Excerpted from McBride’s new critical study, How Did Lubitsch Do It? (Columbia University Press, June 2018), with the kind permission of the author.
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To maintain the admirable balance of nature, God provides to the defeated nations the gift of Art. It is what happened to Germany after the defeat of 1918. Berlin, before Hitler, was blossoming with talents. In this short Renaissance, the Jews, not only of Germany but also of the surrounding countries, brought to this capital a certain spirit which was probably the best expression of the time. Lubitsch was a great example of this ironic approach to the big problems of life. His films were loaded with a kind of wit which was specifically the essence of the intellectual Berlin in those days. This man was so strong that when he was asked by Hollywood to work there, he not only didn’t lose his Berlin style, but he converted the Hollywood industry to his own way of expression.
— Jean Renoir, 1967
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“How would Lubitsch do it?” read the sign on the wall of Billy Wilder’s modest working writer’s office on Little Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills. Saul Steinberg, the New Yorker cartoonist, designed the sign expressly for Wilder. The lettering was elegant old-fashioned cursive, slanted to the right and shaded at its left edge with baroque curlicue. The rectangular gilt frame, with its suggestion of faded elegance, had a modernist shape of roughly Panavision proportions, like the splendid later films Wilder directed while emulating his mentor, including works of varied public reception such as The Apartment, Avanti!, and The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Lighting a cigar – in another homage to Lubitsch, who was rarely found without his Upmann – Wilder told an interviewer in 1989, “I made that sign. That way I never allow myself to write one sentence that I would be ashamed to show to my great friend, Ernst Lubitsch.”
The director of supremely stylish classics including Trouble in Paradise, Ninotchka, and The Shop Around the Corner, Lubitsch was revered in his day by such other leading filmmakers as Orson Welles, Jean Renoir, Max Ophüls, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, and Preston Sturges. In the words of one of his actors, David Niven, Lubitsch was “the masters’ master.” Renoir, another great European émigré director, went so far as to say of Lubitsch, “He invented the modern Hollywood.” Welles declared in 1964 that Lubitsch “is a giant. . . . Lubitsch’s talent and originality are stupefying.” Yet today Lubitsch is no longer the familiar name to moviegoers that he once was. What happened?
Lubitsch (1892–1947), a native of Berlin, was imported from Germany to Hollywood by Mary Pickford in 1922. In Germany he had become known as “the D. W. Griffith of Europe” because of his flair for making large-scale historical spectacles but with a refreshingly modern approach to sexuality, including Carmen (Gypsy Blood), Madame DuBarry (Passion), Anna Boleyn (Deception), and Das Weib des Pharao (The Wife of Pharaoh). But before creating those spectacles, Lubitsch had first made his name with raucous comedies of increasing sophistication and stylization, such as Ich möchte kein Mann sein (I Don’t Want to Be a Man), Die Austernprinzessin (The Oyster Princess), and Die Puppe (The Doll). Not long after his arrival in Hollywood, Lubitsch somewhat surprisingly abandoned the spectacle genre. He made the workmanlike Rosita (1923) with Pickford in that vein but then mostly left the genre for Cecil B. DeMille and others to mine with lesser skill. Instead, with astonishing swiftness in the silent era, Lubitsch set the tone for obliquely suggestive filmmaking in Hollywood with his subtle and influential 1924 dramatic comedy The Marriage Circle.
Lubitsch became Hollywood’s most acute commentator on sexual mores, countering American puritanical hypocrisy with European sophistication, and making his adopted countrymen enjoy it. His audacity became more elaborate and subtly stylized in his romantic comedies of the early sound years; sound enabled him to add new layers of depth in exploring the differences between what people say and what they mean. Lubitsch virtually created the romantic comedy genre in both Germany and the United States and brought it to perfection with his cleverly risqué yet touchingly tender masterpiece of and about the Depression era, Trouble in Paradise (1932). His other masterworks in that genre include Lady Windermere’s Fan, Design for Living, The Shop Around the Corner, and Heaven Can Wait. If those were not enough to ensure his cinematic immortality, Lubitsch’s bawdy pre-Code musicals such as The Love Parade, Monte Carlo, The Smiling Lieutenant, and The Merry Widow helped invent the musical genre as an integrated form for comical and dramatic exploration of character rather than as a mere framework for disconnected songs and dances.
Lubitsch’s work seems timeless because it is so deeply a projection of his imagination, a Platonic ideal of a world that vanished around the time he started making his films; his on-screen version is a more gracious, more elegant world than any that had actually existed. The fact that it was also a world from which Lubitsch himself would have been mostly excluded adds a level of ironic poignancy to his work that helps make it so complex. Lubitsch kept alive some of the more appealing traditions of the old, vanished milieu, viewing imperial pomp with satirical amusement and doing so from the distant geographical outpost of Hollywood studios even while his native land was descending into chaos. An essentially rootless man outside his empire of the studio lot, Lubitsch found his bearings – of necessity, but also by preference – in the artifice of motion pictures. Lubitsch told fellow director Garson Kanin, “I’ve been to Paris, France, and I’ve been to Paris, Paramount. I think I prefer Paris, Paramount.” Through Lubitsch’s eyes, we can live vicariously in the artificial, largely imaginary world he created and which he made so much more alluring than the messy world outside the movie palaces of his time or the video screens of our day.
