The “Lubitsch” touch…
September 10, 2012 § 1 Comment
If you’re a fan of the great writer/director Billy Wilder, you certainly know of his affinity for what he calls “The Lubitsch Touch.” If you don’t know the work of Billy Wilder, please watch and study the films of a true master filmmaker. Such classics as Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, among others.
When Wilder talks about the Lubitsch touch, it relates to his mentor, the great writer/producer director Ernst Lubitsch and his unique style and cinematic trademarks he used in visual storytelling. Wilder used to say of the touch, “It was the elegant use of the Superjoke. You had a joke, and you felt satisfied, and then there was one more big joke on top of it. The joke you didn’t expect. That was the Lubitsch Touch.”
Three of my favorite Lubitsch directed films are Ninotchka, Trouble in Paradise, andTo Be or Not to Be. Ninotchka stars the legendary Greta Garbo and written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. It’s one of the top films on my favorite list. Director Rouben Mamoulian (Love Me Tonight, The Mark of Zorro, Blood and Sand) remembers Ernst Lubitsch: “He was doing a film, and he explained to his writer that the beginning of the film had to show that this man had been married a long time and that he is kind of tired of it. He had gotten used to his wife and had a roving eye. So the writer brought him four pages of introductory exposition of character. Lubitsch looked at it and said, “You don’t need all that.” He took all four pages out. “Just put down this—the man walks into the elevator with his wife, and keeps his hat on. On the seventh floor a pretty blonde walks in, and the man takes his hat off.”
Genius, right? What an efficient use of visual storytelling. That folks, is the Lubitsch touch. In an interview for Nobody’s Perfect: Billy Wilder: A Personal Biography by Charlotte Chandler, Wilder said: He (Lubitsch) had a skit for another picture where they wouldn’t allow him to do on account of censorship. It was with Charles Laughton. You are in the exterior of a harem, and you see that the sultan is leaving, his luggage piled up ready to go. Standing at the gate is Charles Laughton, who is a eunuch.
The sultan says, “Abraham.”
“Yes, sir,” Laughton answers in a very high-pitched voice.
“I’m leaving now. Be very, very careful and watch out for the beautiful girls in there. No girl is allowed out and no man is allowed in. You understand me, Abraham?“
“Yes, sir,” again in that very high-pitched voice.
The sultan leaves. A window opens and a very beautiful girl leans out, smiles, and calls, “Abraham?”
In a very deep male voice, Laughton says, “Coming!”
Wilder, “Lubitsch wasn’t a gagman, he was the best creator of toppers. would come up with a funny bit to end a scene and he would create a better one.”
Wilder goes on to discuss an example from Lubitsch’s The Merry Widow (1932). Wilder: There is a king, queen, and lieutenant. The king is played by a very corpulent actor in his sixties, the queen is Miriam Hopkins, who is very pretty, and the lieutenant, Maurice Chevalier, who was at the time very young and handsome. Lubitsch plays the scene in the bedroom where the king gets dressed. Now, he leaves the bedroom, and we see at the door with a sword and clicking his heels is Maurice Chevalier. He is now watching the king, and the king moves down the long staircase, boom, boom, boom.
Now we cut back to Chevalier. He enters the bedroom of the queen and closes the door behind him. We don’t cut into the bedroom. That is very important.
Now, back to the king. He suddenly realizes that he forgot his belt and sword. He turns and goes back up the steps to the bedroom. The king opens the door, goes in, and the door closes behind him. We are still outside in the hallways, never inside.
The king comes out, and he has his belt and sword. And he’s smiling. He tries to put on the belt, but it’s not his. It’s much too small. Back he goes into the bedroom and of course he finds Chevalier.
Watch this clip from The Merry Widow and see the scene Wilder talks about at 10:39 of the clip. Enjoy!
Ah, the mighty Lubitsch touch!