The Lubitsch Touch

Miriam Hopkins, Herbert Marshall, and Kay Francis in Trouble in Paradise (1932)

In the last few days, I have been watching three pre-Code films that Ernst Lubitsch directed for Paramount in three successive years. They all starred Miriam Hopkins and were a delight to watch. In his book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, film critic Andrew Sarris writes about the director’s attention to manners:

What are manners, after all, but the limits to man’s presumption, a recognition that we all eventually lose the game of life but that we should still play the game according to the rules. A poignant sadness infiltrates the director’s gayest moments, and it is this counterpoint between sadness and gaiety that represents the Lubitsch touch, and not the leering humor of closed doors.

My favorite of the three films is Trouble in Paradise, about two con artists/thieves/pickpockets played by Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall. They prey upon the wealthy Kay Francis—except that Marshall begins to fall for her to Hopkins’s disgust. How Marshall leaves both women happy is utterly delightful.

Poster for Design for Living (1933)

The subject of Design for Living is a ménage à quatre between Miriam Hopkins, Fredric March, Gary Cooper, and Edward Everett Horton. This being a pre-Code picture made before July 1934, Design for Living gets away with salacious sexual suggestiveness that wasn’t seen again in Hollywood until the 1970s. What gets me is how a film with so much envy and yearning was made with such a light touch.

Lobby Card for The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)

Finally, I saw (for the first time) The Smiling Lieutenant, in which Maurice Chevalier gets away with several capital crimes, including stepping out on his wife who is a royal princess. The princess, played by Hopkins, finally gets a talking-to by Claudette Colbert, who plays the leader of a beer garden all-girl band. Again, the result is a satisfying but highly unusual happy ending of a story which more frequently leads to depression and even suicide.

The three films all played on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) this month. It turns out that Miriam Hopkins is TCM’s Star of the Month. As far as I am concerned, Ernst Lubitsch is the director of the month.

Other Lubitsch films worth seeing include:

  • The Marriage Circle (1924)
  • Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925)
  • The Love Parade (1929)
  • Ninotchka (1939) with Greta Garbo
  • The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
  • To Be or Not To Be (1942)

The last film on the list is an unlikely comedy about the Nazi invasion of Poland starring Jack Benny, Robert Stack, and Carole Lombard. It is one of the funniest films ever made. (“So, they call me Concentration Camp Erhard!”) Only Lubitsch could carry that off.