Tonight at the Gene Siskel Film Center, the Northwest Chicago Film Society presents Ernst Lubitsch’s Ninotchka, screening in a new 35mm print. One of the most important voices of classic Hollywood, Lubitsch was a master of pre-Code comedy, adept at sizzling dialogue and sexually charged characterizations. On its website, the film society describes Ninotchka as “the ultimate Lubitsch picture,” which it very well may be—in fact, I’m hard-pressed to find any Lubitsch film that’s anything less than great. Granted, I haven’t seen everything (virtually all of his silent work is unknown to me), but I feel genuine affection for the dozen or so that I’ve watched, something I can’t say about the work of filmmakers I enjoy more than Lubitsch overall. Needless to say, listing this top five was incredibly simple. You can see my picks after the jump.
5. One Hour with You (1932) My favorite of Lubitsch’s musicals. It’s perhaps the last of the great “minimalist” musicals—early talkies utilized fixed boom mikes to record sound, necessitating a simple three-camera setup for each musical number—and the last one Lubitsch made for Paramount. It features a typically standout peformance by Maurice Chevalier and some of Lubitsch’s most inventive compositions.
4. Design for Living (1933) Elegant, stylish, and just a tad bit tawdry, this romantic comedy takes a look at the caprices of human desire, for friendship, for romance, and, in no uncertain terms, for sex. The gender interplay is fascinatingly ahead of its time. With his trio of actors, Lubtisch, along with screenwriter Ben Hecht, subverts constructs of romantic pursuit in ways that are comical but also wryly political.
3. The Shop Around the Corner (1940) As he proved throughout his career, Lubitsch was a superb director of actors, and the performances he draws from Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart in this romantic comedy help elevate a film that in many ways is rather banal. The story relies on contrived character misunderstandings for laughs, but the way both Sullavan and Stewart are alternately sympathetic and detestable, aggravating and endearing is a testament to Lubitsch’s ability to coax myriad moods from a single story and multiple dimensions from his actors.
2. Trouble in Paradise (1932) The love triangle was perhaps Lubitsch’s most tried-and-true plot device. Here, more so than in even Design for Living, he establishes a sophisticated and emotionally resonant sense of character interplay. In an attempt to define the famous “Lubitsch touch,” Andrew Sarris described it as the “counterpoint of poignant sadness during a film’s gayest moments.” Indeed, the film’s every emotional cue has a bittersweet resonance. Few directors have ever achieved such tonal variance as Lubitsch, who could suffuse the giddiest of moments with sorrow and introspection.
1. To Be or Not to Be (1942) A ferocious blend of satire, moral advocacy, slapstick, ethical responsibility, black humor, and Jack Benny. Lubitsch was often didactic, but here the obvious and prevalent sociopolitical commentary contextualizes the humor without standing in the way of the story. It’s an effortlessly watchable film—the kind that glides along in the way Lubitsch films are often thought to “glide”—but not for lack of sophistication or meticulous craft. Though the gears of this film are constantly spinning, Lubitsch cloaks the machinery with the wit, charm, and grace of master storyteller.