The name Ernst Lubitsch stood for the epitome of sophisticated humor and romance in what we now regard as the Golden Age of Hollywood. As fellow producer/director Mervyn LeRoy said when presenting him with an honorary Oscar on March 13, 1947, seven months before Lubitsch’s death, “He had an adult mind and a hatred of saying things the obvious way. Because of these qualities and a God-given genius, he advanced the technique of screen comedy as no one else has ever done.” His approach to style and theme was widely celebrated as “the Lubitsch Touch,” a virtually indefinable yet almost tangible concept embodying an ever-fresh, delightful, tantalizing, slyly witty blend of style and substance. It combines a characteristic joie de vivre in the actors with an elegant visual design that conveys its meanings largely through sophisticated innuendo.
But the phrase was something of a marketing cliché, like calling Hitchcock “the Master of Suspense,” and Lubitsch himself was apt to joke about it. When people would ask him what it meant, he would say with a grin, “I would like to know myself. You find out and tell me, maybe?” And he said, “I cannot give you a definitive answer because, fortunately, I’m not conscious of it. If I ever become conscious of it – Heaven prevent – I might lose it.”
There is such a thing as the Lubitsch Touch; you recognize it when you see it. He is able to convey complex meanings and innuendos with dazzlingly economical strokes of camera work and editing. He puckishly claimed, “I want no misunderstanding about the ‘Lubitsch touches.’ A child can understand them.” While it actually takes an adult, or an unusually mature child, to understand his touches, he did make his oblique form of expression extraordinarily clear.
How, in fact, did Lubitsch do it? Many of his touches and other means of circumventing censorship were quite elaborate. But let’s start with one simple, precise example of how he got away with his subversive style from a scene that goes by in passing and is not talked about, unlike the more famous Lubitsch Touches. This one can be seen and heard in his groundbreaking early sound musical The Love Parade (1929). When Queen Louise (Jeanette MacDonald) is having her first date with her Parisian military attaché, Count Alfred Renard (Maurice Chevalier), she confronts him about his “disgraceful” conduct with numerous women in Paris. She demands, “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” He shakes his head but then says, “Yes, Your Majesty,” and laughs broadly. She joins him in the laughter but quickly checks herself, saying, “I don’t think it’s funny.”
The Hays Office may have been satisfied with the literally moralistic dialogue, yet Lubitsch manages to ironically undercut that exchange with Chevalier’s cheeky body language and the couple’s shared laughter, a mischievous exposure of the transparent hypocrisy within the storyline. Lubitsch jokingly nudges the audience with the film’s utter insincerity in conforming to any conventional norms of propriety. As James Harvey notes in his 1987 book Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Sturges, “Like nearly all the working filmmakers in the Hollywood of the time, he played the game,” but Lubitsch was special because he “made movies about playing the game.”
The Lubitsch Touch is about laughter, but it is also about character and the endlessly inventive and fresh ways the director found to tell stories. That he avoided storytelling clichés in favor of cleverly oblique methods of revealing character was a large part of what Welles called Lubitsch’s “talent and originality.” Lubitsch’s method was an intricate blend of unexpected vantage points, character interactions, and surprising uses of the camera and soundtrack. Part of his rare directorial skill was his respect for the audience’s intelligence; he lets us participate in filling in his ellipses. Wilder defined the Lubitsch Touch as “a different way of thinking. Lubitsch is difficult to copy. He is a director who is not afraid that people won’t understand him, unlike those who say, Two plus two makes four, and one plus three also makes four, and one plus one plus one plus one also makes four. But Lubitsch says, Two plus two – that’s it. The public has to add it up.” And if you let the audience add it up themselves, Lubitsch added, “They’ll love you forever.”
In his famous 1968 essay “Lubitsch Was a Prince,” French director and critic François Truffaut wrote,
The essential consideration here is never to treat the subject directly. So, if we are kept outside the closed doors of the bedroom when everything is happening inside, stay at the office when everything is going on in the living room, remain in the salon when the action’s on the stairway, or in the telephone booth when it’s happening in the wine cellar, it’s because Lubitsch has racked his brain during six weeks of writing so that the spectators can work out the plot along with him as they watch the film. . . . [Lubitsch] has already examined all the previous solutions so as to offer one that’s never been used before – an unthinkable, bizarre, exquisite and disorienting solution. There are outbursts of laughter as we discover the “Lubitsch solution” – our laughter is uncontrollable.
To achieve such marvels of storytelling, Truffaut added, Lubitsch “worked like a dog, bled himself white, died twenty years too early.”
Some Crowning Touches
The subtle and economical suggestiveness of the Lubitsch Touch is exemplified by such memorable moments as the following, all conceived with screenwriter and playwright Samson Raphaelson, who wrote nine of Lubitsch’s films:
* Under the credits in The Merry Widow (1934), the screen is filled with a map of Europe and Russia. The camera starts searching for the location of the story, the tiny mythical kingdom of Marshovia at the edge of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The camera goes out of focus, and a magnifying glass helpfully appears on-screen to make Marshovia visible.
