Is Lubitsch funny?

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Is Lubitsch funny?

Unread post by Mike Gebert » Tue Jun 19, 2018 8:29 am

There's a movie blog I used to read religiously, and don't any more. (Michael Schlesinger will know which one I mean.) At one time it was about movies and the quirks of the blogger; increasingly it became about politics, and commenters who had 29 not especially original or insightful things to say this! instant! about The Current Crisis drove out the people who wanted to talk about whether or not Liberty Valance works what with Jimmy Stewart being a 55-year-old new graduate of law school and all.

Anyway, a big thing now at the site, maybe it's how you get traffic riled up and coming, is trashing something from the past as never having been any good. For instance, right now people are going off on The Deer Hunter, which remains an enormously powerful and daring film, a kind you can't even imagine being made today, but it's not p.c. in some way to the sensitive souls of 2018 so it was never any good. That 1978 and 2018 are two different times in relation to a war that was just five years earlier to the former, that it offers insight into the world of their parents that affects us to this day, well, that doesn't matter to them.

Last week it was Lubitsch:
Have you watched his stuff lately? Pleasant, but his touch was based largely on two things. An arch, slightly unnatural, high comic delivery by his actors that created a sense of audience complicity and made the viewer feel sophisticated and superior. And a technique whereby the viewer was allowed to add up discrete comic elements- often suggestive- and create the punchline.
As the kids say, you say that like it's a bad thing.
Watched Trouble in Paradise four years ago after reading all the hosannas, and felt like the eunich [sic] at the orgy. Glad there’s someone else who didn’t flip for it.
I haven't seen it since I fell asleep at a revival house while watching it. I admit I was stoned, but still...
Lord help us, the leaders of tomorrow.

That said, it's certainly true that Lubitsch's worlds, the mittel-Europeans of some films and the Art Deco rich of others, seem very far in many ways from the modern world, and I can see that certain films of his just would be hard for today's young'uns to relate to. There are some that have never really done it for me—Heaven Can Wait, for instance. Still, Lubitsch was Lubitsch, a face on the comedy wing of the movies' Mt. Rushmore, for sure.

I decided to test this theory on Son #1, currently home from college. He turned up his nose at the art for Criterion's Trouble in Paradise, admittedly quite old-fashioned, so then I grabbed To Be or Not to Be, which I figured was the most surefire just as comedy. I explained the idea of the "Lubitsch touch" (which the first commenter above describes pretty well, even as he disapproves), including Billy Wilder's succinct description: "Lubitsch could do more with a closed door than most directors could with an open fly."

And, well, he laughed. "So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt?" built to bigger and bigger laughs, as did Benny's consternation at Robert Stack getting up just as Hamlet's soliloquy begins. More distinctively, he got how Lubitsch hinted at sex off screen so effectively—although in this film it's less Lubitsch than the screenwriters, making adroitly sardonic parallels between seduction and the Nazi way of war ("Shall we blitzkrieg?" "I was thinking more a gradual encirclement").

Interestingly, there was one thing he really had a problem with—Robert Stack as the young lieutenant who thinks he's in love with (married) Carole Lombard and she will leave her husband for him and doesn't get that she's toying with him. My son found him stalkerish (telling her, several years his senior, that she doesn't know her feelings but he does) and the whole adultery angle automatically putting him in the bad guy camp in the movie. I grew up in the 60s when sniggering adultery comedy was everywhere in movies and TV, and with the 19th century notion that it was the nature of actresses to attract Stage Door Johnnys besotted with them part of the cultural background noise, so that's a Lubitsch world (and a post-Lubitsch world) that is alien to him, for sure. (Wait till he sees one of my favorite 60s comedies as a kid—A Guide For the Married Man.)

But in any case, To Be or Not to Be passes the test—Lubitsch is very, very funny, sharp and fast and with Touch intact. I have Shop Around the Corner on the DVR; that might be next.
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Re: Is Lubitsch funny?

Unread post by Arndt » Tue Jun 19, 2018 9:05 am

I showed TO BE OR NOT TO BE to some 18-year-olds some years back and they loved it. You'd have to be very stoned not to enjoy this film. And it has Carole Lombard.
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Re: Is Lubitsch funny?

Unread post by wich2 » Tue Jun 19, 2018 9:17 am

Great good grief.

I mean, yeah, times change - but Mastery of a medium is still that!

