Ernst Lubitsch movies: The forgotten, passé ‘Touch’
Ernst Lubitsch and William Cameron Menzies were Turner Classic Movies’ “stars” on Jan. 28. Lubitsch had the morning/afternoon, with seven films; Menzies had the evening/night, also with seven features.
As a sign of the times, Ernst Lubitsch is hardly ever mentioned whenever “connoisseurs” (between quotes) discuss Hollywood movies of the studio era. But why?
Well, probably because The Lubitsch Touch is considered passé at a time when the sledgehammer approach to filmmaking is deemed “fresh,” “innovative,” “cool,” and “daring” – as if a crass lack of subtlety in storytelling were anything new.
Minus the multimillion-dollar budgets, the explicit violence and gore, and the overbearing smugness passing for hipness, many of the shorts cranked out at the dawn of the 20th century exhibited the narrative prototypes of what was to become the norm in the ensuing decades. In fact, most of today’s filmmakers – whether in Hollywood or elsewhere – are their direct descendants. The Lubitsch Touch, on the other hand, has, unfortunately, gone the way of the Neanderthals.
That’s why TCM’s mini-Ernst Lubitsch homage – one day before what would have been the filmmaker’s 124th birthday – was so welcome, as it allowed early 21st century audiences (at least in the U.S.) to get an idea of what has been lost in the last seven decades. (Lubitsch died at age 55 in 1947.)
All seven films are highly recommended whenever TCM airs them again even though The Lubitsch Touch isn’t equally magical in every single effort. My top three are the following: The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg, The Merry Widow, and Ninotchka.
The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg: Moving Ramon Novarro in ‘whiteface’
Based on Sigmund Romberg’s operetta, the 1927 silent The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg stars Mexican actor Ramon Novarro as the Germanic prince Karl Heinrich, heir to the kingdom of Karlsburg. While continuing his studies in the picturesque German town of Heidelberg, the prince falls in love with a local barmaid (Norma Shearer). Fate intervenes when the young prince’s duty to the throne gets in the way of the young couple’s – quite literally – blooming romance.
Released the year Norma Shearer became the wife of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s second-in-command Irving G. Thalberg, and shortly before she became known as the Queen of MGM, The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg showcases the actress at her most unaffected. Seldom during the talkie era would Shearer come across as vibrantly spontaneous.
The same could be said of Ramon Novarro, at his charmingest as the young prince who unexpectedly discovers freedom and romance only to be coerced into renouncing them so as to conform to tradition and the impositions of The Establishment.
At the time, New York Times film critic Mordaunt Hall, for one, found Novarro – covered in white make-up – inadequate as Karl Heinrich at least in part because of his “a little too Latin” looks. Personally, I find it silly to carp about such a small detail in a movie in which the characters talk through intertitles and where Heidelberg is, however beautifully shot (by cinematographer John J. Mescall), clearly set on the Culver City lot.
Should Novarro have played only Mexicans or Central Americans on screen?
Ramon Novarro, by the way, would likely have laughed in the faces of the p.c. crowd outraged that Charlie Hunnam, a “white” Englishman, has been reportedly cast as a “Latino” character – Mexican-American drug lord Edgar Valdez Villarreal a.k.a. “La Barbie”, who, incidentally, like Hunnam, happens to be white, blue-eyed, light-haired, and an English speaker.
After all, throughout his career Novarro – like fellow Mexican Hollywood stars Dolores del Rio, Lupe Velez, and Gilbert Roland – played characters of all sorts of ethnicities and nationalities, from the lighthearted Germanic prince discussed above to the Central European villain Rupert of Hentzau in The Prisoner of Zenda. And there were plenty more, from Chinese to Egyptian, from Navajo to Pacific Islander, from an Italian-American to, gasp!, a “white” Englishman.
Had the p.c. police been around back in those days, preventing Novarro from tackling these roles because of his nationality or skin color, he wouldn’t have had a film career. And irony of ironies: when Novarro first got to play a Mexican national on screen – the Indian Juan Diego in the Mexican-made, flag-waving historical drama La Vírgen que forjó una patria (literally, “The Virgin Who Forged a Nation,” 1942) – the Durango native had to cover himself with brown make-up as he was too European-looking to believably portray a Mexican Indian.
A lavish production – $1.2 million (approx. $16 million today; not including prints and advertising) – The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg was the second most expensive MGM release after the $3.9 million-budgeted Ben-Hur, also starring Ramon Novarro (as an ancient Jewish prince).
Although The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg turned out to be a major international box office success, earning the studio $1.55 million in rentals, due to its high cost the bittersweet romantic drama ended up in the red to the tune of $307,000. Seven years would pass before Ernst Lubitsch made another movie for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
MGM’s good-looking but ineffectual 1954 musical remake, with its title shortened to The Student Prince, starred Edmund Purdom (replacing Mario Lanza, whose singing voice is heard in the soundtrack) and Ann Blyth. Richard Thorpe directed.
Directed by John Emerson, a previous – and quite modest – version of the tale, Old Heidelberg (1915), is of interest due to the presence of early superstar Wallace Reid (as the prince), Dorothy Gish (as the barmaid), and Hollywood’s future autrichien terrible, Erich von Stroheim (Greed, The Wedding March).