* The opening scene of Trouble in Paradise (1932) offers the most unromantic image imaginable: a garbage pail next to a door in a back alley, with a mangy dog prowling around it. A beefy garbage man enters, picks up the can, and dumps it into a gondola. Now we see the elegant architecture and twinkling lights of the Venice Grand Canal, the most romantic of settings. Lubitsch puckishly cuts to a closer shot of the garbage gondola as the man empties the can and begins singing “’O sole mio” (the popular Neapolitan song whose title translates, ironically, as “O My Sunshine”). The garbage man paddles the gondola down the canal, seen again in the kind of glamorous long shot that usually opens a Hollywood romantic comedy.
* Chevalier and Claudette Colbert exchange double entendres in song over breakfast following their (unseen) first night of lovemaking in The Smiling Lieutenant (1931). Wilder commented on this delicious Lubitsch Touch: “Ah, but regard how they are sucking their coffee and how they are biting their toast: this leaves no doubt in anybody’s mind that other appetites have been satisfied. In those days, the butter was on the toast and not the ass, but there was more eroticism in one such breakfast scene than in all of Last Tango in Paris.”
* A handsome young count, Chevalier, is standing guard outside the royal bedroom in The Merry Widow. After the portly old king (George Barbier) exits, Chevalier puts his sword into its belt and goes in to see the saucy young queen (Una Merkel). The king, realizing he’s forgotten his sword belt, returns to the bedchamber. He comes out buckling the belt but finds it is too small to fit around his stomach. His dim mind begins to turn its wheels. He goes back upstairs into the bedchamber to confront the man who is cuckolding him.
But the Lubitsch Touch is not only comic. Andrew Sarris, one of the most perceptive of Lubitsch’s critics, wrote in his book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929–1968, “A poignant sadness infiltrates the director’s gayest moments, and it is this counterpoint between sadness and gaiety that represents the Lubitsch touch, and not the leering humor of closed doors.”
“What One Should Do . . .”
Beyond the inspired stylistic shorthand of the Touch, the trademark of Lubitsch’s work is an amused indulgence toward the kinds of human behavior, mostly sexual in nature, that are usually condemned on American screens. Lubitsch achieved this freedom of expression in sly ways that allowed him to circumvent the rigid censorship of his day. His use of double entendre, innuendo, ellipses, and other forms of visual shorthand – most famously his extensive and metaphorical variations on both opening and closing doors, a device adapted from his origins in the theater – enabled him to deal with the most elaborately urbane sexual couplings and more. His films not only cast a keenly analytical eye on the problems between couples but also explore unconventional relationships between the sexes and other challenges to traditional gender expectations. He deals audaciously with the complex relationships among love triangles or threesomes, such as in Design for Living, his and Ben Hecht’s 1933 adaptation of the unorthodox romantic play by Noël Coward about a bohemian ménage à trois.
Lubitsch managed to celebrate such continental and un-American virtues as the joys of adultery and serial philandering while depicting marriage in a far more realistic and nuanced vein than Hollywood was accustomed to doing in a time when even married couples had to sleep in separate beds on-screen. As far back as 1918 in Germany, he made I Don’t Want to Be a Man, a startlingly modern and transgressive comedy about cross-dressing with an ironic twist that challenges even our most enlightened contemporary assumptions about gender roles.
And yet, with all his tolerance for what is usually considered human misconduct or aberration, Lubitsch’s work is essentially moral in its approach, in the highest sense of that often-misconstrued concept as it is defined by Coward’s Amanda in Private Lives: “Morals. What one should do and what one shouldn’t.” Paradoxically, while subverting traditional moralism, Lubitsch made morality plays about sexuality and romance, concentrating on ethical issues such as infidelity and commitment and the fostering of equality and mutual respect. At their heart, Lubitsch’s films explore how men should treat women and how women should treat men. With infinite variety and the most subtly nuanced gradations of wit and emotion, they offer a benign but sharply observed code of humanistic behavior that challenges social convention. Many of his films (such as his musicals with Chevalier, MacDonald, and other female stars) deal critically with what we now term sexist behavior, exposing the hypocrisies of the double standard, although some also problematically endorse the double standard.
One of the censors complained that they knew what Lubitsch was saying, but they couldn’t figure out how he was saying it, so they usually had to leave his scenes uncut. In any case, much of the meaning of his films appears between the lines and between the shots. Although his background in theater is evident in his style in which he transforms stage devices for his own purposes as a filmmaker, Lubitsch’s was an essentially cinematic form of storytelling, using the medium brilliantly and uniquely to convey meanings that would elude any other art form and any other director. James Harvey provides a key to this unmistakably personal style when he observes that Lubitsch’s circumvention of censorship was integral to his method but not its sole raison d’être. Harvey notes that a principal reason Lubitsch was so highly regarded by other directors in his time was that he was so clever in getting “his dirty jokes” past the censors. That made Lubitsch “a model and an ideal” for other filmmakers, “for it wasn’t just mockery and dirty jokes that he got away with: it was intelligence itself, in a system that tended to empower stupidity.” And in discussing Trouble in Paradise, Harvey observes that Lubitsch and screenwriter Samson Raphaelson constantly “find some new and surprising way of narrating a scene or telling a joke or even just conveying information. It’s as if they had set out to test the expressive limits of indirection – to make those closed Lubitsch doors achieve a kind of maximum eloquence. As a result, more than ever before in a Lubitsch film, our own responses become the subject of the film.”
