Archive for Ernst Lubitsch

The Sunday Intertitle: Checkmate

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on August 17, 2014 by dcairns

First, Blogneys! Here.

Second, Limericks about CAT PEOPLE! Here. Here. And KING KONG here and DRACULA here and THE MUMMY here and here. And THE WOLFMAN here and here and here. I think we’ve put the Universal horror cycle to bed now.

Now, an intertitle:

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From Ernst Lubitsch’s earliest surviving film as director, variously known as WHERE IS MY SWEETIE? and WHEN I WAS DEAD (1916). I’ve written an essay on this odd thing, which stars Lubitsch himself, looking not unlike Hugh “Woo Woo” Herbert, in suave leading man mode rather than his more usual rambunctious manner of this period, long before his famous “touch” became a byword for sophistication. I’ve written an essay on the movie which will appear on Masters of Cinema’s disc of MADAME DUBARRY — also, an essay on MADAME DUBARRY. I recommend the whole package, but then I would, wouldn’t I?

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I haven’t seen the new transfer but it will certainly look 1,000,000 times better than the above.

Buy it and find out for yourselves: MADAME DUBARRY [Masters of Cinema] (1919) [Blu-ray]

 

Grauman’s Chinese Theater of Cruelty

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 1, 2014 by dcairns

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Sid Grauman immortalizes the already-immortal Gene Tierney.

Like Gary Oldman, I’ve been reading Neal Gabler’s excellent An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood, though possibly I have been drawing different conclusions from it. Attentive readers may recall me picking the tome up in one of Toronto’s many excellent bookstores. Being shallow, I am partly in it for the history but also for the funny stories. This one also contains a whiff of the horrific, so beware ~

Gabler’s study of Louis B Mayer also features quick portraits of the major exhibitors, including a vivid, even (necessarily) lurid description of Sid Grauman (he of the Chinese Theater) ~

“Like Roxy, Grauman loved size; his theaters were always capacious. But he was less a culture monger than a showman; where Roxy wore conservative suits to maintain an image of dignity, Grauman wore large hats rakishly tilted and parted his long curly hair down the middle, sweeping it back at the sides so that he looked as if he had stuck his finger in an electric socket. Throughout Hollywood he was famous for his elaborate pranks: convincing Paramount cowboy star William S. Hart to “ambush” a train Adolph Zukor was riding; inducing Jesse Lasky to give a speech to a group of exhibitors who turned out to be wax dummies; arriving at the cornerstone-laying ceremony of a rival theater in a hearse; dressing as a female escort to visiting star David Warfield and then crying, “Rape!” When he heard that director Ernst Lubitsch, who hated to fly, was forced to take a plane from Los Angeles to a preview in San Francisco, he hired two stuntmen to dress as pilots, run down the aisle, and then parachute during the flight. Lubitsch was so shaken that he suffered a minor heart attack.”

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Here is a picture of Lubitsch, much later, receiving a lifetime achievement Oscar. You’ll notice he doesn’t look that happy about it — the smile is sickly. That’s because he’s having an attack of angina at the same time. The two experiences don’t mix well. Lubitsch’s too-early death was no doubt greatly exacerbated by his cigar habit, and it was a post-coital attack that finally did him in, but I cannot think that Sid Grauman’s sense of humour helped. At least Lubitsch enjoyed his other causes of death.

Thanks a lot, Sid.

I’ve just written two essays on Lubitsch films, which can be pre-ordered as part of THIS –

MADAME DUBARRY [Masters of Cinema] (1919) [Blu-ray]

Princess Diary

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 23, 2013 by dcairns

With the kind permission of the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Film, I’m reproducing here my article which was handed out to the audience attending THE OYSTER PRINCESS.

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“His life was an uninterrupted ribbon of film.” — unnamed friend of Ernst Lubitsch.

