Love Triangles, Screwballs, and WWII: An Ernst Lubitsch Primer

Ernst Lubitsch’s Design for Living. Photo: Paramount Pictures

If you’re a lover of rom-coms, you’ll want to know the work of early Hollywood director Ernst Lubitsch. Though Lubitsch is no longer a widely recognized name the way, say, Charlie Chaplin may be, his influence on film extends into the present. He’s revered by film buffs and comedy nerds alike for a certain je ne sais quoi that’s referred to as the “Lubitsch Touch.” That imprimatur is best described as the way he followed the oft-repeated storytelling rule of “show, don’t tell.”

Lubitsch’s story and character details came in through the side door and, to mix metaphors, never came within striking distance of being on the nose. For instance, rather than use a wide shot of Venice’s Grand Canal to establish the setting in Trouble in Paradise, he showed a garbage collector on a gondola. In Design for Living, he revealed two characters’ infidelity by having Gary Cooper’s George note that Fredric March’s Tommy had worn a tuxedo to breakfast. And that sartorial choice can only signify one thing: Tommy’s wearing his best walk-of-shame clothes.

Lubitsch was born in Germany in 1892 and began as an actor in the German film industry but soon moved into directing during the silent era. He came to the U.S. in 1922 and quickly became a sought-after director of stylish, sophisticated high comedies starring unflappably amused heroes and heroines. While his films are often delineated by whether they’re silents or talkies, they’re better separated into the categories of pre- and post-Motion Picture Production Code. Popularly known as the Hays Code, the MPPC was early Hollywood’s attempt to self-censor its raunchy, highly sexualized, and often cynical material due to the threat of outside regulation of its “immoral” content.

Adopted in 1930 but barely enforced until 1934, the Hays Code called for the elimination of anything seen as base or scandalous in film. Men and women couldn’t be depicted living together outside marriage, and even married couples were shown sleeping in separate beds. Criminal acts could appear onscreen, but only if the culprits were caught and punished by the film’s end, and that was just the tip of a prudish (and racist) iceberg. While older films are often thought of with a certain innocence and formality, Lubitsch’s oeuvre is testament that 1930s comedies could be forward-thinking, especially in giving women an agency that feels almost startling to see in black-and-white.

Director Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot, The Apartment) reportedly kept a sign on his office wall reading, “How would Lubitsch do it?” So, in deference to that question, here’s a primer on Lubitsch’s most iconic films that fans of high comedy should watch. This is how Lubistch did it.

Pre-Code Lubitsch:

The Marriage Circle (1924): Stuck in an unhappy marriage in tony Vienna, Mizzi Stock (silent-film star Marie Prevost) falls for her friend Charlotte’s (Florence Vidor) new husband, Dr. Franz Braun (Monte Blue), and brazenly goes after him. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Franz, his best friend and business partner harbors feelings for Charlotte. One of Lubitsch’s first silents in the U.S., The Marriage Circle certainly has the broad acting characteristic of the time, but Lubitsch used the silent-era comedy-of-errors style to power his love triangle using subtlety without the broader slapstick jokes silents were known for. Instead, there are mistaken identities of people seen only in silhouette and an extended bit of switching seating arrangements at a dinner to fuel the misunderstandings.

The Smiling Lieutenant (1931): An early collaboration with star Miriam Hopkins, whom he’d come to make two more films with, The Smiling Lieutenant stars Maurice Chevalier, Claudette Colbert, and Hopkins in Lubitsch’s movie-musical period piece. In early 20th-century Vienna, Lieutenant Nikolaus “Niki” von Preyn (Chevalier), falls in love with Franzi (Colbert), the leader of an all-female orchestra. When he winks at Franzi during a parade, frumpy Princess Anna (Hopkins) assumes he’s winking at her, which naturally leads to their marriage (hey, it’s set in 1905) and an unhappy Niki. Despite the rather chaste setup, the movie’s not afraid to skip innuendo in favor of being direct. It even includes the advice song “Jazz Up Your Lingerie” when Franzi gives Princess Anna a makeover.

Trouble in Paradise (1932): One of Lubitsch’s best-known films, Trouble in Paradise is also one of the earliest screwball comedies and a cornerstone of the genre. It follows Gaston (Herbert Marshall) and Lily (Miriam Hopkins), a couple of high-class con artists who fall in love with each other’s dishonest wiles. The titular trouble comes in when the duo decides to fleece the charming Madame Colet (Kay Francis), a beautiful and generous executive and heiress to a perfume fortune. When Gaston falls for Colet even as he’s hoping to rob her blind, it threatens his and Lily’s plans and their relationship. In each bit of witty, fast-paced banter between Gaston and Lily or Gaston and Madam Colet, Trouble in Paradise is full of a gliding delightfulness that somehow never turns saccharine in the way we might expect of romantic comedies today.

Thanks to the Hays Code, Trouble in Paradise’s slyly sexual dialogue and the crooked con artistry of its main characters kept the film from being shown for years. (Though by today’s standards, it’s easy to miss the sex in Trouble, as it never rises past winking suggestion and is swathed in such charming elegance you’d forget they’re alluding to the act at all.)