The many upheavals in American society and filmmaking since Lubitsch’s day have served as the death knell for the old-style glamour, sophistication, and wit that his films once epitomized. Under the influence of financial and demographic pressures and a general coarsening and dumbing-down of the culture, Hollywood filmmaking has become increasingly crude and violent. Films are aimed at lowest-common-denominator audiences who patronize movies about giant robots smashing into each other (the brain-dead Transformers series) and alleged romantic comedies featuring jokes involving vomiting and defecation (Bridesmaids), and the screen is dominated by superhero fantasies aimed primarily at the adolescent male sensibility. The collapse of the old system of film censorship in 1968 freed the screen from some of the repressive restraints that Lubitsch worked around and largely outwitted, but it has not led to a greater maturity in American filmmaking; the Motion Picture Association of America ratings system has been one factor in making most modern Hollywood films so juvenile. The increased frankness and raunchiness that the ratings system allows have coarsened the romantic comedy genre; and the musical genre, the most stylized exemplar of Golden Age filmmaking, has almost entirely vanished except for an occasional self-conscious throwback such as La La Land.
Along the way, despite his former eminence, Lubitsch’s name has largely been forgotten by all but die-hard film buffs, and the style of filmmaking he created is honored largely in the breach, not in the observance. While some of his films – especially the astringent yet heartwarming romantic comedy The Shop Around the Corner and the astonishingly daring and emotionally powerful black comedy To Be or Not to Be – remain favorites of many film fans, only the most dedicated film aficionados tend to be familiar with more than a handful of Lubitsch’s movies. Too often while writing this critical study of the Master, I would mention the name of Ernst Lubitsch to a person only to get a blank stare in return. That lack of reaction – the same response I used to get decades ago when I began writing about John Ford, who now is suitably honored – is disheartening to a film historian who loves Lubitsch. But it serves as a prod to help restore to him the attention he deserves. And as fellow film scholar James Naremore observed to me, a major challenge in writing about Lubitsch is that his work is so “ineffable.” I hope this book [How Did Lubitsch Do It?] will serve to begin removing some of those barriers to appreciating Lubitsch. . . .
The elements of Lubitsch’s mature style came together in his second Hollywood film, The Marriage Circle (1924), an intricate roundelay of marital fidelity and infidelity that served as the principal model for the romantic comedy genre. Seldom has a film been so influential. This is the film that, as Renoir put it, “invented the modern Hollywood.” It represented a quantum jump in sophistication from the clumsy blend of titillation and heavy-handed, preachy moralizing seen in Cecil B. DeMille’s marital comedy-dramas and from the Victorian idealization in D. W. Griffith’s romances. Suddenly appearing on American screens was the truth about modern marriage, its messy complications and many compromises, its blend of sincerity and deceitfulness, its seriousness and absurdity, its tacit need to look the other way to survive.
Lubitsch told the New York Times, “In this mixup of modern matrimony I have gone straight to life and thrown aside the melodramatic ideas with which life is usually distorted in the movies.” That truthfulness, and the maturity involved in the film’s complexity of treatment, was the source of its immense influence on the genre and on the careers of other directors. It helped teach them to analyze romance, marriage, and deceit in their films. One such director, Alfred Hitchcock, said of Lubitsch in 1967, “His greatest contribution, to me, to the cinema, was his making of The Marriage Circle. Ernst Lubitsch . . . was a man of ‘pure Cinema.’”
“Pure Cinema” was Hitchcock’s highest term of praise because it was what he always aimed for in his own work. Robin Wood’s comment on Hitchcock’s use of the term shows why that director applied it to Lubitsch: “Much more than editing is involved, and what finally matters is the kind and quality of the effects achieved, their nature, their value, their complexity, their intensity . . . from shot to shot, gesture to gesture, line to line, expression to expression, reaction to reaction, frame to frame, composition to composition. . . . This kind of perfection can come only from an artist working at the highest pitch of sustained imaginative-emotional involvement.” That is an accurate description of the precisely refined, perfectly calibrated style of The Marriage Circle since so much of it depends on elaborate visual storytelling involving intricate patterns of looks, gestures, objects, and choreography within the frame, brought together by montage, the kind that Hitchcock would also use to convey thought on-screen cinematically with similarly total artistic control.
Conveying thought is perhaps the most difficult challenge in filmmaking; a novelist can easily enter into the minds of his or her characters, but a filmmaker has to use other means, especially if he is trying to do so through implication and primarily through visuals. In The Marriage Circle, while adapting a 1909 play by Viennese writer Lothar Schmidt, Nur ein Traum (Only a Dream), Lubitsch and his screenwriter, Paul Bern, use the cinematic medium with a subtlety and depth that still seems astonishing all these years later. Lubitsch is able to suggest more than his characters could actually see or hear. He relied only slightly on intertitles in his American silent films, as reviewers of the time noted, usually with admiration but sometimes with frustration.
