Lubitsch biographers and critics have accepted the lore that the Hungarian plays he used for his films were inferior. That widely held perception has come about because Lubitsch’s admirers want to credit him with all the brilliance in his films and because his biographers have recorded the opinion of only one of his American writing collaborators, Samson Raphaelson. They have not interviewed any of the Hungarian or other European playwrights. There is not one film he wrote for Lubitsch for which Raphaelson was solely responsible. Either he shared credit with another writer – three with Ernest Vajda – or he was working from an existing play.
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Ernst Lubitsch (1892-1947) came to be known as the most sophisticated director of Hollywood, both in its silent and sound era. When Billy Wilder, one of his collaborators, was walking away from Lubitsch’s burial, just to break the silence he said to his friend director William Wyler, “No more Lubitsch.” Wyler replied, “Worse than that – no more Lubitsch films.” Years later, Wilder posted a sign in his office that read “How would Lubitsch do it?” His special sophisticated style came to be known as “the Lubitsch touch.”
Born in Berlin, Lubitsch gave up gymnasium and began to act in cabarets and the music hall. In 1911, he joined Max Reinhardt’s theater group. Reinhardt created a harmony of language, stage design, costumes, music, and choreography for a totality that Richard Wagner had advocated, the Gesamtkunstwerk. In addition to being shaped by Reinhardt’s theater, the young Ernst was also influenced by the arrival of two distinct but related forms of entertainment from Austria-Hungary – the operetta and Hungarian drama.
Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow opened in Vienna in 1905 and in the Berliner Theater the following year. By 1910, it had swept Europe and the entire world, having been performed 18,000 times in 10 languages, becoming the newest, most seductive form of musical theater. His Count of Luxemburg followed in Berlin in 1909. Imre Kálmán’s Tatárjárás, (Gay Hussars), Az Obsitos (Her Soldier Boy), and Cigányprímás (Sari) triumphed in Vienna in 1909, 1911, and 1912. These operettas and more would transform the musical theater on Broadway in the 1910s. The operetta became one of Lubitsch’s favorite film forms. He made silent films based on them, including two versions based on Johann Strauss Jr.’s Die Fledermaus, and from 1929 to 1934 he directed five musicals, including The Merry Widow.
At about the same time, Hungarian plays were introduced to European and American stages, led by Ferenc Molnár’s Az Ördög (The Devil) written in 1907, opening on Broadway the following year. Molnár would dominate the New York stage, but there were others. He launched a vogue for Hungarian playwrights in New York in the 1910s that would peak in the 1920s. Between 1908 and 1940, fifty-three Hungarian plays would be performed on Broadway (Emro 1947: 3,9, 139-140). The success of Hungarian playwrights led them to follow their plays to Berlin, London, and New York and from there often to Hollywood. Lubitsch would become fascinated with the plays and the men who wrote them. Many of his films, including some of the most successful, were based on plays or ideas by Hungarians. He would become friends with them and work with them in creating his screenplays.
From the time he was a young man, Lubitsch developed a passion for Hungary. By 1919, he had become a successful actor and director. “Success meant that he could begin his lifelong love affair with the culture and theater of Hungary. ‘When Ernst went on vacation, it was always to Budapest,’ said (his niece) Evie Bettelheim-Bentley. Ernst found that Budapest was lively and very exciting” (Eyman 1993: 55). That’s where he went on his honeymoon with Leni in 1922 and once again with second wife Vivian in 1935. In Hollywood, he sought the company of Hungarians. “(A)t some parties there were far more Hungarians (including Vilma Banky, Charles Puffy, Lya de Putti, and Victor Varconi) than there were Germans” (Eyman 1993: 140). The Blue Danube became his favorite restaurant. So Lubitsch’s work with Hungarian playwrights and screenwriters cannot be properly appreciated without recognizing his fascination with all things Hungarian.
One of the first films Lubitsch directed was with Ernst Mátray, an actor, director, and choreographer, discovered by Max Reinhardt in Budapest in 1907. He became a leading actor in the Deutsches Theater and began to direct two-reeler films in 1913. Lubitsch teamed up with him in 1915 to produce and direct Sugar and Spice, which they had written with Mátray’s wife Greta Schröder.
Lubitsch was already in Hollywood when he directed his first film based on a Hungarian play. The Czarina, written by Lajos Bíró and Melchior Lengyel in 1913, had opened at the Empire Theater in New York on January 31, 1922, and had a successful run of 136 performances. Lengyel already had an international reputation by then; his play Typhoon had been made into a movie in 1914 with Sessue Hayakawa. Lubitsch directed a silent version, Forbidden Paradise, in 1924, and, because of his failing health, he could only produce, not direct, the sound version, A Royal Scandal, in 1945. As a result of the success of their play and its silent film version, Bíró and Lengyel became associated with the Russian monarch to such an extent that Alexander Korda asked them to write the screenplay of The Rise of Catherine the Great, 1934, directed by Paul Czinner.