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Re: Is Lubitsch funny?

Unread post by boblipton » Tue Jun 19, 2018 9:40 am

Heaven Can Wait is pure nostalgia for an era when men could get away with it.... about like Mad Men. The one sure Lubitsch touch for me is when Ameche’s son’s girlfriend calls him on trying his Lothario act on her... and he moves slightly and you realize you’ve been staring at his middle-age spread.

Never mind. There are great works that only time can bring us the maturity to understand, and poor works that age reveals. I can’t stand A Guide for the Married Man with its ill-natured sniggering, but Miriam Hopkins will remain forever in my heart for her pure love of Herbert Marshall as a thief.

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Re: Is Lubitsch funny?

Unread post by maliejandra » Tue Jun 19, 2018 10:25 am

To Be or Not to Be is a very modern film, and let us not forget about Ninotchka which may be perfect. Sure it is fun to play devil's advocate sometimes and examine "the other side" but it would be hard to argue that these movies are no good or that there are no laughs to be had.

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Re: Is Lubitsch funny?

Unread post by Daniel Eagan » Tue Jun 19, 2018 10:48 am

Opinions are so infuriating. For instance, I strongly dislike The Deer Hunter, despite the wonderful work by Cazale. It's like a bunch of naive liberals got to refight the Vietnam War the way they wanted. Essentially phony, like the Rocky Mountains that stand in for the suburbs of Pittsburgh. And it's a good indication of where Cimino's career would go (down, down, down). But I respect your opinion because I agree with the majority of what you write. I don't want to say people are wrong.

One problem with Lubitsch for modern viewers is that they can't place his work in context. They can't compare his movies to his peers, they can't see how his subject matter challenged culture. Also, they keep looking for the "Lubitsch touch" as a specific shot or scene instead of a world view. So when there's banter instead of gags in Trouble in Paradise, where action is implied rather than shown, they get bored. What's so funny? It's not like Preston Sturges, who repeats his punchlines until they sink in and punctuates his scenes with obvious pratfalls. If the people who think Lubitsch is boring or unfunny spent some time looking at his contemporary comedies, they would revise their opinions.

I think Lubitsch's touch is touch and go. It's barely apparent in Rosita, apart from some delicious reaction shots by Irene Rich. I like To Be or Not to Be more for Lombard and Benny than for its ragged, repetitive story line, and I respect the film more than like it. Same for Monte Carlo, Heaven Can Wait, etc. But when the touch is there, it's remarkable. The Shop Around the Corner doesn't exist in a real place, its sets and costumes are fine but not much more, its camerawork fits comfortably into the studio style, its music is frou frou. What makes the film a masterpiece for me is Lubitsch's understanding of the characters, his empathy for their loneliness and pain, his belief with them in hope, faith that they will find something to compensate for a harsh world. And how delicately he frames that.

So is Lubitsch funny? Sort of, but it's like asking if Borzage (who often achieves a similar emotional depth and sincerity) is funny. They can be, but it's almost beside the point. I'm afraid this is drifting too far into ambiguity.

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Re: Is Lubitsch funny?

Unread post by Dave Pitts » Tue Jun 19, 2018 11:05 am

The question in the OP is, in part, hopeless. Is Jerry Lewis funny? The Benny Hill Show? Kathy Griffin? Judy Canova? I'd say yes to two of those. I've known people who denigrated The Carol Burnett Show, on the grounds that she was too loud and obvious and Martha Raye-ish. Carol Burnett! My mother disliked I Love Lucy, for the same reasons.
But now Lubitsch. Anyone who responds to Seinfeld, with its elliptical, understated comic setups, and its urbanity, should get Lubitsch at once. The best of Lubitsch is untouchable, (like the best of Hitchcock or Wilder or Wyler.) Marriage Circle...Love Parade...One Hour with You (I feel like rewatching that right away)...Ninotchka, which is pure champagne (is anyone else tired of Maltin's review of Ninotchka, which complains that the film has too much outdated political jargon? The jargon is there, but it is being expertly kidded.)
Look at what passes for comedy these days, especially the majority of Hollywood comedies, aimed at the adolescents, and then watch a Lubitsch. If you don't become addicted to the black and white world, then okay, you can have the masturbation comedies and the Home Alones and the spring break comedies. Give me Chevalier and Mary Boland and Franklin Pangborn and Charles Butterworth.