Unlike in his lavishly mounted German spectacles or his first American film, Rosita (1923), the decor in The Marriage Circle is elegantly spare, almost to the point of abstraction. Although this unusual choice might be explained by the modest assets of Warner Bros., it is more likely that this was an aesthetic choice on Lubitsch’s part, influenced by the intimacy of the Kammerspielfilm tradition in Germany that he followed in Die Flamme (The Flame/Montmartre, 1923). The largely undecorated gray walls and barely furnished rooms in the contemporary Viennese settings of The Marriage Circle – along with the relatively plain costumes, far from the tasteless frippery in DeMille’s marital comedies – ensure that the scenery does not distract us from the actors’ expressions and gestures, which are all-important here and in Lubitsch’s other films for Warners. That unusual level of quasi abstraction also guarantees that the objects Lubitsch selects for dramatic emphasis (breakfast food for two, a bouquet of flowers, a drink trolley, a scarf) are not lost in the kind of busy settings typical in DeMille movies but instead stand out with the clear and precise visual emphasis Lubitsch lends them. His Hollywood silent films have a simpler elegance that makes them seem refreshingly modern in contrast with DeMille’s stale and cluttered museum pieces.
Lubitsch’s direction, his orchestration of the characters and the significant objects they handle, is an intellectual game with the audience. He enables us to follow the complex thought processes and emotional interchanges among his characters, but what happens on-screen is only part of it. The rest is happening in the minds and hearts of the spectators. Montage asks spectators to close the ellipses between shots and complete the pattern in their heads, so it is no coincidence that Lubitsch would use it so eloquently. And his use of montage would help show the young Hitchcock (and the young Yasujiro Ozu in Japan, another great admirer of The Marriage Circle) how to follow his example. And the German American director Douglas Sirk found Lubitsch “incredibly modern as a picture director – particularly one film, The Marriage Circle, was very important to me in this respect. It had a kind of lasting impact. . . . Lubitsch was able to walk the very narrow path between the absurd and the realistic. And this ties up with another point: he also had taste and elegance, which I hope I learned a little from him.”
Jean Renoir, even though he tended to employ long takes more than the kind of highly fragmented montage that Hitchcock favored or the more deliberately paced stitching together of significant moments in Lubitsch’s work, once suggested that films should be interactive. In 1966, long before interactive video games came along, Renoir said, “It’s impossible to have a work of art without the spectator’s participation, without his collaboration. A film must be completed by the audience. . . . Art is a little bridge that you erect. The director of a film, if he has a little talent, sometimes succeeds in creating a little bridge between the screen and the audience, and then we’re all together, and we create together, we build the film together. The audience makes this contribution, and this contribution is very important.”
Lubitsch, more and more as time went on, structured his films in that interactive manner, as an intellectual and emotional exchange with his audience, usually expressed in a form of play. His films call on the intelligence and wit of the viewer to fill in the gaps that the director could not or would not deign to put blatantly on the screen. The Marriage Circle is a vehicle for the director and his surrogates, the actors, to commune with the sensibilities of the audience, to share his delight in human foibles and in the tragicomedy of the human condition. Lubitsch would continue doing so for the rest of his career in America. No one else before or since, even Charles Chaplin, has done so with such sustained rigor, invention, or sympathetic depth of feeling. In the same New York Times interview in which Lubitsch praised Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris, a 1923 film that greatly influenced his work, he said that with The Marriage Circle, “I experienced a great change in my career, as it is the first time I have made an important modern drama. I have gotten away from spectacles, as there are only five characters in this film. . . . It is a very intimate drama . . . and I never got so close to real life as I have in this picture.”
Lubitsch’s characterizations of two sets of intertwined married couples in The Marriage Circle (and another man who gets involved with both couples) are recognizably adult in a medium known largely for its juvenility. The director’s approach to sexuality is knowing and candid, and his refusal to make easy moral judgments is refreshingly tolerant. The Marriage Circle captures the widespread questioning of the institution of marriage at the height of the Jazz Age. It also reaffirms the value of marriage when that institution manages to work. Lubitsch shows how that can only occur when both parties learn to live with each other’s flaws as well as their virtues. The Marriage Circle demonstrates Oscar Wilde’s epigram: “The one charm of marriage is that it makes a life of deception absolutely necessary for both parties.”
The principal couple, Dr. Franz Braun (Monte Blue) and his wife, Charlotte (Florence Vidor), have what she too trustingly considers to be an ideal marriage until she starts discovering unmistakably disturbing signs of Franz’s wandering eye. Despite the evidence of his deceptions, she nevertheless manages to blind herself for quite a while to the fact that he is being aggressively pursued by her own best friend, the unhappily married Mizzi Stock (Marie Prevost). Mizzi’s husband, Josef (Adolphe Menjou), regards his wife with icy contempt, yearning to be rid of her. Josef is delighted with Mizzi’s increasingly brazen efforts to seduce Franz, who repeatedly tries to resist but keeps becoming compromised, partly through no fault of his own but partly through his own weakness.