The only hint we have of the origins of the play The Czarina is found in Lengyel’s journal, where he recalls that Bíró suggested they create a drama about a woman who lives her life like a man. But they upped the stakes and fashioned the heroine on Catherine the Great, the monarch with a legendary appetite for men, a sure draw for any audience. The play introduces the young cavalry officer Alexei breaking through the guards of the palace to warn the czarina of a coup attempt by certain officers. His brash intrusion, loyalty, and good looks appeal to the monarch: she asks him to treat her like a woman. He forgets about his love for Annie, the czarina’s lady-in-waiting. He is promoted, then loses her favor, and she sends him to prison. When he emerges, he realizes that he is simply her passing fancy and he reconciles with Annie. Now the monarch feels abandoned. In a poignant scene, Catherine confides her sadness to her chancellor. She feels the weight of imminent old age. He comforts her, reassuring her of her youth and beauty and her importance to millions of her subjects. She emerges from her passing weakness and finally consents to see the new French ambassador who has been pleading for an audience since the opening. The play ends with him becoming her next paramour.
In Forbidden Paradise, Lubitsch set the action in a fantasized pre-revolutionary Russia. Horse-drawn carriages roll out of the courtyard. The French ambassador drives up in an elegant automobile. The generals threaten to mutiny, sending the cavalry toward the palace. But Lubitsch does not take history seriously. The chancellor pulls out a checkbook and buys the allegiance of the generals. Lubitsch has maintained all of the characters and major elements of the play. He conveys character and story points through touches – Catherine’s flirtatious look, Alexei’s respectful behavior. Once she has seduced him, she rewards him with a medal. She dines with her officers, all decorated with the same medal, denoting their service on the battlefield and in her bedroom. Pointedly, in the final scene the French ambassador ends up with a medal as well. Josef von Sternberg picked up on this motif and used it in his 1934 film about Catherine the Great, The Scarlet Empress. It is Catherine who dominates the story, portrayed by Pola Negri in her first Hollywood role, a leading lady in Lubitsch’s earlier films in Germany. She is at once commanding and sultry, alternately ordering and seducing the young officer. She fears for her life upon hearing of the revolt and breaks down when she realizes that Alexei’s allegiance is to Annie.
A Royal Scandal, the sound version filmed twenty years later, is more a bedroom farce. It is not Lubitsch, but Otto Preminger directing. Tallulah Bankhead is Catherine, glamorous and overbearing to the point of broad comedy. Her generals are incompetent underlings, played by Russian émigré actors. The story and characters stay faithful to the play, down to details as small as the newly appointed French ambassador delaying his arrival to Moscow with a two-day sojourn in Warsaw to pay a visit to an aristocratic paramour. When she meets Alexei, she is smitten by his good looks. She offers him champagne. At first, he is intimidated by his monarch. By the second drink, he smashes his glass the way she smashes hers. Her growing intimacy and affection for him is signaled by promotions – from major to colonel to captain of the palace guard. The business of the empire are uniforms and parades. The plot to overthrow her majesty consists of decorated childish officers scheming on who will steal the imperial treasure. When it is foiled, she reads Alexei his death sentence playfully, flirtatiously gazing at him, adding “What an attractive traitor.” Dutifully he declares he deserves to be placed in front of a firing squad. She is flippant: “I can doom you and undoom you.” When she dismisses him, sending him back to his love Annie, Catherine breaks down, recreating the scene in the play where she mourns for her fleeting youth. Then she pulls herself together and summons the French ambassador, beginning her next amorous adventure.
Lubitsch was obviously smitten by the play, tackling it when he first came to Hollywood and returning to it at the end of his life. With this story he could explore the nuances of seduction of the sexually profligate monarch. He could play with reversed gender roles, allowing him to create romantic irony in the first version, slapstick comedy in the second. He retained all the major elements of the original play, including the five main characters – the fickle monarch, her young heroic lover, his true love who is conveniently the czarina’s lady-in-waiting, her chancellor who is the embodiment of her political role, and the French ambassador who represents her foreign affairs in both senses of the word. The motivation for the action is a military plot to overthrow Catherine, a threat that always haunted the historical figure, since she herself had gained the throne by deposing her incompetent husband Peter III in a coup. Lubitsch kept all of these elements of the Bíró-Lengyel play. Each of the two film versions differs greatly from the original stage play, but the story, characters, and action unfold very much as they did in the theater. But one beautiful sentiment is missing from both films – Catherine’s heartfelt plea to her lover to be treated as a woman, not as a monarch.
It is not clear when the playwright first met Lubitsch, but Lengyel kept a journal from the late 1910s through the 1940s that reveals stories of their collaboration. Lubitsch appears for the first time in 1935 when he was head of production at Paramount. By then Lengyel had had four of his plays performed on Broadway. He pitched a story about Franz Liszt and was thrilled when he was able to sell it for $10,000. Lubitsch wanted to direct it. Nothing came of that idea, so he probably did not receive the money. Then Lubitsch called on him to work on Hotel Imperial, based on a play by his friend Lajos Bíró, who was working mostly in London with Alexander Korda. Lengyel’s input must have been minimal because a version directed by Robert Florey in 1939 does not give him credit. When Lubitsch was relieved of his position at Paramount in early 1936, Lengyel was disappointed, noting that although he was unpredictable, he was still an important contact. And they kept in touch.