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Re: Is Lubitsch funny?

Unread post by Mbakkel2 » Tue Jun 19, 2018 11:34 am

Don't forget "Die Puppe".

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Re: Is Lubitsch funny?

Unread post by silentfilm » Tue Jun 19, 2018 12:09 pm

And further proof that Lubitsch is funny is the fact that no less than comedy master Mel Brooks remade To Be or not To Be, and the film is only average.

TBONTB has one of the best openings of any comedy, and the film is played pretty seriously until that first unexpected laugh.

I don't hate The Deer Hunter, but it is too long, and the ending is very muddled. The scenes in the Viet Cong prison are riveting, and build a level of suspense that the film cannot sustain.

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Re: Is Lubitsch funny?

Unread post by Harlowgold » Tue Jun 19, 2018 12:20 pm

Mike Gebert wrote:There's a movie blog I used to read religiously, and don't any more. (Michael Schlesinger will know which one I mean.) At one time it was about movies and the quirks of the blogger; increasingly it became about politics, and commenters who had 29 not especially original or insightful things to say this! instant! about The Current Crisis drove out the people who wanted to talk about whether or not Liberty Valance works what with Jimmy Stewart being a 55-year-old new graduate of law school and all.

Anyway, a big thing now at the site, maybe it's how you get traffic riled up and coming, is trashing something from the past as never having been any good. For instance, right now people are going off on The Deer Hunter, which remains an enormously powerful and daring film, a kind you can't even imagine being made today, but it's not p.c. in some way to the sensitive souls of 2018 so it was never any good. That 1978 and 2018 are two different times in relation to a war that was just five years earlier to the former, that it offers insight into the world of their parents that affects us to this day, well, that doesn't matter to them.

Last week it was Lubitsch:
Have you watched his stuff lately? Pleasant, but his touch was based largely on two things. An arch, slightly unnatural, high comic delivery by his actors that created a sense of audience complicity and made the viewer feel sophisticated and superior. And a technique whereby the viewer was allowed to add up discrete comic elements- often suggestive- and create the punchline.
As the kids say, you say that like it's a bad thing.
Watched Trouble in Paradise four years ago after reading all the hosannas, and felt like the eunich [sic] at the orgy. Glad there’s someone else who didn’t flip for it.

Interestingly, there was one thing he really had a problem with—Robert Stack as the young lieutenant who thinks he's in love with (married) Carole Lombard and she will leave her husband for him and doesn't get that she's toying with him. My son found him stalkerish (telling her, several years his senior, that she doesn't know her feelings but he does) and the whole adultery angle automatically putting him in the bad guy camp in the movie. I grew up in the 60s when sniggering adultery comedy was everywhere in movies and TV, and with the 19th century notion that it was the nature of actresses to attract Stage Door Johnnys besotted with them part of the cultural background noise, so that's a Lubitsch world (and a post-Lubitsch world) that is alien to him, for sure. (Wait till he sees one of my favorite 60s comedies as a kid—A Guide For the Married Man.)

But in any case, To Be or Not to Be passes the test—Lubitsch is very, very funny, sharp and fast and with Touch intact. I have Shop Around the Corner on the DVR; that might be next.
To Be or Not to Be is a wonderful film but it's an atypical Lubitsch film - with an down-to-earth comic (Jack Benny) in the lead and a much earthier tone than most of his films. I've always found Lubitsch hit or miss and there is absolutely an unpleasant unctuousness in many of his films, even his better ones. I've always wondered if Mamoulian meant Love Me Tonight to be a parody of the Lubitsch touch rather than a tribute as most critics take it. Auteur advocates of course love Lubboy and even praise his bad movies likes Bluebeard's Eighth Wife which even the wonderful star team of Cooper and Colbert can't salvage.

I do consider Robert Stack the weakest link though in TBONTB - Tim Matheson is much better in Mel Brooks' remake even if it's far less credible that Matheson would be infatuated with Anne Bancroft (then past 50) than Stack was with Lombard (early 30's).

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Re: Is Lubitsch funny?

Unread post by Mike Gebert » Tue Jun 19, 2018 1:13 pm

I do consider Robert Stack the weakest link though in TBONTB - Tim Matheson is much better in Mel Brooks' remake even if it's far less credible that Matheson would be infatuated with Anne Bancroft (then past 50) than Stack was with Lombard (early 30's).
I have it on good authority that younger men fell for Anne Bancroft on at least one other occasion.*

* In reality, of course, Hoffman was 30 and Bancroft 37, I believe.
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Re: Is Lubitsch funny?