The plot turns around Franz’s fundamental lack of honesty in dealing with his wife over what initially seems to be a relatively trivial matter. Most of the character complications would not occur if he simply told Charlotte that he met Mizzi just before they were introduced by his wife at their home. In a taxicab they shared on the way over, Mizzi kept making a play for Franz, and even though he tried his best not to respond, his guilty feelings over his attraction to this alluring stranger make him unwilling to admit that he “knows” Charlotte’s friend even that slightly. Franz persuades Mizzi to collaborate in the deception, and she is happy to oblige since it suits her scheming purposes. Meanwhile, the demurely attractive Charlotte behaves in a fashion that defines the term “ladylike,” and Lubitsch gently kids the unquestioning nature of her devotion yet does not make her fidelity seem ridiculous.
But as Charlotte learns more about Franz’s increasingly peculiar behavior, she develops conflicted emotions of her own toward her marriage. At first she is amused to find that Franz’s partner in psychiatry, Gustav Mueller (Creighton Hale), is smitten with her and responding ardently to her innocent flirtations. But gradually the realization of the threats to her marriage from both directions strips away Charlotte’s naïveté and illusions. A delicious Lubitsch Touch early in the film teasingly defines the difference between Charlotte’s naïve trustfulness and Mizzi’s subversiveness toward the Brauns’ marriage: as Charlotte stands at her piano, earnestly singing Edvard Grieg’s “Ich liebe dich” (“I love thee”), the camera tilts down to Mizzi playing the tune, smirking cynically, and looking off at the unseen Franz as Lubitsch slowly fades out, leaving us to imagine his two-pronged discomfort.
Since Lubitsch’s films are often subversive toward sexual conventions, it may seem surprising to some of his more cynical viewers that in this major work of his we have a film that clearly takes a stand in defense of marriage. The film’s complex point of view raises questions about whether this celebrated work from early in his Hollywood career is truly subversive or conventional or a mixture of the two. Lubitsch’s films often celebrate adultery (there is no other word for how he deals with that subject in much of his work), a most “un-American,” continental attitude. But at the same time, he was no implacable foe of marriage as he also shows in his late work Heaven Can Wait (1943), one of his personal favorites.
In that film, as he commented just before his death in 1947, “I showed the happy marriage in a truer light than it is usually done in moving pictures where a happy marriage is only too often portrayed as a very dull and unexciting by-the-fireplace affair.” The long-lasting marriage of Henry and Martha Van Cleve (Don Ameche and Gene Tierney) survives what appears to be the husband’s serial adultery (discreetly suggested by Lubitsch). The Marriage Circle also portrays the Brauns’ marriage as far from ideal but still worth preserving. It does so with full acknowledgment of the precariousness of the institution of marriage and with a recognition of the sexual double standard that often enabled a middle-class marriage to survive in that era. Heaven Can Wait, perhaps because it is set in an upper-class family with the looser standards that often accompany wealth, goes much further in depicting the double standard, showing a remarkable degree of tolerance (as well as tolerance by Martha) in excusing Henry’s lifelong philandering. The Marriage Circle, on the other hand, portrays the husband as struggling hard to be faithful (unlike Henry) but clearly tempted and succumbing on one occasion. Yet that does not destroy the marriage as might be expected in a Hollywood film of that era. Lubitsch’s approach to marriage was always far from orthodox.
A German reviewer of the time, Heinrich Fraenkel, described The Marriage Circle as “one of the finest, most tasteful, technically most successful, most entertaining and – most un-American films ever created.” Thomas J. Saunders comments in his 1994 book Hollywood in Berlin: American Cinema and Weimar Germany, “Not the least of the ‘un-American’ features of the film was its refusal to be bound by moral prudery. [Film-Kurier reviewer] Heinz Michaelis surmised that a director of Lubitsch’s artistic authority was required ‘to lead American film comedy out of constraints of Sunday school into the realm of superior comic genius,’ confirming once again that German influence had proven determinative.” Examining the influence of American cinema on Lubitsch and the mixed German attitudes toward his American work, Saunders traces the German response to Lubitsch as a discourse, often critical, on how much of his continental nature he did or did not manage to preserve after being brought to America because of the international success he had achieved partly as “by inclination arguably the most ‘American’ of German directors.” Although the European flavor of The Marriage Circle and subsequent Lubitsch films was largely applauded back home, Lubitsch also came under criticism in Germany for allegedly adapting too well to American culture and thereby, from that viewpoint, betraying his German roots. Less nationalistic observers might see it differently: Lubitsch managed to combine the best of both cinematic cultures in his own distinctive approach.
Herman G. Weinberg astutely observes in his 1967 book The Lubitsch Touch that Lubitsch made fun of sex in America even more than he had in Europe precisely because he “decided to make American audiences laugh at something they took so seriously. . . . America was obsessed with sex – the stringent censorship here proved it. . . . Very well: Lubitsch would make sex comedies, set in Vienna or Paris or even mythical kingdoms, where you could ‘get away with it.’” That is as good an explanation as any of the artistic transformation that Lubitsch underwent when he stopped making spectacles shortly after coming to America and began focusing almost exclusively on comedies and comedy-dramas about sexuality, the kind of Lubitschean films with which he is most associated today. In the Roaring Twenties, a greater erotic freedom began revitalizing the American screen. The women’s suffrage movement, the disillusioning effects of the Great War, and other forms of social upheaval had a liberating effect on women’s abilities to express their sexuality and act with greater independence. This revolution, not achieved without strong and sometimes violent pushback from conventional moralists and censors, would be reflected in and influenced by films in both Europe and the United States, notably those directed by Lubitsch, who was ahead of his time in portraying liberated women. He set the gold standard for subtlety and sophistication in presenting adult sexual behavior on-screen.