In June 1936, Lubitsch called on him because he wanted to turn his play Angel into a film. Lengyel had created a situation that Luis Bunuel would explore years later in Belle de Jour. The sensual wife of a powerful diplomat searches for a romantic adventure at a fashionable salon. Really it is a high-class brothel, but Lubitsch cleverly presents it as a salon to avoid censorship. Lengyel threw himself into the adaptation. He had lunched with Marlene Dietrich at the Brown Derby in April. So he suggested her for the lead. The original plan was for them to write the screenplay together, but they realized that they needed a writer who was comfortable with creating English dialog. That turned out to be Samson Raphaelson. He called Lubitsch talented like the devil, but bristled at his attempt to put a “touch” in every scene. He saw it as leading to a film that is too well crafted, suggesting that a work needs “looseness, abandon, an airiness.” In the middle of September, the collaboration ended abruptly. He would receive credit for the play, not the screenplay. He tried to be philosophical, remarking that men in power are capricious. “I learned from Lubitsch that to bring something into being, to write, is energy. This is needed much more than talent” (Lengyel 1987: 308). His friendship with Lubitsch continued. He visited the set of Angel and was impressed by the high-class production and was touched by the director’s kindness. “(T)his man was born for this profession – and he is so confident – one can learn a lot from him” (Lengyel 1987: 319). The friendship with Lubitsch continues as he records a dinner at his house with Franz Werfel, Bruno Frank, Alexander Korda, and Samson Raphaelson in attendance. Though he enjoys the gathering, he confesses that he has more fun with his chosen Hungarian buddies.
Lengyel had scrawled a memo in a notebook that would be the basis for Ninotchka (1939). “Russian girl saturated with Bolshevist ideals goes to fearful, capitalistic, monopolistic Paris. She meets romance and has an uproarious good time. Capitalism not so bad, after all.” This is what he proposed to Salka Viertel, when she asked him if he had any stories for her friend Garbo. The idea appealed to Garbo, so Lengyel went to MGM with producer Gottfried Reinhardt and sold the story. Then he set out to write two versions of a treatment and synopsis of the script, but Reinhardt took it away from him before he could write a screenplay. Garbo insisted on Lubitsch directing the film. And Gottfried was happy to work with Ernst whom he had known since his father Max’s theater group. When Lubitsch got involved, he engaged Walter Reisch, Charles Brackett, and Billy Wilder as screenwriters (Sabath 1979: 237-244). They created one of his greatest films, a comeback for Garbo as the hard-headed Bolshevik who is seduced by the suave Melvyn Douglas and the sensuality of Paris and the West. Besides the three-sentence idea, we do not know what else Lengyel contributed to the screenplay. Certainly the team of Reisch, Brackett, and Wilder working with Lubitsch deserves credit for the situations and dialog that create the sparkling film. Lengyel provided the premise – the social and political conflict of two opposing ideologies embodied in two characters with two very different lifestyles. And it was this radical difference that flamed the attraction between the ideologue and the cosmopolitan seducer. Their contrast creates the delicious dramatic tension that makes the romance successful on the screen.
In working with Lubitsch, Billy Wilder became his great admirer, even disciple, and one of the most talented directors of the next generation. He returned to the premise of Ninotchka twenty years later when he created his zany comedy One, Two, Three about the contemporary conflict of the two ideologies in East and West Berlin. Tributes to the Lubitsch film are sprinkled throughout, from the three commissars, to a fervent Bolshevik, to details of the conflicting values of two opposing societies. Is it a coincidence that he based his story on a play by another Hungarian, the most influential playwright of the time, Ferenc Molnár?
Unfortunately, we have even less information about Lengyel’s contribution to the mordant film about Nazism To Be or Not to Be (1942). He mentions it only after its successful opening. He ruefully notes that Lubitsch will make out like a bandit while he remains broke. He admits that he only gave the raw idea and a few weeks’ work to the film, but it still bothers him. In exasperation he declares that film is not good business for a writer. The only other detail we have is Eyman’s report that Lengyel worked with Lubitsch on the story and that their fee came to $10,500, of which Lengyel received $7,000 and sole story credit (Eyman 1993: 293). Was Lubitsch being generous to his writing partner or was Lengyel in fact the main author of the story? Whichever it was, we can only guess at the nature of his input.
A Polish theater troupe attempts to survive under Nazi occupation. The world of make-believe triumphs over political oppression. Generals are removed through clever impersonation. A spy is murdered. The Jewish actor has his moment as an actor and a man defending his race when he is arrested delivering the memorable lines from The Merchant of Venice. And the whole political farce begins with a Hitler impersonator parading on the streets of Warsaw. These are a few gems of the film. Certainly Lengyel came up with the basic idea and some of these elements.
Of course, Lubitsch was drawing on the wealth of his own experience as an actor on the Berlin stage in presenting the theater troupe, including the jealousy of the leading theatrical couple. Being an admirer of Molnár, he might very well have been inspired by one of his favorite plays, The Guardsman, in which the jealous actor impersonates a guard to see if he can seduce his wife.
In these two most famous and successful Lubitsch films, Lengyel provided ideas that dealt with two menacing ideologies. In Ninotchka he could conjure up a romance because despite the ominous aspects of Communism, there was still hope for the new world order tried out in the Soviet Union. Fascism was already implementing mass extermination and had started the Second World War. So for To Be or Not to Be he focused on the wished-for power of art in the form of theater to mock and destroy the cardboard representations of evil. Lubitsch must have been drawn to Lengyel’s dealing with the most pressing political forces confronting civilization in the delightful guise of romantic comedy and biting satire.