Ernst Lubitsch is best remembered for the sophisticated comedies of his Hollywood career, such as Ninotchka (“Garbo laughs!”) and To Be Or Not To Be: as Hitchcock was known for thrills and DeMille for epics, we was associated with “the Lubitsch touch,” an indefinable continental wit and daring that was exotic yet accessible, risqué yet tasteful.

But he first made his mark in his native Germany, as a low comedian, often playing a naughty (and rather superannuated) schoolboy, but as his career progressed his act grew slicker. By 1919 he had almost abandoned performing, but had preserved his fame while moving behind the camera. Having mastered knockabout farce and broad innuendo, he swiftly began to explore the possibilities of storytelling by suggestion, and the use of design, framing and editing to create films which were beautiful objects as well as machines for producing belly laughs.

In the first ten years of his career, he made a fantastic range of dramas and comedies: he could alternate between vast historical tragedies and bawdy comic romps, but somehow established an accepted public image that encompassed all those things. In his period films, the focus was often on observing behaviour, thus humanizing history; whereas his contemporary comedies came complete with exaggerated sets and expressive décor, making them as sumptuous as the courtly antics of Ann Boleyn or Madame DuBarry.

With The Oyster Princess, he was out to make something giddily strange, broadly caricatured, and very silly. He succeeded!

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EIN GROTESKES LUSTSPIEL — it’s easy to see what the subtitle of this 1919 farce is driving at. Lust and grotesquery figure prominently from the off, even in the way Victor Jansen, his pouchy face like a conglomeration of morning rolls, puffs on a cigar as fat and smouldering as the Hindenberg.

Jansen is going at that cigar, which is clasped by a liveried footman, while dictating to a roomful of stenographers, establishing him as a big-shot American businessman, as such a figure might be viewed in a newspaper cartoon. His face is scarily enormous, but his body has been padded out so that his head sits atop it like an insignificant cherry on a cake. The groteskes lustspiel has begun.

Lubitsch was always amused by the pretensions of the powerful, hence all the Ruritanian kings in his later Hollywood movies (eg The Merry Window), and Jansen is ancestor to all those big but oddly helpless men. To aid in the send-up, the film is staged in palatial yet surreally impractical sets, making every frame an elegant, eye-popping oddity. Lubitsch is out to prove that the grotesque can be beautiful.

The title immediately makes us realize that this “oyster king” must have a daughter, and so it proves: toothsome Ossi Oswalda, who sets about her role with a twinkling savagery that’s hilariously Teutonic. A room-wrecking temper tantrum is immediately followed by an outburst of joy that’s just as elementally destructive. From her spontaneous desire to keep up with her fellow heiresses by marrying a European aristocrat, the story expands to include a matchmaker, and then a penniless prince and his manservant, and so on, until a universe of bizarre types is parading before us.

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The plot, which is relatively simple by farce standards, hinges on arranged marriage, mistaken identity and personal eccentricity, but works mainly as a pretext for fabulously extended comedy moments, most notably the celebrated foxtrot epidemic, in which a dance spreads through the film like an airborne virus, infecting everyone with its insistent rhythm. In Hollywood, Lubitsch would stage similarly ebullient Charleston and waltz numbers, but never with the crazy invention he shows here. It’s probably the highlight of this whole, manically experimental phase of Lubitsch’s long and distinguished career, and it seems a metaphor for the way his comedy starts small and focused on specific details, then expands to envelop the whole of life. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky wrote, “A Lubitsch comedy isn’t just a meal — it’s the table, the cooks, the menu, the friends invited for dinner, the waiters, and even the competing restaurant across the street.”

As Lubitsch himself later told David Niven, “Nobody can play comedy who does not have a circus going on in his head.”

THE OYSTER PRINCESS is available from Masters of Cinema in a box set to which I contributed liner notes on DIFFERENT movies. And if you but it via this link, I get a percentage, which will help keep the timberwolf from the transom.

Lubitsch In Berlin [Masters of Cinema] [DVD] [1918]

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