In an indication of how one era’s sophistication and subversiveness can be interpreted as the opposite in a later time and place, to some casual or narrowly ideological viewers today, The Marriage Circle may appear to simply endorse the hypocrisy of the double standard and condemn the aggressive female who selfishly tries to disrupt her friend’s happy marriage. Many viewers seem to expect a filmmaker to offer characters as role models who exemplify the moral orthodoxy of the present day rather than as flawed subjects for critical observation of a flawed social system. Such biases tend to blind some viewers to how The Marriage Circle examines marriage critically and does not hold up any of his characters, even Charlotte, as a paragon of virtue.
While acknowledging the existence of the double standard as a fact of life even in such a sexually liberated time as the Roaring Twenties, The Marriage Circle offers an often-satirical and sometimes earnestly dramatic critique of the problems surrounding marriage, partly because of the double standard, and examines the ambiguous social role of the newly “liberated” woman during that period of social disruption. The survival of a marriage such as that of the Brauns, who clearly love each other and want to be faithful, depends on overcoming a succession of deceptions, misunderstandings, the uncertain ability or desire of the husband to withstand temptation, and varying degrees of innocence or willful ignorance on the part of the wife as well as her tolerance and forgiveness, for a time, of his indiscretions. Despite the fragile nature of the marital relationship in a Lubitsch film, it is seen as worth preserving. But Charlotte’s disillusionment over her “ideal” marriage eventually leads her to be more assertive, manipulating Franz into submission while she tells him, “I’m as guilty as you,” even if he refuses to believe it and it isn’t entirely true.
Although Florence Vidor’s Charlotte is a dignified character who believes in and defines the old-fashioned virtues of fidelity in marriage, her initial security and smugness are challenged systematically until the climactic moment when she is forced to recognize, with utter disgust, that her husband and her best friend are having a dalliance. It can be argued that Charlotte is the central character of the film, not Franz, and that it revolves around the path she takes toward understanding the true complex nature of marriage rather than her initially idealized notion of it. Vidor plays the role straight, not comedically; the comedy comes from Charlotte’s misunderstandings and her initially limited perspective. Lubitsch greatly admired Vidor, whom he directed again in his 1928 film The Patriot. In a 1933 interview, he explained the complexity of character he captures through her in The Marriage Circle: “She is the essence of refinement. Under the right circumstances, her type might defy the rules of chastity, but never the rules of decorum. She has a very sensitive, intelligent mind. There is constant conflict between thought and emotion with her.”
Lubitsch clearly admires Charlotte’s strength of character and her intelligence in handling the threat to her marriage once she belatedly recognizes it. Her slowness to comprehend that threat is related to her innocence and her overly trusting character, but she manages to surmount those weaknesses and take charge of the situation to her own satisfaction, driving Mizzi away, forcing the sheepish Franz into fidelity, and declaring that the marriage will be on an equal basis from now on. But Charlotte’s susceptibility to Gustav’s flattery and her own mildly flirtatious behavior with him are seen as less threatening to the survival of the marriage than her husband’s actions, and therefore as comical, partly because they are somewhat subconscious and because her would-be lover, while as ardent as Mizzi, is shown as somewhat pathetic and ineffectual.
And yet The Marriage Circle never goes so far as to make Gustav a figure of utter absurdity as Lubitsch’s 1932 Maurice Chevalier/Jeanette MacDonald musical remake, One Hour with You, does with the role of the wife’s suitor. Lubitsch was planning to only produce that film, with George Cukor directing, but when he was dissatisfied with the early rushes, he took over the principal directing duties. Cukor’s more naturalistic style with actors had clashed with Lubitsch’s penchant for extreme stylization; Cukor was awarded the credit “Assisted by” only after he sued Paramount. One Hour with You portrays Charlie Ruggles’s Adolph as a fatuous simpleton, thus making any notion of genuine dalliance between him and the wife unthinkable. The musical treats as out-and-out comedy what the original portrays as mostly serious. In The Marriage Circle we are allowed to imagine the possibility that Charlotte might go off with Gustav if her marriage were to fall apart, though such a denouement would seem a letdown for her because of the doglike nature of his devotion and her obvious preference for the more charming if somewhat oafish Franz.
Casting is indeed critical in a Lubitsch film. The offbeat casting of Monte Blue as the husband makes Franz’s romantic fumblings seem more ridiculous than serious, yet not entirely absurd, because his relationship with Charlotte shows the kind of mutual devotion that is based on the acceptance of flaws as well as virtues. But his portrayal is nevertheless much more broadly comical than Charlotte’s; that is partly a way of making Franz’s temptation to stray seem less serious and partly a way of satirizing his weakness. Lubitsch makes Blue seem smug and clownish in his behavior and appearance; his wide eyes and droopy mouth are accentuated by epicene makeup, and Franz takes a smugly patronizing attitude toward his wife that ultimately has her play him as a fool while she discovers her own hidden strengths.