Two days after Lubitsch dies, Lengyel pays homage:
He was a real artist, of the good old-fashioned kind. And he was a decent man – a friend for life. He was the one who invited me to America, he sent me a telegram to come. In the beginning, when he was head of production at Paramount – great soirées. Meetings a long time ago in Berlin, London, Budapest. And his special interest in my plays, he always returned to them. This was a friendship that was never truly close, but it was durable and of fine cloth. It was good to know that there is some fixed point in this ephemeral life. And now he has fallen. And he was only 55 years old. . . . His life was his work. That was the source of his joy. He was a good writer, with great ideas. Now his films, his plans, his whole being are gone. (Lengyel 1987: 389)
The only other Hungarian playwright who would work with Lubitsch on a number of films was Ernest Vajda. In 1924, he came to New York, where four of his plays were being performed. He became a contract writer for Paramount the following year and supervisor of productions based on his own stories two years later. That’s when he met Lubitsch. And he would become the co-writer of five of his musicals, The Love Parade, 1929, Monte Carlo, 1930, The Smiling Lieutenant, 1931, Broken Lullaby, 1932, and The Merry Widow, 1934, three of them with Samson Raphaelson. Lubitsch liked writing with Vajda at his house because Vajda’s cook was better than his (Weinberg 1968: 107).
For Trouble in Paradise (1932), perhaps his best film, Lubitsch began with the play Becsületes megtaláló (“The Honest Finder”) by Aladár László, which had premiered at the Magyar Színház in November 1931. A witty play with sparkling dialog in Hungarian, it opens with Baron Ipoly placing an ad in the afternoon papers offering a 2000 pengő reward for a gold-embroidered, diamond-studded purse his date, the widow Flóra, lost at a performance of Lohengrin the night before. Another suitor, young, athletic Iván, shows up at her door and blames Ipoly for losing the purse. A suave “honest finder” appears in the afternoon with the purse. His love and accomplice is the maid Sári, with whom he is planning to depart from Hungary. Flóra is so touched by the honesty of the finder that she offers him to be her secretary. Many of the situations can be read in two diametrically opposite ways – legitimate professional work and brazen brigandry. The dialog is appropriately peppered with double entendre. When Flóra asks his profession, he answers that he worked in a bank. His next enterprise was “opening a store.” She reproaches him: “Behind your quiet elegance, there is courage, something of a thief.” He recoils, fearing he has been found out. She smiles coquettishly, “Thief of hearts.” And there is apparent honor in his rejection of money. When she offers to hire him from the day before, he feels compelled to return the reward, since he was already in her employ. Act One ends with him getting the keys to her safe. In the second act, the finder joins a game of bridge with the police chief and Flóra’s suitor Iván, who keeps trying to place him. Of course, it was the finder who robbed him of 200,000 francs in Cannes. And over the card game, the finder tells him precisely how the theft was carried out. Flóra falls for the finder and he for her. “The night belongs to lovers and thieves,” she sighs innocently. In the third act, the finder and Sári unload the safe, just as Flóra returns from the opera. His description of the thief matches him in exact detail. She confesses her crush on him and he his love for her. He returns to her the key to the safe and observes that he was employed from noon to midnight and now he can say that he was honest for twelve hours straight. As his final grand gesture, he hands her an envelope with 25,000 pengő. Flóra wishes them farewell by returning the envelope to Sári for her dowry.
For the film, Lubitsch turned to the English adaptation of the play by Grover Jones and worked with Samson Raphaelson on the script. They took much from the play, starting the action with the theft of a diamond-studded purse. The wealthy widow Madame Colet (Kay Francis) is being courted by two men, as was Flóra. She takes her purse to the opera, where it disappears. Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall), pretending to be a Baron, produces the purse, charms Madame Colet, confesses to be “a member of the nouveaux poor,” and is rewarded by being hired as her secretary. Just like the honest finder, Gaston begins to run the lady’s business for his own ends, unmasking the theft of the land manager in the play, the chairman of the board in the film. While the play begins the morning after the theft and takes place entirely in Flóra’s mansion, Lubitsch opens in a luxury hotel in Venice with the theft of 20,000 lira from Baron Francois Filiba (Edward Everett Horton), who turns out to be one of Madame Colet’s suitors. He will spend much of the film trying to identify the inexplicably familiar Monescu as the disguised thief, while in the play it is Iván who is haunted by his experience of having been robbed in Cannes. Before the scene at the opera, Lubitsch highlights the glamorous thieving couple after the theft in a delightful dinner seduction scene, where Monescu and Lily (Miriam Hopkins) dazzle each other with their legerdemain stealing. In the play, it is Flóra’s maid Sári who is the helper and fiancée of the thief. Lubitsch has made the female accomplice stronger, more alluring, and a thief in her own right. Monescu and Lily are partners in crime, in deception, in dashing appearance, and in romance. Both Sári and Lily throw a tantrum when they see that their idealized partner and paramour falls for the beautiful rich widow. At the end, Sári receives a gift from her mistress. Lily takes what she feels she deserves – 100,000 francs from Madame’s safe. Despite a temporary lapse as the men are seduced by their benefactresses, they join their loves, women from the lower class, and the thieving couples make their exit from the wealthy mansion, the play, and the film.