Design for Living (1933): Based on Noël Coward’s play by the same name, so much of Design for Living’s dialogue was rewritten that Coward famously quipped only three lines of his original text remained, including “such original lines as ‘Pass the mustard.’” Starring Miriam Hopkins with Fredric March and Gary Cooper, Design for Living is — as you’ll notice many of Lubitsch’s films are — about a love triangle. When Gilda Ferrell (Hopkins) falls in love with two men (Tommy and George) who are not only artists but best friends and roommates, she refuses to choose between the two. They instead live together with a “gentlemen’s agreement” that Gilda’s relationship with both men will remain strictly platonic, which, of course, it doesn’t. Some aspects of Design feel very much of their time — there’s the decision that Gilda will abandon her own art career in favor of midwifing her male friends’ talents (she literally calls herself “mother of the arts”), but the outright acknowledgement of sex at all makes Design feel shockingly modern.

Design for Living was also one of the last comedies Lubitsch made before the Hays Code was fully enforced, which explains its openly ribald humor, not to mention its depiction of two straight men and a straight woman living together outside marriage. And while there’s the guise that they’re friends and colleagues only, there’s more than a winking acknowledgement that Tommy and George are firmly outside Gilda’s friend zone.

Post-Code Lubitsch:

Ninotchka (1939): Greta Garbo stars here as Ninotchka, a Soviet inspector whose mind never strays from the Bolshevist cause. When she is sent to Paris to retrieve three comrades sent on a jewelry-selling mission, Ninotchka is slowly won over by the glitter of capitalism and, of course, the romantic shenanigans of Count Leon d’Algout (Melvyn Douglas), who warms her icy socialist heart. While Ninotchka is another of Lubistch’s most beloved films, it now reads a bit like a propaganda piece for capitalism. Here Lubitsch sets up the West’s romance, art, and excitement as luxuries no Russian dares think about, especially not someone so sternly devout to the cause as Ninotchka. Nonetheless, the movie is still smart enough to occasionally knock its arrogant Westerners down a couple of pegs, and no one walks away without some humility.

The Shop Around the Corner (1940): Jimmy Stewart stars as Alfred Kralik opposite Margaret Sullavan as Kiara Novak in this classic rom-com that’s considered one of the best screwball comedies ever made. Kralik and Novak are retail co-workers who cannot bear each other’s presence but are unknowingly corresponding anonymously. If the plotline sounds reminiscent of You’ve Got Mail, that’s because Mail borrowed heavily from the play Shop was based on, trading, of course, snail mail for the early digital era’s AOL. (In a nod to Lubitsch, Meg Ryan’s character even owns a bookstore named “Shop Around the Corner.”)

Lubitsch’s original is every bit as charming as Nora Ephron’s essential remake, as he utilized the Hays Code’s constrictions to his benefit, using disdain between the lovers as an excuse to keep them apart until the bitter end. After all, if they fall in love too soon, there’s no movie. But thanks to the Hays Code, Lubitsch’s fun sexual innuendos are gone. He kept the wit and romanticism of his earlier films, but Shop’s prudery is significantly less fun than Design for Living’s shocking frankness. While Shop Around the Corner is universally beloved by critics — it even has a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes — it feels a tad maudlin in comparison to Lubistch’s pre-Code films. But what it loses there, it makes up for in charm, and thus, is still very much worth watching.

To Be or Not to Be (1942): Released in 1942, To Be or Not to Be went after Hitler when much of Hollywood was still afraid to touch him at all, even calling out Nazi concentration camps. The boldness earned Lubitsch credit for having principles in addition to his impressive artistry. The film stars Jack Benny and Carole Lombard as Albert and Maria Tura, two thespians on the Warsaw stage just before Germany’s WWII occupation of Poland. To Be or Not to Be follows the pair and their theater company as they perform Hamlet at night while rehearsing a play about the Nazis by day. But before the show can even open, they get shut down by the actual Nazi occupation. By a crazy turn of events involving a love triangle with a young Polish pilot (which also gives us Carole Lombard’s perfect double entendre, “I’ve never met a man who can drop three tons of dynamite in two minutes”), the couple get pulled into fighting alongside the resistance. Using their theater magic, they put their scrapped play’s Nazi costumes and their hair and makeup expertise to work in a comedy of errors that nonetheless has a deeper message underneath — using, in fact, a speech not from Hamlet, but The Merchant of Venice.

Heaven Can Wait (1944): Lubitsch’s first film in Technicolor, Heaven Can Wait begins when Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) enters the stylish and opulent office lobby of Hell to meet the Lord of Darkness himself (played by Laird Cregar in probably the most elegantly courteous depiction of Lucifer ever seen). Having spent a lifetime being told he was a scoundrel, Henry assumes Hell is the place he naturally belongs and tells the Devil his life story of dishonesty and philandering to prove it.

Heaven Can Wait features Lubitsch’s beautiful details and sly dialogue, but this one never quite rose to the level of dizzying dreaminess of his earlier films. Maybe it’s that the gender dynamic actually feels more retro here than in Lubitsch’s previous work; Henry’s antics with women, seen through today’s lens, read more as low-key creepy and emotionally abusive than romantic, but it’s worth a watch for the way Lubitsch flaunted the Code while staying within it. Henry may have lived a life as, in his words, a “miscreant,” but Lucifer sees him only as a man full of the joy of life (again, debatable!) and won’t allow him entrance to Hell’s fiery gates.

A Primer of Ernst Lubitsch’s Early Hollywood Comedies