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.
Wilder goes on to talk about the first time he worked for Lubitsch: One day, Brackett and I were called in to see Lubitsch. He told us he was thinking vaguely about doing an adaptation of a French play about a millionaire—a very straightforward law-abiding guy, who would never have an affair with a woman unless he was married to her. So he married seven times!
That would be Gary Cooper. Claudette Colbert was to be the woman who was in love with him, who’d insist “I’ll marry you, but only to be the final wife.” As the meeting was being adjourned, I said, I have a meet-cute for your story. (A “meet-cute” was a staple of romantic comedies back then, where boy meets girl in a particular way, and sparks fly.) Let’s say your millionaire is an American who is very stingy. He goes to a department store in Nice on the French Riviera where he wants to buy a pajama top, but just the top, because he never wears the pants. She has come to the same counter to buy pajamas for her father, who as it happens only wears the pants. That broke the ice, and we were put to work on that picture, which became Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife.
Lubitsch, of course, would always find a way to make something better. He put another twist on that meeting. Brackett and I were at Lubitsch’s house working, when during a break he emerged from the bathroom and said, “What if when Gary Cooper comes in to the store to buy the pajama top, the salesman gets the floor manager, and Cooper again explains he only wants to buy the top.” The floor manager says, “Absolutely not,” but when he sees Cooper will not be stopped, the floor manager says, “Maybe I could talk to the store manager.” The store manager says, “That’s unheard of!” but ends up calling the department store’s owner, whom he disturbs in bed. We see the owner in a close shot go to get the phone. He says, “it’s an outrage!” And as the owner goes back to his bed you see that he doesn’t wear pajama pants either.
Or, for instance, Lubitsch’s short film in a picture called If I Had A Million, a picture that Paramount made with all the stars the studio had. The theme of the picture was that the millionaire is dying and the family is waiting and he hates the family. He says, “Well, screw them,” and decides haphazardly to give a million dollars to the people. He takes the telephone book and wherever the medicine dropper drops, that is the person that is going to get a million dollars.
George Raft and Cary Grant are in it and we see the adventures of various people who get one million dollars. All kinds of directors, the best directors at Paramount at that time, each made one little segment of this film. This is what Lubitsch did. He was the one with Charles Laughton. Laughton is working in an office, hundreds of desks. He’s very meticulous. Now the mail arrives and you see that among the letters is that one letter containing that one-million-dollar check. We know already that the envelope contains the million dollars. And being very methodical, he opens one letter, he opens a second letter, he opens the third letter. Then he opens the letter with the million dollars and he looks at it. No expression on his face. Absolutely nothing. He folds it, he puts it in his pocket. He gets up, he picks up his bowler, he picks up his umbrella, and now he walks past the desks to the president’s office. He walks in, opens the door and does this [makes a mocking sound with his lips]. That was it, except the sound was a little bit louder. So that is the Lubitsch touch.
Ah, the mighty Lubitsch touch!