Ernst Lubitsch and the case of the effeminate extra
As an aside, on its The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg page, Wikipedia has a story about Ernst Lubitsch purposely shooting a scene featuring an uncomfortable Ramon Novarro, who was gay, buddying up with an effeminate extra. My book on Novarro, Beyond Paradise: The Life of Ramon Novarro, is used as a source for the claim.
This is what I actually wrote about the Hollywood tale in question:
Another alleged problem [during the making of The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg] was that Lubitsch exasperated Novarro by subtly needling him about his homosexuality. In Lawrence Quirk’s biography of Norma Shearer, the author quotes director King Vidor as saying that Lubitsch shot several takes of an uncomfortable Novarro performing a buddy scene with an effeminate extra, a sequence that was later cut by Thalberg. Quirk also asserts that during a 1960 interview he conducted with Novarro, the actor’s face “darkened” when he mentioned Lubitsch and The Student Prince. “It was not one of my favorite films,” Novarro is quoted as saying, “and Lubitsch certainly wasn’t my kind of director. I know he did well with others, but he was wrong for me. We just didn’t have simpatico, and I was glad when it was over with.” These harsh remarks are not corroborated elsewhere; in fact, Novarro stated in the late 1950s that working with Lubitsch had been “grand, perfect,” naming the director as the most influential figure in his career after Rex Ingram.
Indeed, it’s unfortunate that Ramon Novarro and Ernst Lubitsch would never work together again. And as anyone can see, the information in my book is quite different from what is found on Wikipedia.
And that brings to mind…
‘Racist’ Charlotte Rampling
Next time you read about this year’s Best Actress Oscar nominee Charlotte Rampling’s “racist” and “anti-diversity” remarks, go to the damn source before demanding her head.
Whether or not you agree with her position, there’s a big difference between what she actually said in French – and the context of her remarks – and what has been generally printed in English in the ever-tabloidized U.S. media.
As it happens, Rampling’s words in the aftermath of the “Oscars So White” hysteria were printed out of context even in The Guardian. It’s both appalling and disturbing to witness such a publication stooping that low in search of clicks and eyeballs.
Masterful ‘The Merry Widow’
Initially a project for Ramon Novarro as the male lead – the Ben-Hur actor had a pleasant singing voice and for some time had aspired to become an opera singer – The Merry Widow ultimately toplined Maurice Chevalier, the hammiest film performer this side of Bob Hope, Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler… The list goes on and on.
Generally speaking, “hammy” isn’t my idea of effective film acting. For that reason, I usually find Chevalier a major handicap to his movies, especially during the early talkie era; he upsets their dramatic (or comedic) balance much like Jack Nicholson in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed or Jerry Lewis in anything (excepting Scorsese’s The King of Comedy). Back in those days, Chevalier approached most of his scenes as if they were his own private showstoppers; as a result, he wreaked havoc on mood, plot, and character.
Ernst Lubitsch clearly felt differently about the Parisian entertainer. Over the course of five years he collaborated with Chevalier in his sequences in the 1930 all-star revue Paramount on Parade and in no less than four other productions: The Love Parade (1929), The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), One Hour with You (1932, co-directed with George Cukor; in addition to the French-language version, Une heure près de toi), and The Merry Widow (1934; in addition to the French-language version, La veuve joyeuse).
‘Subdued’ Maurice Chevalier
Admittedly, by the time The Merry Widow was filmed in the mid-’30s – Lubitsch’s first MGM effort since The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg – Chevalier had perhaps become more accustomed to the constraints imposed by the proximity of the camera, as he delivers a surprisingly subdued performance as the carefree Count Danilo. Well, subdued by Chevalier’s standards, that is.
But Maurice Chevalier or no, Ernst Lubitsch’s romantic operetta is sheer magic:
- Music by Franz Lehár.
- Cinematography by Oliver T. Marsh.
- Screenplay by Lubitsch collaborators Ernest Vajda and Samson Raphaelson (based on the work of librettists Leo Stein and Viktor Léon).
- Art direction credited to Cedric Gibbons and Fredric Hope.
- Relative MGM newcomer Jeanette MacDonald at her humorous/ethereal best.
Had there been any justice, Jeanette MacDonald would have been nominated for that year’s Best Actress Academy Award. As it happened, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ extant members – there were labor issues going on – selected instead another operatic soprano: Grace Moore, for Victor Schertzinger’s Columbia musical One Night of Love.
One of the most captivating musicals of the studio era, The Merry Widow ended up being shortlisted for one single Academy Award – which it won: Best Art Direction for Gibbons and Hope.
Directed by Erich von Stroheim, the exuberant, silent version of The Merry Widow (1925) starred John Gilbert and Mae Murray. A great-looking but poorly received 1952 color remake toplined Lana Turner and Fernando Lamas under the direction of Curtis Bernhardt.
More Maurice Chevalier
As an aside, The Smiling Lieutenant is pleasant enough, but the film is at its best whenever Maurice Chevalier – who seems to think he is performing his one-man show – is nowhere to be found. Case in point: the “Jazz Up Your Lingerie” number featuring Claudette Colbert and scene-stealer Miriam Hopkins.
