn love-struck Humphrey Bogart, William Holden, and all moviedom in Wilder's 1954 Cinderella story, Jennifer Jones, as the titular Cluny Brown, had Charles Boyer at the word "plumber."

Boyer's native French accent appears as a merde opening omen for a film in English, but as Adam Belinski, a Czech dissident on the run from the Third Reich (Lubitsch was Jewish), his mistaken identity in Reginald Gardiner's kitchen – correction, at Mr. Hilary Ames' stopped-up kitchen sink – makes perfect movie sense. So does the knock at the door.

"Excuse me, Mr. Belinski," says Ames. "This must be the plumber."

As he steps to and opens the door, the camera pans up and over his shoulder to find the sharp, feline face of Jennifer Jones, with her dark curled bangs, ponytail, and big black bow tie – all topped by a Sunday hat with two feathers and a flower. Large/shiny/brown eyes help triangulate her face, apple cheeks the broadest point narrowing to a pointy chin as preceded by a perfectly pointed nose. Like Hepburn in Sabrina, Jones in Cluny Brown remains a clear-cut case of love at first close-up.

Before you can say "meet cute," the plumber's niece harpoons Mr. Belinski and convinces Mr. Hilary Ames to let her take a whack at his pipes.

"One good bang," she pants.

Banging on the sink's undercarriage with a hammer in her Sunday schoolgirl best qualifies as one of Lubitsch's most blatant screen tantalizations, but when Jones asks, "Have you ever had tea at the Ritz?" Marilyn Monroe as Sugar in Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot couldn't steam your glasses any faster.

Suddenly, these two "gentlemen" are feeding Cluny Brown her first ever cocktail, and she's reclining on a divan with her arms thrown back above her head.

"It's coming over me," she slurs. "That Persian cat feeling. M-e-o-w."

Scandalized, Mr. Hilary Ames pulls the drapes, but Belinski's perched next to her – rapt and ready for whatever she'll say or do next.

"You're lying there in bed reading that wonderful travelogue in The Daily Mail and wanting to go places and wondering if you ever will," gushes the orphan. "And all of a sudden, you're a cat, and you start to climb.

"And you leap out of the window into the fog. Then suddenly the fog lifts, and it isn't London, it's Baghdad! Next week, I'll be in Cairo!

"Ohhh, it's so wonderful to be a cat and read The Daily Mail!"

You probably won't pee in your partner's anything in the establishing minutes of Cluny Brown, but if Lubitsch hasn't touched you just then, maybe it's time Wilder and Wyler were called in.

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Ernst Lubitsch, Lubitsch Touch, Austin Film Society, AFS Essential Cinema, Bluebeard's Eighth Wife, Ninotchka, That Uncertain Feeling, To Be or Not To Be, Cluny Brown, William Wyler, Billy Wilder, Samson Raphaelson, Cameron Crowe

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