Fall 2018


Lubitsch's Timeless Appeal

The director who was idolized by Wilder and Welles is brought into sharp focus


DGA Quarterly Magazine Fall 2018 Book How Did Lubitsch Do It by Joseph McBride

It's safe to say that for most of today's cineastes, the name Ernst Lubitsch is more familiar than the work. After all, the director known for "the Lubitsch touch" made his first feature in his native Berlin no less than a century ago.

In How Did Lubitsch Do It? (Columbia University Press), Joseph McBride—who has written definitive biographies of Capra, Ford and Spielberg—makes a compelling case for Lubitsch as an unequaled master of elegant, sophisticated entertainments marked by sly innuendo and adult sensibilities that have stood the test of time. The book's title is derived from Billy Wilder's oft-invoked phrase, "How would Lubitsch do it?" Welles, Hawks, Hitchcock and Sturges were among the German director's contemporaries who also sung his praises. (Ever the completist, McBride packs more insight into Lubitsch's ineffable style in his 33-page intro than many Hollywood biographers can manage in entire books.)

"The cliché was Lubitsch's bête noire," McBride writes, "the hurdle he always pushed his writers to help him jump over en route to something astonishing."

Samson Raphaelson—the screenwriter behind such Lubitsch classics as Trouble in Paradise (1932), The Shop Around the Corner (1940) and Heaven Can Wait (1943)—describes in the book how Lubitsch would set a scene by turning convention on its ear. "How do we do that without doing that?" Raphaelson quotes the director as saying, and McBride fashions the question into a mantra.

Beyond Lubitsch's best-known works, which include Ninotchka (1939) and To Be or Not to Be (1942), McBride insists on Trouble in Paradise as the director's peak statement. "No romantic comedy could ever hope to surpass [its] grace, elegance, charm, wit, intricacy and audacity," he declares. The film pairs Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins as globe-trotting thieves/lovers posing as aristocrats, with a filthy-rich perfume heiress, played by Kay Francis, who becomes their mark. The direction is endlessly inventive, the settings are tantalizingly exotic, and the patter is snappy.

At one point in the movie, Francis' Mariette Colet blithely disarms a legitimately wealthy suitor with the line: "You see, Francois, marriage is a beautiful mistake, which two people make together. But with you, Francois, I think it would be a mistake."

Such contradictory epigrams are among the film's irresistible attributes, and Lubitsch is credited by Raphaelson himself for writing some of his best material, admitting that the expatriate master "was better able to write a line, if he had to, than any other director who ever existed."

Ernst Lubitsch is flanked by stars Margaret Sullivan and James Stewart on the set of The Shop Around the Corner.(Photo: AMPAS)

The latest in the University Press of Mississippi's invaluable "conversations with Filmmakers series," David O. Russell: Interviews, edited by Holly Willis, compiles talks with the writer-director of Flirting with Disaster, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook from January 2000 to November 2016.

Some of these conversations are with Russell's peers, including Spike Jonze, and Russell's fellow chronicler of absurdist drama and family dysfunction, Alexander Payne.

Also among the largess are a couple of interviews culled from the DGA's archives, including a career-spanning chat with Jeremy Kagan for the Guild's "Craft of the Directors" series, and an exchange with Matthew Weiner following a DGA screening of Russell's undersung 2015 film, Joy.

"You are made up of the people who surrounded you and the places you know," Russell told Weiner. "You have to stay rooted in a world that you can make personal in some way because that's what makes us who we all are. It's the people we love, the people we struggle with, and the specificity of them... Then I have to love them, including all of their brokenness."


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