‘Ernst Lubitsch and the Comedy of the Thirties’: One More Hidden Chest in the Mise-en-Scène Magazine’s Treasure Trove


By Sven Mikulec

Born in Berlin in 1892 to a Russian Jewish émigré running a dressmaking company, Ernst Lubitsch got into show business through the stage. Around 1910, he was a regular member of Max Reinhardt’s Deutches Theater and quite famous for playing comedic characters. It took him thirty acting gigs to switch to directing: in 1914 he debuted in the director’s chair with Miss Soapsuds, and started building a career which would, in the course of the next three decades, take him to the top of the world. Impressed by his work and its commercial results, Hollywood star Mary Pickford invited him across the Atlantic to direct his first American film, Rosita, in 1923. The success of the film led to a three-year six-movie deal with Warner Bros. and his Hollywood career was soon in full swing. He made a uniquely effortless transition to sound pictures when he charmed the American audience with a series of musical comedies.

In the following years, Lubitsch made a series of highly praised movies, many of which are today considered indisputable classics, such as Trouble in Paradise, The Merry Widow, Ninotchka, The Shop Around the Corner, To Be or Not to Be, Heaven Can Wait, and many others. Leaving a deep mark and wielding immeasurable influence on his peers and the generations that followed, Lubitsch inspired and directly influenced the likes of Orson Welles, François Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock, just like he had tremendous impact on the professional path of his protégé and fellow immigrant Billy Wilder, whose first real success in Hollywood came from writing the screenplay for Lubitsch’s Ninotchka in 1939. How much he respected Lubitsch and admired his craft can be seen in the fact that Wilder had a big sign above his office door saying “How would Lubitsch do it?” and turned to the old master in times of creative drought or production difficulties. At Lubitsch’s funeral in December 1947, Wilder allegedly hopelessly concluded, “No more Lubitsch,” to which the great William Wyler added, “Worse than that, no more Lubitsch films.”

“None of us thought we were making anything but entertainment for the moment,” John Ford later mused. “Only Ernst Lubitsch knew we were making art.” The mystifying quality of Lubitsch’s films—the lighthearted and playful approach to sex and love, the subtle humor, the mastery in visual storytelling without any tedious exposition, the charming visual wit, you name it—has been recognized as the famous and frequently used “Lubitsch touch,” a phrase first coined for the marketing purposes of turning Lubitsch’s name into a brand of itself that would later be acknowledged as the easy-way-out description of the filmmaker’s style and modus operandi. There are more than several definitions of what this phrase actually means, but it could be said the definition is as fluid and individual as are the people admiring Lubitsch’s works of art: watching a Lubitsch picture, it’s more than likely you’ll understand the meaning of the phrase without any help. It’s the witty, elliptic dialogues, suggestive visual cues, it’s the way he uses powerful images to convey messages and emotions others might spend ten pages of the screenplay to do… It’s the Lubitsch touch of gold.

Once again we’re excited to return to the famed Mise-en-Scène magazine, the Case Western Reserve University Film Society’s ill-fated publication. The magazine stopped coming out four decades ago after a promising start, but a few copies have managed to survive, and after featuring precious articles on the filmography of the great Fritz Lang, on John Ford’s Grapes of Wrath and his beloved westerns and on the productive and influential partnership of John Huston and Humphrey Bogart, we now explore the German-born master of intelligent comedies in John K. Barry’s four-page essay entitled ‘Ernst Lubitsch and the Comedy of the Thirties.’ Grab a coffee, sit down and enjoy the ride. You can download the PDF here.


Billy Wilder talks about the approach of director Ernst Lubitsch, which became widely known as “The Lubitsch Touch” at the AFI Harold Lloyd Master Seminar in 1976.


Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood (1995) is a documentary series produced by David Gill and silent film historian Kevin Brownlow. Chronicles the birth of European cinema, from the Lumiere brothers to World War I, and then the first golden age of Swedish cinema, from the formation of Svenska Bio to the departure for Hollywood of Stiller and Sjöström. The French build the first studio, invent the traveling shot, and experiment in sound. Max Linder becomes the first comedic star. The Italians do spectacle and early realism. Germans invent film propaganda and have Lubitsch. The Danish cinema is rich before the war. An affectionate portrait of Swedish cinema appreciates its cinematography, led by Jaenzon, its conversion of novels into film, and the emergence of a production company that owned its own theaters. This is a marvelous documentary series and required viewing for film buffs.

Kristin Thompson’s study focuses on Lubitsch’s silent films from the years between 1918 and 1927, tracing the impact this director had on consolidating classical Hollywood filmmaking. She gives a new assessment of the stylistic two-way traffic between the American and the German film industries, after World War I each other’s strongest rival in Europe. By 1919, Lubitsch had emerged as the finest proponent of the German studio style: sophisticated, urbane and thoroughly professionalized. He was quick to absorb ‘American’ innovations and stylistic traits, becoming the unique master of both systems and contributing to the golden ages of the American as well as the German cinema. Utilizing Lubitsch’s silent films as a key to two great national cinemas, Thompson’s meticulously illustrated and extensively researched book goes beyond an authorial study and breaks new ground in cinema history. Free PDF: ‘Herr Lubitsch Goes to Hollywood: German and American Film after World War I.’

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