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That Certain Sophisticated Something

A UCLA series showcases director Ernst Lubitsch's delicate yet knowing brand of romantic comedy.

April 15, 2001|KENNETH TURAN | Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

"Ah, Monsieur Rabelais," one of a group of deeply amused 16th century Frenchmen says to the smiling man at the head of their table in a vintage New Yorker cartoon. "There is simply no word to describe your earthy, ribald sense of humor."

And so it is with Ernst Lubitsch, a pillar of Hollywood's golden age. There perhaps has never been a studio director whose gifts were so universally revered by discerning tastes yet so resistant to being exactly described, to being nailed down and pigeonholed with mere words.

"Lubitsch was a giant," said Orson Welles. "His talent and originality were stupefying." Greta Garbo, for once not alone, felt "he was the only great director out there." And Charlie Chaplin, something of a talent himself, said Lubitsch "could do more to show the grace and humor of sex in a non-lustful way than any other director I've ever heard of."

Yes, but what exactly did he do? Why is it that neither the passing of time nor the wholesale change in moral climate has had any effect on how fresh, how effortlessly charming and amusing the best of his work remains. Even his admirers finally shrugged their shoulders and gave up. "The Lubitsch Touch" is what they called his method (a phrase historian Herman G. Weinberg used for his key study of the man) and left it at that.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 22, 2001 Home Edition Calendar Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Movie caption-A caption for an April 15 story on Ernst Lubitsch films mistakenly listed three actors in a photo from "Lady Windermere's Fan." Only May McAvoy and Bert Lytell were in the photo.

"So, This Is Paradise" is the title of a two-week, 16-film Lubitsch tribute that the UCLA Film and Television Archive is putting on starting Tuesday night at the campus' Melnitz Hall. The already converted can experience the master's greatest films (except for the Garbo-starring "Ninotchka') in 35-millimeter prints and glimpse some rarely shown items as well. As for those to whom Lubitsch is at best a name, it's a chance to find out why so many have thought so highly of him for so long.

To see Lubitsch's work today, in an age that overvalues coarseness and blatancy in humor, is to experience a kind of delicacy and sophistication that almost doesn't exist anymore. The Berlin-born director's films were often set in an imaginary world of fake European principalities with names like Sylvania and Marshavia, a world where men wore tuxedos, women dressed in drop-dead evening gowns and undressed in even more elaborate lingerie, and even Communists never did anything worse than scream "Phooey, phooey and phooey!"

The sine qua non of Lubitsch's touch was an infallible sense of what is funny. Working closely with his writers (most often Samson Raphaelson), the director constructed the most precise comic clockwork mechanisms, pitch-perfect in their slyness, their timing, their intonations and intimations. Lubitsch choreographed dialogue, he choreographed movement, he even choreographed the camera, which he felt "should comment, insinuate, make an epigram or a bon mot, as well as tell a story."

Lubitsch's mastery of insinuation and avoidance of the obvious, especially where romantic/sexual relationships were concerned, were also hallmarks of his style. He understood that what's not seen can be more tantalizing and delightful than what is, and though Mary Pickford, one of his few detractors, memorably skewered him as "a director of doors," his depictions of love affairs have a knowing quality that no one else has managed to match.

Finally, there was Lubitsch's empathy for the human condition, his gentle tolerance for individual foibles leavened by a cynic's tartness. His innate warmth, savoir-faire and wisdom about life is one of the reasons the French continue to value him so highly: On almost any day in Paris, one of his films will be playing in a repertory theater to an appreciative audience.

The earliest Lubitsch film in the UCLA series is also one of its surprise treats: 1919's German silent "The Oyster Princess," with Robert Israel providing live musical accompaniment and the archive providing simultaneous translation of the German intertitles.

The story involves the efforts of the unflappable Mr. Quaker, the Oyster King of America who is living in Berlin, to marry off his temperamental child ('Your daughter is in a fit of raving madness," a stone-faced servant accurately reports) to the aristocratic Prince Nucky, a nobleman so impoverished he does his own laundry. The film is broader than what was to come later, but it's still enough of a charmer that it's easy to agree with historian Weinberg, who said, "It foreshadowed the method he was to use to such scintillating effect in Hollywood."

The UCLA series opens with two other silents, "Madame DuBarry," the French Revolution epic starring Pola Negri, and "Lady Windermere's Fan," which offers the experience of seeing an Oscar Wilde play without hearing his famous "I can resist everything except temptation" dialogue. Though of interest, neither film is quintessentially Lubitsch.

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