Friday, July 10, 2015

Books: Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise

The 2015 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge is an event in which the goal is to read and write about a variety of books related to classic film, hosted by Out of the Past. For a complete list of the rules, visit the website.

I had learned about the work of director Ernst Lubitsch almost exclusively through the work of Billy Wilder. I knew that the former was a major influence on the latter, and thus my perception of Lubitsch was filtered through Wilder. To me, Lubitsch was this earlier filmmaker whom Wilder worked with on films such as Ninotchka, and someone who Wilder looked to for inspiration as to how to make a scene funnier, but I had never gotten a sense of him beyond that - until now.

Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise by Scott Eyman is a biography of the man to whom Wilder paid tribute by posting a sign in his office that he looked to every time he had trouble writing a script. The sign said: "How would Lubitsch do it?" For over twenty years, in Europe and America, Lubitsch did it quite well indeed, and was well-known for his distinctive style of subtle, witty humor which audiences worldwide recognized as "the Lubitsch touch."

Eyman goes into Lubistsch's childhood in Germany, as the son of a Russian tailor, who gravitated towards acting partly as a way to avoid the family business - first in the theater, and then cinema. Directing films was an outgrowth of acting in them, and he grew into a respected and popular star within Germany and beyond, directing films with silent film stars like Pola Negri and Emil Jannings. Lubitsch came to America in 1923 when Hollywood came calling, and that's when his career really took off.

Eyman traces the origins of the fabled Lubitsch touch to the time Lubitsch spent as an actor under the tutelage of Max Reinhardt, a German theatrical actor-turned-director who broke with tradition in favor of what Eyman calls "a sensuous theater." Reinhardt would take direct control of an actor's performance down to the gestures they made and the way they spoke certain lines for the purpose of shaping a unified style, in which the play as a whole was front and center, rather than any individual performance or element. Lubitsch took this method and adapted it for film, and though he alternated between comedy and drama during his years in Germany, it was through comedy that his reputation solidified and his style perfected.

Scott Eyman
We get to see the shaping of Lubitsch' Hollywood career, which includes such hits as The Love Parade, Trouble in Paradise, To Be or Not to Be and Heaven Can Wait. Lubitsch had a boisterous personality that attracted all sorts of people to him, especially other expatriate filmmakers from Europe. His love life was more problematic; he had two marriages to two women who might have been the wrong fit for him. Overall, we're presented with an image of a man to whom movies were his life, for better or worse.

It's a very straightforward book, covering his whole life from start to finish, so there's not too much more I can say here except that I found it a very illuminating portrait of the early days of American and European cinema as well as a biography of an important filmmaker.



  1. "To Be Nor Not To Be" is one of my favorite go-to movies for a great comedy with depth. My list of books I want to read is giant, but I'll get to this one someday!

  2. I wonder if THE INTERVIEW would've been as controversial as it was if it was anything like TO BE OR NOT TO BE. Either way, it says a lot about how times and tastes have changed.


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