Both the play and the film were inspired by the exploits and personage of the legendary international multilingual George Manolesco, a Romanian ragamuffin, who criss-crossed European capitals and luxury spas in the 1890s and early 1900s, living in grand style, with dashing good looks, impeccable manners, mixing with nobility and industrialists, seducing women of high society, robbing them of their jewelry. He masqueraded as nobility, at times as Prince Lahovary and the Duke of Otranto. He took advantage of the lax safeguards of the time at high-class hotels and the lack of cooperation between police of various countries. In 1907, he published his memoirs and even made money by consulting with hotels and the police recommending measures of greater security. At times he would rob ladies of their jewelry and sell it on the black market. Or he would return it to their owner for a reward. Once, on a Pullman train from Chicago to San Francisco, traveling as the Spanish Marchese de Passano, he courted a lady bedecked with a magnificent pearl necklace. He swiped the jewel, sold it in Chinatown, and bribed locals to confess to the crime. His name was cleared, her insurance company was contacted, they bought back the necklace and returned it to the lady. Manolesco called on the happy lady, feted her, removed the necklace once again when he put her to bed, and boarded a German steamboat to Hawaii before the theft was discovered. Even the matching of Monescu and Lily in the film had its precedent in Manolescu’s teaming up with a man who invaded his room at Nice’s Hotel Angleterre and pocketed jewelry he had taken from other guests. Manolescu was so impressed with the intruder that the Corsican Franzesco Pellicio became his accomplice and valet for the next few years.
Two films had been already made about George Manolesco: Manolescus Memoiren (1920), directed by Richard Oswald and starring Conrad Weidt; and Manolescu-Der König der Hochstapler (1929), directed by Viktor Tourjansky with Ivan Mozhukin. Lubitsch based his film on the play rather than the actual figure, perhaps to distance himself from the historical figure and the other films, or because he preferred the action, structure, and characters of the play. He certainly paid homage to the real thief by naming him Monescu.
The 1929 film was based on a novel by another Hungarian writer, János Székely. A few years later he took the premise of a thief masquerading as nobility and wrote the comedy The Beautiful Days of Aranjuez. He made the protagonist a beautiful woman who passes herself off as a countess and successfully pockets a very valuable pearl necklace by introducing a fashionable jeweler to a prominent psychiatrist, convincing each that she is married to the other. The play was made into a German film, Die schönen tage von Aranjuez, and the French Adieu les beaux jours with Jean Gabin, both in 1933.
Lubitsch met Székely in 1934 and invited him to Hollywood. As head of production at Paramount he made the film as Desire in 1936, directed by Frank Borzage and starring Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper. It was the only film “on which Lubitsch put his name as producer, indicating an unusual degree of personal involvement and investment of reputation” (McBride 2018: 334). Curiously, two different Hungarian writers, Aladár László and János Székely, wrote plays independently, based on the real-life exploits of George Manolesco. And curiously Lubitsch made a film based on each of them.
In the mid-1930s, Lubitsch worked with yet another Hungarian screenwriter. Géza Herczeg, a journalist and war correspondent, who had met Lubitsch in Berlin, approached him with a synopsis for a movie about Émile Zola and the Dreyfus affair. Lubitsch guided him to Warner Bros. and to Paul Muni as the lead. The resulting movie, The Life of Emile Zola, would garner Herczeg a shared Academy Award for Best Screenplay.
The tantalizing idea for The Shop around the Corner (1940) originated with Illatszertár (“The Perfume Shop”), written by Miklós László, an actor who came to the United States in 1938. The play opened in March 1937 at the Pesti Színház and ran for 75 performances. Such was the reputation of Hungarian theater that Variety had reviewed it, and the commercial potential of Hungarian drama was so great that László’s agent had already sent a copy of the play to MGM in October 1936, weeks before it was copyrighted in the U.S. and even before the papers for the Budapest production had been signed. MGM declined. Lubitsch bought the rights for $5,000 in July 1938 after he had read a German version (Sabath 1979: 189-191).
The action takes place in Hammerschmidt’s perfume shop on elegant Váci utca, the Fifth Avenue of Budapest. It is Saturday, two weeks before Christmas, so the sales force, three young men and three ladies, are particularly busy. An especially tense relationship exists between the best salesman Asztalos and the salesgirl Róza Balázs, who are constantly insulting each other. Owner Hammerschmidt has become intolerant of Asztalos and fires him. The young man confides in his friend Sípos that he has fallen in love with a young lady through an exchange of letters. He was going to meet her Sunday, but now that he has lost his job he won’t be able to go, because he cannot in good faith court her if he has no security. As the shop closes, the boss stays behind to meet with a private eye. The detective reports that he has observed Hammerschmidt’s wife going to the apartment of Kádár, the third salesman in the shop. He is devastated, breaks down crying, and attempts suicide. Only the errand boy’s appearance saves him. Act Two opens with Asztalos returning to the store Monday morning. Hammerschmidt had sent him a letter of apology. He fired him because he suspected that Asztalos was his wife’s lover. Róza arrives depressed and with a cold, demands to know why Asztalos hates her, and proclaims that she has a real admirer, with whom she has corresponded for a year and a half; and as proof, she quotes a line from one of his letters. Asztalos turns pale, realizing that his arch enemy in the store is the woman with whom he has fallen in love through her letters. He tells Sípos, but he is unable to tell her. When Kádár comes to work, Hammerschmidt vents his rage. The third act opens the morning of the day before Christmas. Asztalos and Róza discuss how they are going to spend Christmas Eve. He has no plans. She tells him she will be spending it at home with her family and with her fiancé. Clearly she arranged that in their exchange of letters. She reveals to Asztalos that when she first came to work she liked him, before things turned sour. And in a mood of generosity she invites him for dinner, to keep her fiancé company. She leaves; Hammerschmidt enters and also invites his prize salesman to dinner with the family. He politely declines. Hammerschmidt reflects that if he were a young man he would not go home, but at his age, he and his wife have grown accustomed to each other. Maybe they still love each other, despite what happened. The play ends without showing the reveal between the two young lovers. We are left to wonder how she will react to discovering that the acrimonious salesman and the passionate correspondent are one and the same.
