Hailed as a giant among filmmakers, Ernst Lubitsch directed some of Hollywood’s most sophisticated and entertaining comedies. His career began during the silent era in his native Germany, where he earned a reputation big enough to capture the attention of star Mary Pickford.
Once in Hollywood, Lubitsch began to display what became known as the Lubitsch Touch, a wry and witty brand of humor infused with style and grace. He directed some of cinema’s biggest stars and produced big hits in the 1930s and 1940s, before his untimely death in 1947. Here are five classic Ernst Lubistch movies to enjoy.
After building his reputation as a director of sophisticated comedies during the silent era, Lubitsch had his first big success with 1932’s Trouble in Paradise
, a romantic comedy about a pair of romantically involved jewel thieves (Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins) who break into the home of a rich woman (Kay Francis), only to have Marshall fall in love with her. Certainly tame by today’s standards, Trouble in Paradise
generated a great deal of controversy for its sexual innuendo and was banned from release once the Hays Code came into effect. Still, it lived as Lubitsch’s first true masterpiece.
MGM Home Entertainment
In the mid-1930s, Lubitsch briefly served as the production head of Paramount Pictures and made a trio of forgettable films. But he returned to form with Ninotchka
in 1939, which featured star Greta Garbo in an uncharacteristic comedy role. In a parody of her famed “Garbo Talks!” transition to sound, the film’s poster pronounced that “Garbo Laughs!” But it was audiences who were laughing at Garbo’s surprisingly sharp-witted turn as a humorless Communist who is sent to Paris by Mother Russia to retrieve a cache of diamonds, only to discover an unstoppable zest for life as she carouses around the City of Light.
MGM Home Entertainment
With this classic romantic comedy starring James Stewart
and Margaret Sullivan, Lubitsch directed a near-perfect film that put on display his greatest strengths: sophisticated humor, witty dialogue and nuanced innuendo, or what became known as the Lubitsch Touch. Here, Stewart and Sullivan play two store clerks who despise each other in person, but carry on an anonymous letter writing romance unbeknownst to either one. Richly textured and heartfelt without being sentimental, The Shop Around the Corner
remained one of Lubitsch’s finest works, though it inspired the rather underwhelming remake, You’ve Got Mail
Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
Starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard
, To Be or Not to Be
was a rare excursion into political satire for Lubitsch. It has been hailed as his greatest film, though playing Nazis as comic foils and featuring Lombard so soon after her tragic death right before its release made the film unpopular with audiences at the time. Lombard and Benny play a husband and wife team who perform anti-Nazi plays in Warsaw, only to find themselves impersonating them after the invasion of Poland in order to survive. This darkly comic picture was equal parts thriller, comedy and propaganda film, and marked the height of Lubitsch’s creative output.
20th Century Fox
After signing a new contract with 20th Century Fox, Lubitsch directed what many have called the last film to exhibit his famed Lubitsch Touch. This charming and sophisticated comedy starred Don Ameche as a septuagenarian ne’er-do-well who dies and tries to persuade a skeptical Satan
(Laird Cregar) to let him into Hell where he thinks he belongs. Of course, he learns that his life’s sins aren’t that bad after and that a better afterlife awaits him elsewhere. Heaven Can Wait
was Lubitsch’s first Technicolor film and the last to earn him an Oscar nomination for Best Director.