Published December 14, 2018
How Did Lubitsch Do It?
by Joseph McBride
Columbia, 561 pp., $40
There were two things wrong with the headline on the Washington Post’s review of Joseph McBride’s How Did Lubitsch Do It?: “A forgotten filmmaker who influenced Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder gets his due.” One is that if ever a filmmaker who died 71 years ago was not forgotten, Ernst Lubitsch is that filmmaker. McBride’s is only the latest in a series of biographies and critical studies that have come out since the great man died (you could consult McBride’s own extensive bibliography), and the films themselves, especially Trouble in Paradise, The Shop Around the Corner, Ninotchka, To Be or Not to Be, and Heaven Can Wait continue to sell in DVD and streaming formats and to be rebroadcast on cable TV as gems of the Hollywood Golden Age.
The more egregious mistake, however, is to suggest that one of the half-dozen greatest directors ever to take up a camera “gets his due” by being reduced to an “influence” on others. Fortunately, this is the headline-writer’s mistake, not McBride’s. Yet the latter does seem to me to share with the former a degree of inability to understand or appreciate the past on its own terms, rather than through the retrospective lens of a later period. As a result, although McBride’s critical study is chock-full of the fruits of the author’s lifelong interest in his subject, it seems to me that Lubitsch, who died in 1947 at age 55, gets somewhat less than his due from the latest of his many posthumous students.
Consider the example of Maurice Chevalier, the male lead in several Lubitsch musicals of the late 1920s and early 1930s. These films—all made within a dozen years of Lubitsch’s immigration to America from Germany, where he was already an established director of very popular silent films—have worn less well than those mentioned above and also suffer from the tinniness of the sound and the poor quality of the black-and-white prints of so many of the early talkies. These are limitations that particularly compromise the longevity of the musicals of that period. Yet what seems to McBride the most dated thing about them is the political incorrectness, by present-day standards, of their long-dead star.
These films—The Love Parade, The Smiling Lieutenant, One Hour with You, and The Merry Widow, all but one of them costarring Jeannette MacDonald—were much admired at the time, but instead of trying to understand why, McBride is more interested in Chevalier’s scandalous (as he sees it) playing up to the stereotype of the debonair French playboy and “ladies’ man,” as such creatures once were called. What, we may wonder, is the point of complaining at this distance of time about “a display of male chauvinism at its most flagrantly self-regarding” in The Smiling Lieutenant or Chevalier’s “exuberant sexism” elsewhere when neither he, nor Lubitsch, nor the contemporary audience had ever heard of such things and wouldn’t have understood them if they had?
Similar ideological anachronisms in this book are constantly getting in the way of our ability to see and appreciate Lubitsch’s work on its own terms—and those of the audience for which they were made. For example, in one section, headed “Lubitsch and the Double Standard,” we learn far more about McBride’s and the right-thinking left’s problems with the sexual double standard than we do about Lubitsch’s. He, like just about everybody else of his time, took the double standard for granted and found endless comic potential in it. Too often, though, McBride simply assumes that his subject must have taken the same view of the world that he does—or, what’s worse, that he should have done so and thus have been more like the 21st-century critic than the early-20th-century filmmaker he was.
That must be why McBride writes about the reestablishment of “the dominant patriarchal order” in The Smiling Lieutenant and “the limitations of gender power roles” in Design for Living and “the imbalances and injustices of capitalism” in Trouble in Paradise. Meanwhile, The Shop Around the Corner is commended for being ahead of its time by showing “gender tensions” in a workplace setting involving a male authority figure (an exceptionally mild-mannered Jimmy Stewart), which are said to make the movie “fully cognizant of feminist concerns.” It’s possible that what he means is feminine concerns, rather than feminist ones, but the point is that one suspects he doesn’t see any difference between the two. In McBride’s account, if ever Lubitsch falls short of his own politically enlightened standards it must be because of the commercial considerations to which even he had occasionally to bow or else those of the “bourgeois morality” to which the Hays Code demanded he and every other director, writer, and producer defer.
Lubitsch is said to have “played a form of jiujitsu with the Hays Office by bouncing off any compromises they demanded so that he could implicitly mock the whole system of censorship.” I guess what’s implicit must be in the eye of the beholder, but why mockery? Why not a compliment to the whole system of censorship that had been the spur and the inspiration to his triumphs of subtlety—so much more charming than they could have been otherwise. McBride congratulates Lubitsch for his cleverness in “outwitting” the “puritanical” censors of the Hays Office by his subtle introduction of sexual themes—and in the next breath, McBride takes such subtlety to be the measure of Lubitsch’s greatness. If that’s the case, shouldn’t the censors get some credit, too, for his achievements?
Towards the end McBride acknowledges that “Lubitsch was stimulated creatively by the way the Code forced filmmakers to avoid blatant displays of vulgarity and to find other ways of expressing sexual themes,” but for much of what precedes this admission, he writes as if the great man were not so much a filmmaker as a battler for free speech and against “censorship.” One has the impression here and elsewhere that McBride feels he has to reduce Lubitsch’s oeuvre to terms that an imaginatively stunted but politically attuned audience can understand, and that this has ended by limiting his own imaginative compass. Someone who can write ruefully that “the collapse of the old system of film censorship . . . has not led to a greater maturity in American filmmaking” is someone who has chosen to blind himself to the role of what he calls “censorship” in producing the much greater maturity of the films of Lubitsch’s era.
Of the musicals of the 1930s McBride writes:
Lubitsch and his writers make many telling satirical points about power relations between men and women while also giving the scenes some emotional weight, but the highly artificial stories tend to be resolved in awkwardly overdetermined, simplistic ways. This problem reveals conflicts between the films’ more complex ambitions and the genre conventions that even Lubitsch’s films had to follow to be viable in the Hollywood commercial marketplace of that period.
In other words, McBride wants the movies to be something other than what they are and so assumes that Lubitsch must have wanted them to be so as well. Yet for all his political preoccupations, McBride never seems to notice the class element in the musicals or how Lubitsch projects the sexual naughtiness in the musicals onto aristocratic and even royal milieus because that’s where the 1920s bourgeoisie imagined such licentiousness went on—or wanted to imagine they did.
Such incuriosity about the way that contemporary audiences would have seen the films is itself curious to me. About To Be or Not to Be, made before Pearl Harbor but released shortly after it, McBride writes that it “assails all the audience’s preconceptions about how such a momentous political subject as Nazism should be treated on-screen.” Note the present tense. He must have been thinking of a 21st-century audience. But did an audience in 1942, only weeks after America’s declaration of war, have any such preconceptions? If so, were they anything like our own, present-tense, preconceptions? And if not, isn’t this a matter of some relevance to our understanding of the film? These are not questions that interest Joseph McBride.
Instead, he seems to feel it necessary to make Lubitsch seem “relevant” to an audience that has grown up with very different expectations about what movies, or entertainment generally, should be like. McBride tells us that Lubitsch, toward the end of his life, began to feel that his time was past, and this may have something to do with the generally agreed-upon opinion that his final films, made after he suffered a serious heart attack in 1943, soon after the release of the last really good one, Heaven Can Wait, were not up to his earlier standards. But isn’t that all the more reason why we should make the effort to understand him as a man of his time, rather than of ours?
James Bowman is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the author of Honor: A History.