Lubitsch kept the film set in Budapest. All the signs, posters, and newspapers are in Hungarian. The names, the food described are typically Hungarian. The action begins in December and culminates on Christmas Eve. The perfume shop has become a leather-goods shop. There are three salesmen, three salesgirls, and an errand boy, just as in the play. Matuschek the boss fires Kralik (James Stewart) because he suspects him of having an affair with his wife. When he gets the private eye’s report of her affair with the store dandy Vadas, he attempts to shoot himself, just as in the play. Kralik is not simply restored to his job: Matuschek names him manager of the store. The greatest difference between the play and film is the treatment of the relationship of Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) and Kralik. In both it is the man who makes the discovery of the true identity of the letter writer. The film is far more engaging because Lubitsch and Raphaelson devote the third act largely to showing the way Kralik toys with Klara, while in the play there is only a small scene where Asztalos pretends to guess the content of the letters Róza received. When he enters the restaurant for their first rendezvous, Kralik pretends to be there by chance and pointedly questions Klara about the man she is about to meet. He relishes his knowledge and, in fact, comes across as harsh and unpleasant. He writes her a letter as if her suitor had seen them together but decided not to intrude. She is hoping to be engaged to him. He reassures her that she will be engaged by the following day, as will he. He asks her to try on the diamond necklace he is about to give his fiancée. Then he claims to have been approached by the suitor and describes an unattractive, opportunistic man. It is only at the very end of his teasing that he addresses her as postbox 237, making her realize that Kralik is the romantic, passionate suitor whose letters she has been reading. And they seal their recognition with the final kiss. Director and writer have definitely improved the play by developing the duality of the lovers’ relationship, teasing out the dramatic possibilities of a romantic misunderstanding.
One of Lubitsch’s last films turned out to be Heaven Can Wait (1943), based on László Bús-Fekete’s play Születésnap (“Birthday”). It had opened at the Vígszinház in December 1934. The playwright emigrated to Hollywood in 1940 after two of his other plays opened on Broadway. Certainly the concept is simple and fundamental – an old man reviews his life by remembering key birthdays. Yet Lubitsch decided to base the film on this particular play. Once again, the question is how much does the finished film owe to the original theatrical piece?
The protagonist is Sanyi, a roué from a well-to-do bourgeois family in Budapest, a womanizer and gambler, who celebrates his birthday, July 28, in six acts from the time he is 15 in 1884 every 10 years, ending in 1934. But the play is also a retrospective on Hungarian history, at once nostalgic and critical. It recalls the “good old days” of the vanished Austro-Hungarian monarchy, the fervor of the Great War, the dissolution of morals of the postwar era. Sanyi’s grandfather is a fierce patriot, a proud veteran of the nationalist revolution of 1848, who will not tolerate German expressions or anything that smacks of Austrian domination. His birthday in 1914 coincides with the start of the Great War. Sanyi appears excited in his brand new uniform. His ailing wife dies that day, and the doctor remarks “from now on the death of a person will not create much of a sensation.” And while most of the play unfolds in the elegant home of the family, during his birthday in 1924 we witness the moral bankruptcy of the Jazz Age, appropriately at a luxury hotel in Abbázia, the favorite Adriatic resort of the Austrian and Hungarian upper class, now part of Croatia.
The adolescent does not appear in the first scene. The family has just found out that he has been seduced by the French governess. The father is outraged, the grandfather pleased. Ten years later, straight and prissy cousin Ernő introduces his fiancée Irma to the family. She is the daughter of a nouveau riche landowner whose coarse manner grates on the nerves of the refined urban household. Sanyi is smitten by her. And on an impulse he elopes with her. Ten years after that, Sanyi and Irma have settled down and are raising their young son. She finds out that he has cheated on her and escapes to her family’s country estate. Sanyi shows up with a gypsy band to serenade her and win her back. She accepts his apologies. But he is already eyeing Irma’s 15-year-old cousin, Sári. At 45, his secret affair with Sári is revealed and Irma dies. At his 55th birthday, married to Sári, he realizes that she is having an affair with a younger man. At 65, he is celebrated by his son and grandson. He attempts to seduce the young French governess but is unable to perform. His old governess comes and reassures him of the beauty of old age.
