Hailed by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut and Orson Welles as a giant among filmmakers, Ernst Lubitsch was a preeminent figure in the history of cinema who directed some of Hollywood's most sophisticated and enduring comedies. More than a great director of actors and action, he added his own personal signature - known as the "Lubitsch touch" - to all his work, a sense of style and grace that was rarely duplicated on the screen. After making a name as a director in his native Germany, Lubitsch was brought over at the behest of star Mary Pickford to direct her in "Rosita" (1923). From there, he made comedies like "The Marriage Circle" (1924) and "Kiss Me Again" (1925), as well as dramas like "The Patriot" (1925). But with the advent of sound, the cigar-chomping director's career took off atop fascination with a new genre, the musical comedy, and he began displaying his famed Lubitsch touch with classics like "Monte Carlo" (1930) and "One Hour with You" (1932). He directed his first bona fide masterpiece, "Trouble in Paradise" (1932), and later hit his stride full force with "Bluebeard's Eighth Wife" (1938), "Ninotchka" (1939) and "The Shop Around the Corner" (1940). Lubitsch reached great artistic heights with "To Be or Not to Be" (1942) and "Heaven Can Wait" (1943) before dying mid-career in 1947, leaving behind a legacy virtually unmatched by a filmmaker before or since.
Born on Jan. 28, 1892 in Berlin, Germany, Lubitsch was raised in a Jewish home, the son of Simon, a tailor, and his mother, Anna. When he was old enough, Lubitsch turned away from his father's business in order to enter the theater and by 1911, was appearing as an actor in famed director Max Reinhardt's Deutches Theater. Two years later, he had created the comic screen persona "Meyer," a slapstick Jewish archetype who became a favorite of German audiences, and was also performing in movies. But Lubitsch soon made the transition from acting to directing with his debut film, "Fraulein Seifenschaum" ("Miss Soapsuds") (1914), a one-reeler since lost to time. Eager to test his own range and gain acceptance as a dramatic actor, Lubitsch wrote and directed "Als Ich Tot War" ("When I Was Dead") (1916), but the film failed to stir the interest of an audience who loved "Meyer." Stereotyped as an actor, Lubitsch turned his full attention to directing and scored his first major success with "Schuhpalast Pinkus" ("Shoe Salon Pinkus") (1916).
The first Lubitsch picture to be shown in America was "Die Augen der Mummie Ma" ("The Eyes of the Mummy") (1918), his first teaming of Pola Negri and Emil Jannings, and the first film to mark him as a serious director. It was his second film with Negri, "Madame Du Barry" ("Passion") (1919) that proved to be his first masterwork, as well as helping to put the German film industry on the international map. With "Madame Du Barry," Lubitsch became known for an unerring ability to humanize sumptuous screen spectacles and costume dramas by giving them the warmth that would endear them to the public. He easily oscillated between drama and comedy, as he did with the historical "Anna Boleyn" (1920) and the Pola Negri comedy "Die Bergkatze" ("The Wild Cat") (1921). Lubitsch made a few more films in his native Germany, including "Das Weib des Pharao" ("The Wife of the Pharaoh") (1922) and "Die Flamme" ("The Flame") (1923), before striking out to America in search of greater success.
Lubitsch entered a new phase of his career when star Mary Pickford invited him to Hollywood to direct his first American film, "Rosita" (1923), a renamed adaptation of Jules Massenet's comic opera, "Don César de Bazan." The film proved to be both a commercial and critical hit, though Lubitsch and Pickford allegedly battled behind the scenes and never worked together again. Because of the success of "Rosita," Lubitsch signed a three-year, six-movie deal with Warner Bros., which granted him near-absolute creative freedom, including final cut and his choice of technicians. With sophisticated comedies like "The Marriage Circle" (1924), inspired by Chaplin's "A Woman of Paris;" "Forbidden Paradise" (1924), which reunited him with Pola Negri; and "Kiss Me Again" (1925), starring party girl Clara Bow, he began to hone his craft into his famed "Lubitsch Touch." Though he made occasional forays into drama, as he did with "Three Women" (1924), Lubitsch came to specialize in the artfully risqué sex farce, where raised eyebrows and closed doors meant everything. After directing "Kiss Me Again" (1925) and "Lady Windermere's Fan" (1925), his contract with Warner Bros. was dissolved due to his film's marginal profitability.
Lubitsch made his first picture for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, "The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg" (1927), which earned critical praise but was a financial failure. However, once he made the transition to sound, his career began to take off, thanks to his embrace of the newly popular genre of musical comedies. Following "The Patriot" (1928), he earned his first Academy Award nomination for Best Director for "The Love Parade" (1929), and proceeded to churn out such early classics as "Monte Carlo" (1930), "The Smiling Lieutenant" (1931), and "One Hour with You" (1932), all made for Paramount Pictures. After making what amounted to his last drama, "Broken Lullaby/The Man I Killed" (1932), starring Lionel Barrymore, Lubitsch hit his stride with "Trouble in Paradise" (1932), a romantic comedy about two jewel thieves (Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins), who break into a rich woman's home, only to have one fall in love with her. Filled with sophisticated comedy and fun innuendo - which actually led to the film being pulled from circulation post-Hays Code - "Trouble in Paradise" was the first masterpiece from the director and one of his personal favorites.
