Ernst Lubitsch
By: Franklin Bruno | Categories: HiLo Heroes

If “humanist” equals “middlebrow,” then ERNST LUBITSCH (1892-1947) deserves no celebration here. With the possible exception of Jean Renoir, no filmmaker was more unerringly observant of mortal weakness — or more forgiving. As early as 1919’s Passion, made in his native Berlin, crowds of Bastille-storming extras are no more than background to the dalliances of Pola Negri’s Madame du Barry. After leaving Europe in 1921, he honed his namesake “touch” in finely detailed farces (The Marriage Circle, So This Is Paris) and transitioned into sound with a cycle of operettas (The Smiling Lieutenant, The Merry Widow) so escapist they might have been set on Jupiter. Though several of his later films (Ninotchka, The Shop Around the Corner) are now canonical, many — especially Cluny Brown — are still underrated, as is Lubitsch’s overall contribution. Joseph Horowitz, in a recent book on émigré artists, charges the director with an unforgivable sin: “He fit into Hollywood,” and hence America. But not perfectly: his preference for thieves (Trouble in Paradise) and roués (Heaven Can Wait) over bosses, bureaucrats, and burghers twitted his adopted country’s Puritanism, as did his frank recognition that many women like, and pursue, sex. Lubitsch was nowhere more subversive than in his (and his screenwriters’) conflations of l’amour and l’argent, as in a characteristic intertitle from 1924’s Three Women: “Do you realize you just held three million dollars in your arms?”

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Rakim.

READ MORE about members of the Modernist generation (1884-93).

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Franklin Bruno is the author of Elvis Costello's Armed Forces (Continuum, 33 1/3 series). His current band is The Human Hearts. Twitter: @humanfranklin.