Lubitsch and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson created a framework for looking back on a dissipated life by starting the film with Satan interviewing Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche). When questioned if he has committed any serious crime that would lead him to the Underworld, Henry answers no, but it was “one continuous misdemeanor.” The six-part episodic structure has been shaped to highlight the major dramatic moments of Henry’s life. Naturally the story has been transplanted to New York, to a prosperous banking family, where Harvard is de rigeur for the men. The timeline is similar to the play. Young Henry turns 15 in 1887. And we observe him usually at ten-year intervals. Three unnecessary vignettes are added in the beginning, showing Henry as a baby, then at two, and at 10. The family is really introduced with the celebration of Henry’s fifteenth birthday. A spoiled rich kid, he is seduced by the French governess, who is promptly fired. As in the play, so in the film, on his 26th birthday, his straitlaced cousin Albert introduces his fiancée Martha (Gene Tierney) to the family. Her family, the Strabels, are country parvenus as in the play. They hail from Kansas and own the biggest meatpacking company in the country. Henry had met her the day before and fell for her right away. And she for him. As the engagement party progresses, Henry kisses her in the library and elopes with her under the eyes of the entire gathering. Ten years later, the scandal has blown over. They have a son. Martha finds out about his infidelities, packs her bags, and goes back to Kansas. Henry follows her with his grandfather and attempts to win her back with a $10,000 necklace. She shows the receipt she found that lists another necklace from the jeweler that he obviously gifted to one of his girlfriends. Still, they are reconciled and celebrate their 10th anniversary. His philandering continues, and he approaches a chorus girl they see in a show on their 20th anniversary. She treats him like an old man and tells him that she is seeing his son. Five years later, they celebrate their silver anniversary with news that she is sick. Their celebratory dance will be their last. Her life ends as it does in the play. By the time he is 60, he is being treated like a child by his son. He is still chasing women. At 70, his medicine cabinet is full. He passes away in the company of a beautiful young nurse. The final twist is that Satan informs him that despite his indiscretions, he does not qualify for Hades. He sends Henry up in the elevator to a place where Martha will plead for his admittance.
In the film, the setting has been successfully transposed to New York, the characters transformed into their American bourgeois counterparts. The film simplifies the characters and action of the play. The historical dimension has been removed, perhaps because the United States did not go through the cataclysm of Hungary or because writer and director wanted to focus on the love, infidelity, and disappointment of the characters. Henry is fleshed out more through his meeting and falling for Martha before finding out that she is engaged to his cousin. As a result, we have more invested in him and are more disappointed by his playing around. The affair and marriage to the younger niece has been eliminated, though the emphasis on Henry’s philandering remains. Otherwise, the action is remarkably similar.
Having looked at a number of adaptations of plays to films, we must make some observations about the transformation. Clearly films must open up the stage by planting the action in actual locations. And naturally they rely less on dialog. But they also must focus on fewer characters. And that means usually one or two, three at most. As a result, the audience has greater identification with the leads and the drama has a more profound impact. Lubitsch succeeded in creating memorable works with his writers because they adapted the plays, often eliminating action and characters to highlight the leading men and women. Naturally they transposed the characters and action to an American setting. And yet it is noteworthy in how many of his films the exotic foreign environment is maintained and how faithful Lubitsch stayed to the original characters and action, even though he had to trim the story to focus on the leads.
Lubitsch biographers and critics have accepted the lore that the Hungarian plays he used for his films were inferior. That widely held perception has come about because Lubitsch’s admirers want to credit him with all the brilliance in his films and because his biographers have recorded the opinion of only one of his American writing collaborators, Samson Raphaelson. They have not interviewed any of the Hungarian or other European playwrights. There is not one film he wrote for Lubitsch for which Raphaelson was solely responsible. Either he shared credit with another writer – three with Ernest Vajda – or he was working from an existing play. Every one of his comments is disparaging to Vajda. Scott Eyman, Lubitsch’s biographer, recorded Raphaelson’s attitude. “According to Raphaelson, Vajda never presented a line or an idea.” On another occasion, he called Vajda “one of the most charming fakes I’ve ever known.” “Vajda was getting $2500 a week while Raphaelson was doing all the work for $750 for a week” (Eyman 1993: 178, 197). Lubitsch would work with Vajda at his house because his cook was better. Could the native New Yorker raised in Chicago have felt left out of the mitteleuropäisch camaraderie? In fact, he was so taken by Hungarians that after writing Trouble in Paradise, Raphaelson wrote The Wooden Slipper, a play about a girl from a Budapest theatrical dynasty who escapes to Paris. Panned as “a Hungarian comedy written by an American while vacationing in England,” the play closed after five days (Sabath 1979: 60-64). Raphaelson downplayed the original plays that Lubitsch picked when Herman Weinberg interviewed him: “there was so incredibly little resemblance between any movie I ever made with Lubitsch and the original material, that the original material at best could be reduced to a page-and-a-half synopsis. . . . Take The Shop Around the Corner . . . nothing, not one scene, not one line of dialogue, coincides with the film . . . the source play of Heaven Can Wait, fantastically a case of no resemblance, and Trouble in Paradise, a completely new creation, compared to the original” (Weinberg 1968: 211). “I wanted to be the sole author of anything I wrote, otherwise how would people know how good or how bad I was?” he told Bill Moyers near the end of his life. And he went on: “I am a better craftsman than Eugene O’Neill – just no comparison – than Tennessee Williams – no comparison.” He did have the good sense to add “but they’re much better playwrights than I am.” (Moyers 1982) At other times, Raphaelson recognized the value of the plays he was adapting. In a book that presented three of his best screenplays for Lubitsch, he admitted that “each is based on a stage play and could never have been written if that play had not existed.” About The Shop Around the Corner he reminisced, “I loved the possibilities in the Hungarian play by Miklos Laszlo as Lubitsch outlined it” (Raphaelson 1983: 49, 269).
