Oscar Directors: Lubitsch, Ernst–Background, Career, Awards

Ernst Lubitsch, the German born director of urbane comedies of manners established him as Hollywood’s most elegant and sophisticated director–“the Lubitsch touch.”

In 1946, he received an Honorary Oscar for his distinguished contributions to the art of the motion picture.

Lubitsch was born January 29, 1892 in Berlin, the son of Simon Lubitsch, a tailor, and Anna (née) Lindenstaedt. His family was Jewish; his father was born in Grodno in the Russian Empire, and his mother was from Wriezen outside Berlin. He turned his back on his father’s tailoring business to enter the theater, and by 1911 was a member of Max Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theater.

In 1913, Lubitsch made his film debut as an actor in The Ideal Wife. He appeared in some  30 films as an actor between 1912 and 1920, but gradually abandoned acting to concentrate on directing. His last role as actor was in “Sumurun,” opposite Pola Negri and Paul Wegener, which he also directed.

In 1918, he made his mark as a director with Die Augen der Mumie Ma (The Eyes of the Mummy), starring Pola Negri. Lubitsch alternated between escapist comedies and large-scale historical dramas. His reputation reached a new peak after the release of his spectacles Madame Du Barry (retitled Passion, 1919) and Anna Boleyn (Deception, 1920).

Lubitsch formed his own production company for the high-budget spectacular The Loves of Pharaoh (1921).

Lubitsch sailed to the U.S. for the first time in December 1921 for a publicity and professional factfinding tour, scheduled to culminate in the February premiere of Pharaoh. However, with World War I still fresh, and with a slew of German “New Wave” releases encroaching on American movie workers’ livelihoods, Lubitsch was not well received. He cut his trip short after 3 weeks and returned to Germany.

Lubitsch left Germany for Hollywood in 1922, contracted by Mary Pickford who he directed in the film Rosita, a critical and commercial success, but the two clashed and it became their only joint project. Lubitsch was then signed to a three-year, six-picture contract by Warner that guaranteed him choice of cast and crew, and the final cut.

Lubitsch established his reputation for sophisticated comedy with such stylish films as The Marriage Circle (1924), Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925), and So This Is Paris (1926). But his films were not very profitable for Warner, and Lubitsch’s contract was dissolved by mutual consent, with MGM and Paramount buying out the remainder.

His first film for MGM, The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927), which was commercial flop. The Patriot (1928), produced by Paramount, earned him his first Best Directing Oscar nomination.

His first sound film, The Love Parade (1929), starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, earned him another Oscar nomination. The Love Parade (1929), Monte Carlo (1930), and The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) were hailed by critics as masterpieces of the newly emerging musical genre. Lubitsch served on the faculty of the University of Southern California for a time.

His romantic comedy, written with Samson Raphaelson, Trouble in Paradise (1932), was popular both with critics and audiences. But it could only have been made before the Production Code, and after 1935, Trouble in Paradise was withdrawn from circulation.

MGM’s opulent The Merry Widow (1934) and Paramount’s One Hour with You (1932), and Design for Living (1933) were all successful comedies. He made only one other dramatic film, the antiwar Broken Lullaby (aka The Man I Killed, 1932).

In 1935, he was appointed Paramount’s production manager, thus becoming the only major Hollywood director to run a large studio. Lubitsch subsequently produced his own films and supervised those of other directors. But Lubitsch had trouble delegating authority (he was overseeing 60 films). He was fired after a year on the job, and returned to moviemaking. In 1936, he became a naturalized citizen of the U.S.

On July 27, 1935, he married British actress Vivian Gaye, and they had one daughter, born in 1938. When war was declared in Europe, Vivian Lubitsch and her daughter were in London. Vivian sent her baby daughter, and her nursemaid Consuela Strohmeier to Montreal aboard the Donaldson Atlantic Line’s SS Athenia, which was sunk by German submarine on September 3, 1939 with a loss of 118 passengers, but the child and the nurse survived.

In 1939, Lubitsch moved to MGM, and directed Garbo in Ninotchka, their only project. The film, co-written by Billy Wilder, is a satirical comedy, which was promoted with the tagline “Garbo Laughs!”

Lubitsch directed That Uncertain Feeling (1941), a remake of his 1925 film Kiss Me Again, an independent production that was not a commercial success. Lubitsch followed with To Be or Not to Be, a witty, dark and insightful film about a troupe of actors in Nazi-occupied Poland.

He spent the balance of his career at Fox, but a heart condition curtailed his activity. His next picture was Heaven Can Wait (1943), his first color film, also scripted by Raphaelson. The tale concerns Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche), who recounts his life and the women he has known from his mother onward, including his happy if difficult 25 years of marriage to Martha (Gene Tierney).

After Heaven Can Wait, Lubitsch began work on A Royal Scandal (1945), a remake of his silent film Forbidden Paradise. Edwin Justus Mayer wrote the screenplay for A Royal Scandal and had worked with Lubitsch on To Be or Not to Be (1942). A Royal Scandal’s pre-production and rehearsals were completed under Lubitsch. He became ill during shooting, so Lubitsch hired Otto Preminger to finish the film. After A Royal Scandal, Lubitsch regained his health, and directed Cluny Brown (1946), with Charles Boyer and Jennifer Jones.

In March 1947, Lubitsch was awarded a Special Academy Award for his “25-year contribution to motion pictures.” Presenter Mervyn LeRoy described Lubitsch as “a master of innuendo,” who had “an adult mind and a hatred of saying things the obvious way.”

Lubitsch died of a heart attack on November 30, 1947, in Hollywood at the age of 55.

His last film, “That Lady in Ermine,” with Betty Grable, was completed by Preminger and released posthumously in 1948.

Legacy:

Among his best works are Trouble in Paradise, Design for Living, Ninotchka, The Shop Around the Corner, To Be or Not to Be and Heaven Can Wait.