Unread post by Brooksie » Tue Jun 19, 2018 2:15 pm

Is the question 'Is Lubitsch funny', or 'Was Lubitsch funny', or 'Does Lubitsch remain funny'? They're all slightly different questions.

Question 1 is the easiest to answer. Did you watch a Lubitsch film? Did you laugh? Question answered.

Question 2 is harder. Not only is it increasingly difficult to ask people to view something outside the context and social mores of their own time, but there is an expectation that an older film is inherently deficient. I have read comments on another pop culture blog (I suspect not the same one Mike is discussing, though one that has undergone a similar decline into clickbaitism) that say "People had to laugh at the Marx Brothers back in the day. It's all they had," as if 1930s comedy is a kind of steam-powered version of the superior brand we have today. Make of that what you will, but it illustrates the fact that people come at these films with a number of filters in place.

If it's Question 3, and we're judging whether Lubitsch's brand of humour has survived the years, it might be apposite to do the experiment again but substitute The Shop Around the Corner, because audiences didn't consider To Be Or Not To Be especially funny at the time. A lot of that was to do with context - being in the middle of the war, the death of Carole Lombard and so on - but I'd be wary of using such an atypical example to answer the question of whether Lubitsch's appeal is enduring, as opposed to whether it presaged a brand of comedy that predominates today.

An interesting discussion, in any case.

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Re: Is Lubitsch funny?

Unread post by s.w.a.c. » Tue Jun 19, 2018 2:30 pm

The Yacht Club Boys thought Lubitsch was funny.

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Re: Is Lubitsch funny?

Unread post by Donald Binks » Tue Jun 19, 2018 3:19 pm

To me it's a case of subtlety - audiences of previous generations had a better understanding and were able to "read" films. Today's audiences seem to need to be hit over the head with a sledge-hammer or the plot written up by a sign the size of "Hollywoodland"
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Re: Is Lubitsch funny?

Unread post by Arndt » Wed Jun 20, 2018 2:09 am

Donald Binks wrote:To me it's a case of subtlety - audiences of previous generations had a better understanding and were able to "read" films. Today's audiences seem to need to be hit over the head with a sledge-hammer or the plot written up by a sign the size of "Hollywoodland"
And it seems the more of a gross-out-fest, the more successful the comedy.
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Re: Is Lubitsch funny?

Unread post by boblipton » Wed Jun 20, 2018 4:51 am

Donald Binks wrote:To me it's a case of subtlety - audiences of previous generations had a better understanding and were able to "read" films. Today's audiences seem to need to be hit over the head with a sledge-hammer or the plot written up by a sign the size of "Hollywoodland"
Hmm..... not disagreeing with you, but how subtle is a door when you're in a dark theater looking straight ahead at a twelve-foot high door and all the other people in the audience are laughing that laugh they laugh when they've heard a dirty joke? Especially when you've been trained in an understanding of appropriate public behavior?

Now turn it around. You've grown up watching movies alone on your cellphone in a milieu where the issue is to stand out in your opinions in 140 characters or less.

Lubitsch is subtle... but only because the vast majority of film makers would like to be DeMille directing Carmen Miranda in a Busby-Berkley-style musical number with a script by Cornell Woolrich, if only they knew how. And they've always been that way. How subtle is the opening gag in Trouble in Paradise?

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Re: Is Lubitsch funny?

Unread post by wich2 » Wed Jun 20, 2018 10:35 am

As I posted above, I share the appreciation for Lubitsch - but some are using that excuse for a "You Kids Get Off My Lawn!" tirade.

Let's please not imply that folks like the Coens aren't making sophisticated, funny films. OH BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with these earlier titles.

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Re: Is Lubitsch funny?

Unread post by rudyfan » Wed Jun 20, 2018 12:21 pm

Mbakkel2 wrote:Don't forget "Die Puppe".
Utterly delightful. I love this film and adore Ossi Oswalda.
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Re: Is Lubitsch funny?