Lubitsch preferred the company and sophistication of fellow European émigrés. But he needed collaborators who could write in the American vernacular for the American audience. Lengyel says as much in his journal when he was working with Lubitsch on Angel. So Lubitsch returned to Raphaelson time and again. Much of the writing in the films is inspired, and for that writer and director deserve credit. Take the sublime, witty preparation on the balcony for Gaston’s rendezvous at the opening of Trouble in Paradise: “It must be the most marvelous supper. We may not eat it, but it must be marvelous. . . . And you see that moon, waiter? I want to see that moon in the champagne. . . . And as for you, waiter, I don’t want to see you at all.” But there are also silly, superfluous scenes, such as those of Henry as a baby, a two-year-old, and as a nine-year-old trying to impress a girl with his beetles in Heaven Can Wait. They were not in the original play, and there was no reason for them to be in the film. Sophisticated, subtle humor alternates with broad slapstick, carefree Continental behavior is jarringly expressed in American colloquialisms, clever or commonplace – a winning combination for American audiences.
Lubitsch was intimately involved with the stories he would bring in front of the cameras. He picked the sources, chose the writers, and worked with them intensively. Walter Reisch, who, with Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, worked with Lubitsch on the final version of Ninotchka, gave valuable insight into his involvement with the writing. “Not one line was written without Lubitsch . . . he definitely should have shared our screen credit . . . (he) gets all his details into the script in the preparation, and never improvises afterward” (Sabath 1979: 243).
Finally, in order to properly understand the nature of the Hungarian influence on Lubitsch, one more factor must be considered, one that cannot be documented, only observed. That is the cohesion or clannishness of the Hungarian émigré community. The legendary Hollywood quip “It’s not enough to be Hungarian – you also have to have talent” indicates and is a reaction to the large number of Hungarians in every aspect of filmmaking. The credits of countless films, rife with Hungarian names, is proof of that. The Kordas in London, the moguls of Hollywood, chose their Hungarian friends for their productions. Their conviviality, culture, cuisine, and zest for life made them band together. Hungarianness was a phenomenon of Hollywood from the 1920s on. Outsiders sought their company, and there were few as enthusiastic as Ernst Lubitsch.
We must note one more feature of these Hungarian playwrights and screenwriters: they were all of Jewish origin who considered themselves Hungarians, rather than Jews. That is why they took on Hungarian names, and that is why they wrote about Hungarian or universal themes, not Jewish stories. They emerged from the cosmopolitan café culture of Budapest that appealed to the studio heads, producers, and directors of Hollywood, who also came from a European Jewish background and who were similarly interested in universal, human stories.
Lubitsch died on November 30, 1947, days after he had started directing That Lady in Ermine, his first film based on an operetta since The Merry Widow. In it the Countess of Bergamo (Betty Grable) marries Count Mario (Cesar Romero). Their wedding night is interrupted by the invasion of Hungarian hussars led by their colonel (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.). The man who steals her heart is a dashing, stern soldier. But he is also a cultured man, who plays the piano and recites Romeo as he gazes up at her balcony. The score is filled with the sound of gypsy violins. And she belts out the theme song when she first spies him with her telescope, “Ooh, what I’ll do to that wild Hungarian.” Surely the film is a fitting finale to the director who was enamored with Hungarians his entire life.
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Note: All quotes from Lengyel’s books and the Hungarian plays were translated by the author.
Bíró, Lajos and Lengyel, Menyhért. 1913. A Cárnő (“The Czarina”). Budapest: Singer és Wolfner Kiadása.
Bús-Fekete, László. 1935. Születésnap (“Birthday”). Színházi Élet 1935/9: 129-157.
Emro, Joseph Gergely. 1947. Hungarian Drama in New York: American Adaptations 1908-1940. Philadelphia: UP Press.
Eyman, Scott. 1993. Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise. New York: Simon & Schuster.
László, Aladár. 1931. Becsületes megtaláló (“The Honest Finder”). Színházi Élet 1931/51: Színdarabmelléklet.
László, Miklós. 1937. Illatszertár (“The Perfume Shop”). Színházi Élet 1937/25: 99-128.
Lengyel, Menyhért. 1922. Amerikai napló (“American Diary”). Budapest: Athenaeum.
Lengyel, Menyhért. 1987. Életem könyve (“The Book of My Life”). Budapest: Gondolat.
Lynx, J. J. 1964. The Prince of Thieves: A Biography of George Manolesco (1871-1911). New York: Atheneum.
McBride, Joseph. 2018. How Did Lubitsch Do It? New York: Columbia UP.
Moyers, Bill. 1982. Creativity with Bill Moyers – Samson Raphaelson. WNET: 1982
Raphaelson, Samson. 1983. Three Screen Comedies by Samson Raphaelson. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Sabath, Barry Allen. 1979. Ernst Lubitsch and Samson Raphaelson: A Study in Collaboration. New York University Dissertation.
Weinberg, Herman G. 1968. The Lubitsch Touch. New York: E. P. Dutton.