Lubitsch continued to delight audiences with "Design For Living" (1933), starring Frederic March and Gary Cooper, both of whom fall for Miriam Hopkins, and "The Merry Widow" (1934), based on the 1905 operetta by Franz Lehar. In 1935, Lubitsch was named head of production at Paramount, but since his real talent was in producing and directing motion pictures - not studio administration - he was relieved of his duties a year later. Following the disappointing "Angel" (1937) with Marlene Dietrich, and "Bluebeard's Eighth Wife" (1938), starring Cooper and Claudette Colbert, Lubitsch returned to form with "Ninotchka" (1939), which starred Greta Garbo in a rare comedy role. In fact, it was so unusual for the Swede to appear in comedies that the movie poster immortally declared "Garbo Laughs!" - a cheeky reference to the famed "Garbo Talks" splashed across her 1930 talkie debut in "Anna Christie." In this comedy classic, Garbo played a dedicated, but humorless communist sent to Paris by Moscow to retrieve a trio of Russian delegates and a cache of diamonds, only to loosen up and enjoy herself in the decadent city, thanks to Melvyn Douglas. Lubitsch next directed one of his most popular films, "The Shop Around the Corner" (1940), which starred James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as two store co-workers who detest each other in person, but carry on an anonymous letter-writing relationship without either knowing who the other is. With wry, subtle humor, the film was one of the greatest romantic comedies of its era and beyond - it would later be remade with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in the lead roles, "You've Got Mail" (1998).
After going independent to direct the comedy of manners, "That Uncertain Feeling" (1941), a remake of his own "Kiss Me Again" (1925), Lubitsch helmed the classic political satire, "To Be or Not to Be" (1942), starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard as a husband and wife who perform anti-Nazi plays in Warsaw at the beginning of World War II. But in the ruins of war-torn Poland, they find themselves forced to impersonate Nazi officers - and even Hitler himself - in order to survive. Though darkly satirical, "To Be or Not to Be" was a highly entertaining picture that crossed a number of genre boundaries - thriller, political propaganda, comedy - and remained one of Lubitsch's finest creative efforts. But the film suffered at the box office when weeks before its release, the film's star Lombard died on Jan. 16, 1942 in a fiery airplane crash outside of Las Vegas, NV after raising money for war bonds in her home state of Indiana. A bereaved Lubitsch was forced to cut Lombard's line "What can happen on a plane?" from the movie and saw his greatest film do lackluster business, as a grieving public was in no mood to watch a beloved yet now deceased comedienne make them laugh. He went on to sign a new contract with 20th Century Fox and directed his first Technicolor movie, "Heaven Can Wait" (1943), a sophisticated, romantic and rather charming comedy about a lifelong cad (Don Ameche) who dies in his seventies and seeks entrance into Hell by trying to convince a doubtful Satan (Laird Cregar) that he has earned his way in by recounting his life's many sins. The film earned him his last Oscar nomination for Best Director and was seen as his last effort displaying the Lubitsch touch.
In fact, Lubitsch would go on to direct one final completed film in his career. He began making the romantic comedy "A Royal Scandal" (1945), which depicted a fictional event in the life of Catherine the Great (Tallulah Bankhead), but he fell ill during production. He was replaced by Austrian director, Otto Preminger, who did his best to maintain the Lubitsch touch, but ultimately fell short of the mark. Lubitsch returned to health and directed what became his last feature, "Cluny Brown" (1946), which starred Jennifer Jones as the titular character, the niece of a plumber who takes over for her uncle at an upscale home after he becomes indisposed and falls in love with a Czech author (Charles Boyer). Though not on the level as "Shop Around the Corner" or "To Be or Not to Be," "Cluny Brown" was still charming entertainment that pleased critics and audiences. Lubitsch returned to musical comedy for the first time since 1934 with "The Lady in Ermine" (1948), starring Betty Grable and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. But just eight days into production, on Nov. 30, 1947, he died of a heart attack. He was 55 years old. Preminger again returned to fill the void, though Lubitsch received sole credit as director.
By Shawn Dwyer
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Associated with director Max Reinhardt, appearing in his stage productions
Began acting in movies in Germany
Made directorial debut with the short film "Fraulein Seifenschaum"/"Miss Soapsuds"
Moved to USA; put under contract to Mary Pickford
First American film "Rosita", starring Pickford
Signed contract with Paramount
Helmed the silent "The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg", starring Ramon Navarro and Norma Shearer
Received first Best Director Oscar nomination for "The Patriot"
First sound film, "The Love Parade", his first pairing of Maurice Chevalier and Jeannette MacDonald; garnered second Best Director Academy Award nomination
Made the atypical pacifict drama "The Man I Killed"
Became an American citizen
Returned to directing; directed first film in three years, "Angel"
Directed the delightful wartime comedy "To Be or Not To Be", teaming Jack Benny and Carole Lombard
Signed contract with Fox
Earned third Best Director Oscar nomination for "Heaven Can Wait"
Completed last film, "Cluny Brown"
Died while working on "That Lady in Ermine" (1948), film completed by Otto Preminger; Lubitsch given screen credit