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Sweet and Sour:
Lubitsch and Wilder in Old Hollywood

Highlights from Issue 32: Hollywood Lost & Found

(T) Lubitsch & Jeanette MacDonald, Maurice Chevalier / Wilder & Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon

(Photofest)

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Saturday, December 01, 2007

 

The following piece appears in Issue 32: Hollywood Lost & Found. For more on this issue, click here


SWEET AND SOUR:
LUBITSCH AND WILDER IN OLD HOLLYWOOD

BY JONATHAN ROSENBAUM

The camera cranes around the grand façade of a palace, a chateau or a luxurious grand hotel, peering obliquely through the windows at the various doings inside. Or it stays perched in a hallway, outside a bedroom or a suite inside one of these buildings, while servants, musicians or cigarette girls enter or leave, encouraging us to imagine what romantic shenanigans might be taking place on the other side of the door.

These are the two main signature shots of the great Hollywood filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch — especially during his Hollywood heyday, the Thirties — and one can also find variations of the second kind, the outside-the-door interiors, in the more romantic movies of Billy Wilder, Lubitsch’s major disciple, whose own Hollywood heyday was the Fifties. In Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939), which Wilder and his frequent writing partner Charles Brackett helped to script, we’re made to understand how much three Russians in Paris (Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart, Alexander Granach) on a government mission are enjoying themselves in their hotel suite when they order up cigarettes, meaning three cigarette girls. And in Wilder’s Love in the Afternoon (1957) — the most obvious and explicit and also, arguably, the clunkiest of his tributes to Lubitsch, partially inspired by Lubitsch’s 1938 Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (which Wilder and Brackett also helped to script, and which also starred Gary Cooper, again playing a womanizing American millionaire in France) — the camera periodically returns to its favorite spot, outside the millionaire’s suite at the Ritz, whenever the Gypsy musicians he hires arrive to help him pull off his various seductions with their soulful rendition of “Fascination.”

Despite their reputations, neither Ninotchka nor Love in the Afternoon qualify as favorites of mine. Among other things, they’re both limited by Cary Grant’s refusal to play their male leads. (In Ninotchka, Melvyn Douglas took that part, opposite Greta Garbo; and in Love in the Afternoon, where Audrey Hepburn plays the daughter of Paris detective Maurice Chevalier, it would have been more interesting if Cooper had played her father and Chevalier had played her lover.) But I begin with these examples because they offer the simplest and clearest illustrations of what the Lubitsch touch consists of.

As counter-examples, I’d like to propose the tributes to Lubitsch offered by two French New Wave directors, Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Resnais, both of whom allude to the exterior, horizontal crane shots around façades that can be found in many of Lubitsch’s musicals with Chevalier and Jeannette MacDonald as well as in his supreme comedy of the Thirties, Trouble in Paradise. Both examples, I should add, are readily available, because the two French films in question (along with Trouble in Paradise) are now accessible in excellent DVD transfers. In Godard’s A Woman Is a Woman (1962), one of the leads, Jean-Paul Belmondo, plays a character named Alfred Lubitsch, and the first time we hear his surname, he’s being called to the phone. We then cut to a curious long shot of an apartment house façade where a neighbor on the top floor climbs out his window onto a catwalk and then walks around the side of the building to Alfred Lubitsch’s window. There’s no camera movement — this is a low-budget comedy and Godard clearly couldn’t afford a crane, so he merely suggests the movement with the neighbor’s trajectory.

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