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.
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.