Unread post by MDJimenez » Wed Jun 20, 2018 1:39 pm

I'm curious to read the blogger's thoughts on Lubitsch who in my book can do no wrong. I wish I could attend next month's Lubitsch retrospective at the UCLA Film Archive. His daughter Nicola will attend the screening of So This Is Paris on July 6.

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Re: Is Lubitsch funny?

Unread post by AlonzoChurch » Wed Jun 20, 2018 1:50 pm

the vast majority of film makers would like to be DeMille directing Carmen Miranda in a Busby-Berkley-style musical number with a script by Cornell Woolrich, if only they knew how.
Marvel Comics presents The Banana In My Pocket, featuring Carmen Miranda, a private investigator in the mean streets of 1947 LA, who has a secret, as well as a secret life in 20th Century Fox Musicals, shot on the down low by Cecil B. De Mille. Captain America makes a cameo appearance.

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Re: Is Lubitsch funny?

Unread post by Jim Roots » Wed Jun 20, 2018 2:05 pm

From the Introduction to my magnum opus, The 100 Greatest Silent Film Comedians:

It would be completely dishonest to pretend that what made people laugh themselves sick in 1914 will still make people laugh themselves sick in 2014. Only pseudo-intellectual phonies pretend Shakespeare's comedies are still utterly hilarious 350 years after he wrote them for an entirely different kind of civilization.

I will now return to being my customary shy, retiring, soft-spoken self (played by Donald Meek).

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Re: Is Lubitsch funny?

Unread post by IA » Wed Jun 20, 2018 2:29 pm

Pleasant, but his touch was based largely on two things. An arch, slightly unnatural, high comic delivery by his actors that created a sense of audience complicity and made the viewer feel sophisticated and superior.
And yet the Lubitsch touch worked even when actors were silent--as my fond memories of So This is Paris will attest. The opening of that film is a master class in how to use visuals to set up a richly farcical scene. That visual mastery is also part of the Touch.
Lubitsch made audiences feel sophisticated because he allowed them to examine human peccadilloes with dispassionate candor and amused discretion. He never felt the need to spell everything out, and intelligent audiences appreciate that. Only insecure folks like this blogger would resent and cast aspersions on such qualities.

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Re: Is Lubitsch funny?

Unread post by aldiboronti » Wed Jun 20, 2018 2:40 pm

Is the Pope Catholic? Does a bear ..... I needn't go on. Yes, Lubitsch is funny.

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Re: Is Lubitsch funny?

Unread post by Arndt » Thu Jun 21, 2018 12:45 am

wich2 wrote:Let's please not imply that folks like the Coens aren't making sophisticated, funny films. OH BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with these earlier titles.
Excellent point. I'll add HAIL CAESAR.
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Re: Is Lubitsch funny?

Unread post by s.w.a.c. » Thu Jun 21, 2018 7:47 am

It's like asking if El Brendel is funny.
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Re: Is Lubitsch funny?

Unread post by Dave Pitts » Thu Jun 21, 2018 9:17 am

OMG, El!!! Good ole El. The presence who makes the 109 minute Just Imagine seem like 309 minutes, with a 15 minute interval of program music.

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Re: Is Lubitsch funny?

Unread post by brendangcarroll » Thu Jun 21, 2018 10:02 am

Well I have always appreciated Lubitsch and particularly, for his remarkable adaptation of Franz Lehar's THE MERRY WIDOW (1934) which actually improved on the original.
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Re: Is Lubitsch funny?

Unread post by s.w.a.c. » Fri Jun 22, 2018 10:03 am

Dave Pitts wrote:OMG, El!!! Good ole El. The presence who makes the 109 minute Just Imagine seem like 309 minutes, with a 15 minute interval of program music.
He came to mind as I was listening to Gilbert Gottfried's Amazing Colossal Podcast, with guest Billy West, and they were doing a rundown of their favourite character actors (Al Lewis, Lou Jacobi, there was some George Jessel talk...) and GG did an El Brendel impression, but couldn't remember his name! I think Billy pulled that one out of the air.
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Re: Is Lubitsch funny?

Unread post by Brooksie » Wed Jun 27, 2018 1:56 pm

An article in today's Wall Street Journal provides an elegant rebuttal to the blogger who prompted this thread:

https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-did-lu ... 1529618521

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Re: Is Lubitsch funny?

Unread post by silentfilm » Thu Jun 28, 2018 11:17 am

Sadly, you have to be a Wall Street Journal subscriber to read the article.

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