Lubitsch’s first talkie, The Love Parade is what’s usually described as a “primitive musical” – one featuring great songs by Victor Schertzinger and Clifford Grey, plus Jeanette MacDonald, Lillian Roth (played by Susan Hayward in I’ll Cry Tomorrow), and a singing dog. Although I’ve got nothing personal against Renée Zellweger and Zac Efron, I’ll take “primitive” anytime over 21st-century stuff like Chicago or High School Musical 3: Senior Year.
Greta Garbo laughs, elicits laughter in ‘Ninotchka’
Ninotchka (1939) is supposed to have helped to boost Greta Garbo’s sagging box office appeal: an unfair statement, really, as the 1937 box office flop Conquest actually centered on Best Actor Academy Award nominee Charles Boyer as Napoleon. In no way could it be considered a “Greta Garbo movie.” Besides, the actual Garbo movie of 1937, the costly Camille (which premiered in New York City in Dec. 1936), was a huge worldwide hit, earning MGM $388,000 in profits.
Anyhow, Garbo laughs, loves, and loosens up in Ninotchka, while showing that less is usually more when it comes to comedy. Her deadpan remarks about the dangers of decadent capitalism are hilarious; who would have thought that Anna Christie and Queen Christina could be that funny. If only most comedians took the trouble to study her performance in this classic and most comedy filmmakers did the same regarding Ernst Lubitsch’s handling of both the material and his actors (Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Ina Claire).
Ninotchka earned Greta Garbo her third and final Best Actress Academy Award nomination. She lost to Vivien Leigh for Victor Fleming’s MGM release Gone with the Wind.
For the record, Garbo’s other two Academy Award nods were for Clarence Brown’s Anna Christie and Romance (both for the period 1929-30) and George Cukor’s Camille (1937). Curiously, both times she lost to other MGM stars: respectively, Norma Shearer for Robert Z. Leonard’s The Divorcee and Luise Rainer for Sidney Franklin’s The Good Earth.
There would be two Ninotchka remakes in the 1950s:
- Ralph Thomas’ The Iron Petticoat (1956), with Katharine Hepburn and Bob Hope.
- Rouben Mamoulian’s musical Silk Stockings (1957), with Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire.
Ernst Lubitsch movies on TCM
Ernst Lubitsch films’ TCM schedule (PT) on Jan. 28.
4:15 AM THE STUDENT PRINCE IN OLD HEIDELBERG (1927). Director: Ernst Lubitsch. Cast: Ramon Novarro. Norma Shearer. Jean Hersholt. Gustav von Seyffertitz. Philippe De Lacy. B&W. 106 mins.
6:15 AM THE MERRY WIDOW (1934). Director: Ernst Lubitsch. Cast: Maurice Chevalier. Jeanette MacDonald. Edward Everett Horton. Una Merkel. B&W. 99 mins.
8:00 AM NINOTCHKA (1939). Director: Ernst Lubitsch. Cast: Greta Garbo. Melvyn Douglas. Ina Claire. Bela Lugosi. B&W. 110 mins.
10:00 AM THAT UNCERTAIN FEELING (1941). Director: Ernst Lubitsch. Cast: Merle Oberon. Melvyn Douglas. Burgess Meredith. B&W. 83 mins.
11:30 AM HEAVEN CAN WAIT (1943). Director: Ernst Lubitsch. Cast: Gene Tierney. Don Ameche. Charles Coburn. Signe Hasso. Laird Cregar. Marjorie Main. Spring Byington. Eugene Pallette. Allyn Joslyn. Louis Calhern. Helene Reynolds. Aubrey Mather. Tod Andrews. Uncredited: Florence Bates. Scotty Beckett. Dane Clark. Claire Du Brey. Clara Blandick. Gary Gray. Dickie Jones. Trudy Marshall. Edwin Maxwell. Dickie Moore. Clarence Muse. Bert Moorhouse. Color. 112 mins.
1:30 PM THE LOVE PARADE (1929). Director: Ernst Lubitsch. Cast: Maurice Chevalier. Jeanette MacDonald. Lupino Lane. Lillian Roth. Eugene Pallette. E.H. Calvert. Edgar Norton. Lionel Belmore. Uncredited: Virginia Bruce. Yola d’Avril. Jean Harlow. Winter Hall. Carl Stockdale. Ben Turpin. B&W. 109 mins.
3:30 PM THE SMILING LIEUTENANT (1931). Director: Ernst Lubitsch. Cast: Maurice Chevalier. Claudette Colbert. Miriam Hopkins. B&W. 89 mins.
Ernst Lubitsch movies’ schedule via the TCM website.
Ramon Novarro image: Matias Bombal Collection.
Ernst Lubitsch image: Publicity shot ca. 1930s.
Image of Norma Shearer and Ramon Novarro in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1927 The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Image of Minna Gombell, Maurice Chevalier, and Jeanette MacDonald in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1934 The Merry Widow: MGM.
Image of Melvyn Douglas and Greta Garbo in Ernst Lubitsch’s 1939 Ninotchka: MGM.