Lubitsch’s Final Touch

Ernst Lubitsch had a sensational end run, with TO BE OR NOT TO BE, HEAVEN CAN WAIT and the less celebrated but easily equal CLUNY BROWN. Before those three is the less stellar THAT UNCERTAIN FEELING, but then you have THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER and NINOTCHKA. The only blots on this celluloid landscape are the Preminger intrusions, A ROYAL SCANDAL, produced and heavily supervised by Lubitsch, and THAT LADY IN ERMINE which Lubitsch began but died before finishing, with Otto Preminger stepping in to complete, uncredited.

A ROYAL SCANDAL isn’t all that bad, and it does have a wonderful moment where William Eythe (of Who the hell is William Eythe? fame) steps out of a tight two-shot with Tallulah Bankhead, paces the room, distracted, and is then surprised to have himself wind up back in a tight two-shot with Tallulah Bankhead, who has nipped round the back of the camera, unseen, and positioned herself in his path. A witty, self-conscious and wonderfully silly use of screen space.

THAT LADY IN ERMINE doesn’t have the benefit of a live Lubitsch to watch over its late production and post-production, and so it’s a lot more uneven. Still, it’s not exactly terrible. Preminger’s broad, ham-fisted approach to comedy (see SKIDOO and Vincent Price’s delicious line, “Otto had the sense of humour of a guillotine,”) pushes through the smooth understatement of Samson Rafaelson’s script, to create a giddy sense of goofiness that doesn’t feel under anybody’s control.

Hard to know if that script would have played markedly better under Lubitsch’s baton, because there’s a prevailing sense of derangement. The movie is a kind of operetta, with a few songs (by Frederick Hollander, so not bad, but not his best) and a Ruritanian setting. So it’s harkening back to Ernst’s early 30s Chevalier productions at Paramount. But, as they say, something new has been added, or several somethings.

First, Technicolor™! While it’s true that the colour in HEAVEN CAN WAIT is a little ugly and adds an unwanted heaviness to the proceedings (20th Century Fox tended to pump up the chroma to almost Goldwynesque levels of vulgar intensity), it really can’t harm such a surefooted and charming work, any more than the sexism and the contortions to get around the censor can. Here, with less ideal circumstances, the colour does hurt, even though it’s cinematographer Leon Shamroy’s trademark golden honey light and cobalt blue shadows, which I usually like. ladled over fairytale kingdoms and dream sequences and Hungarians, it gets a tad gooey.

Then there’s the cast. Lubistch had a genius for getting adept light comedy perfs out of unlikely thesps. Preminger didn’t. Lubitsch knew he could coast along on the sheer surprise of Gary Cooper being funny, and Jack Benny being dramatic (and funny). Here we have Betty Grable, who’s sometimes funny, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. who can play anything, but can’t BE a husky Hungarian warlord. Preminger has good fun with his fatuousness, which Lubitsch might have tamped down. Further down the list, Reginald Gardner returns from CLUNY BROWN as milquetoast cuckold #1, and Cesar Romero plays milquetoast cuckold #2 a little uncertainly, as if he’s not quite sure why his character’s meant to be funny. His presence along with Grable’s recalls Preston Sturges’ THE BEAUTIFUL BLONDE FROM BASHFUL BEND, another late film, the following year, where “Butch” is even more miscast. Fox films had this problem a lot, it seems to me — the contract players got shoehorned into movies they weren’t suited to. Walter Abel is a skilled farceur, and some of the weird innuendo is pleasing — there’s a sense of a sado-masochistic thing going on between Abel and Fairbanks, his superior officer, which is amusing. Plus, gratuitous Harry Davenport.

Betty sings, several times, a song with the lyric “What I’ll do to that wild Hungarian,” and Lubitsch seems very pleased indeed with his double entendre and with his use of the word “Hungarian” as a kind of all-purpose punchline. Or maybe it’s Preminger’s cackles we seem to hear.

A few gruesome cartoony sound effects showcase Otto’s leering comedy style, but mostly the problem is a subtler one of feeling, a sense that nothing is quite right. The story involves not only the fantasy of musical numbers and mythical realms, but paintings coming to life at midnight and a long flashback and a couple of long dream sequences. Double voodoo, and triple voodoo. And the feeling, as with yet another, but far better Sturges late film, UNFAITHFULY YOURS, that if so much of the movie is dream sequences, what’s left for us to take away rom it? (I never felt this really answered the question of what’s wrong with the often-brilliant UNFAITHFULLY, but it was Sturges’ own pet theory.)

Still, as a vaguely Christmassy (at the end) romance about marriage and dreams and fidelity, maybe you could double-bill it with EYES WIDE SHUT (also completed after it’s auteur’s demise, though at least shooting was finished) for a nice festive Fever-Dream Double Feature?

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6 Responses to “Lubitsch’s Final Touch”

  1. david wingrove Says:

    It certainly does look lush! More like a Mitchell Leisen film than anything by Preminger or Lubitsch.

  2. Leon Shamroy shot leave Her to Heaven and The Girl Can’t Help It, and he’s practically an auteur cinematographer. In fact, he is: his signature style will be at least as visible as his director’s on any film in Technicolor (or Deluxe).

  3. Really it’s high time “Shadowplay” took on that Most Maudit of all “Maudits” —

  4. chris schneider Says:

    I’ll watch Walter Abel in anything — perhaps even SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT. There was an elegance about Abel in films like SHALL WE DANCE and HOLD BACK THE DAWN. As for him and Fairbanks … that sounds like Preminger territory to me. Preminger may not have been skilled at seductive comedy, but he did know *schadenfreude*.

    Perhaps part of the problem was that post-WW2 1940s was not a time for Ruritanian romance?

  5. Yes, it’s definitely a film out of time. I share your appreciation of Abel, a talented farceur. Too light for D’artagnan, perhaps, but reliable support in any number of films.

  6. As for Skidoo, i really like the theme tune, but Fiona won’t let me play it out loud.

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