A strapping, athletic actor who was half Native American (his birth name was Gerard Montgomery Bluefeather) and began as a stuntman, Blue was usually cast as a more dramatic and romantic leading man in the 1920s. But Lubitsch, who often played with stars’ images for comic effect, brings out a latent goofiness in the actor not only in this film but also in So This Is Paris (1926), a more purely comedic romp, and presumably in the lost 1925 comedy about divorce, Kiss Me Again, the disappearance of which is particularly regrettable because Lubitsch, along with many reviewers, considered it one of his best films. Lubitsch originally cast Warner Baxter as Franz in The Marriage Circle but fired him after the first eight days, remarking, “He looks like a detective” (the film already had a detective character, played by the suitably glum Harry Myers, who is hired by Josef to get the goods on his wife). Judging from Baxter’s other work, Lubitsch must have been frustrated with trying to get much humor out of the dour actor, and so he was fortunate to find Monte Blue and keep him around for other films.
The people in The Marriage Circle are not impossibly glamorous as the characters are in many romantic comedies; they are much like the people watching the film. Lubitsch has it both ways by casting American actors, both “common” and “classy” performers, playing both high and low comedy in a continental setting – Vienna, “still the city of laughter and light romance” as the opening intertitle reassures us. That promise is a bit deceptive, for though the film is by definition a comedy, since it deftly manages to provide believably happy endings for all five people in this intricate circle of romantic disillusionment and renewal, it plays as much as a drama as it does a comedy. The issues it treats could not be more important – trust, fidelity, passion, and their opposites – but they are approached lightly, a paradox that puts Lubitsch in the company of such fellow humorists and moralists as Oscar Wilde and G. K. Chesterton. As Chesterton remarked, “It is so easy to be solemn; it is so hard to be frivolous.” The deft, sometimes deceptive duality of comedy and drama with which Lubitsch treats romantic and sexual situations in the seminal Marriage Circle and in his subsequent work, a form of playing with audience expectations in order to keep the work fresh and unpredictable, is a key component of his style and protean achievement.
Some of the people involved in The Marriage Circle had their reasons for being able to relate so well to their roles. Schmidt’s play was brilliantly adapted by Bern, a German-born screenwriter and director. In 1930, as Bern’s biographer E. J. Fleming notes, “Lubitsch gave an entertaining interview discussing [the irony of the] apparently confirmed bachelor [Bern] writing a script about relationships and marriage. Everyone in the film was having marriage issues: Monte Blue and Marie Prevost divorced [other people] during filming, Adolphe Menjou, cameraman Charles Van Enger and Creighton Hale shortly thereafter, and finally Lubitsch himself.” Florence Vidor divorced her husband and frequent director King Vidor the year after The Marriage Circle was released. Lubitsch quipped to a Los Angeles newspaper, “Everybody is divorced but Paul Bern, who wrote the script. And he isn’t married.” Lubitsch was not actually divorced at the time he made the remark in June 1930, but his wife, Leni, had filed for divorce earlier that month. The couple broke up after Lubitsch discovered that she was having an affair with his frequent screenwriter Hans Kräly. And while that situation resembled a darker version of one of Lubitsch’s cinematic romantic triangles, Bern’s story ended with a deception more tragic than anything in The Marriage Circle. In one of Hollywood’s most notorious scandals, Bern’s common-law wife, Dorothy Millette, murdered him in September 1932, two months after his marriage to Jean Harlow. MGM covered up the truth about Bern’s murder by maligning his sexual potency in an effort to protect Harlow, a somber Hollywood fable in the same genre as Wilder’s Sunset Blvd.
Substituting the unfunny Warner Baxter with the antic Monte Blue could help explain why Lubitsch puts such emphasis on the husband’s ridiculousness in The Marriage Circle. Lubitsch mocks Franz’s attempts at husbandly dignity while he struggles to deal with a woman who keeps flinging herself at him in a rather irrational way. Mizzi’s mad desire for the klutzy, suavity-deficient Franz seems explicable only as jealous revenge against her “best friend,” Charlotte, for having what superficially appears to be such a placid and happy marriage. While Franz is often silly and Gustav pitiable, so too, in a different way, is Mizzi, the would-be wild flapper, a minx who would be better off aiming her charms at a man who is more readily available.
A former Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty, Prevost employs her considerable skills as a comedian as she toys with Franz, but she also plays Mizzi with a fierce relish that the audience can choose to regard as amusingly “naughty,” somewhat demented, or both; she flings off a scarf in a garden to show Franz that she is hot on a cold night in a memorable Lubitsch Touch of genuine eroticism. Prevost brings a sense of desperation (a word Mizzi actually uses in a letter to Franz) to her character’s sexual longing, a misdirected passion that makes Mizzi seem more confused than liberated. Mizzi’s husband’s excessive coldness also gives us some sympathy for her. She seems masochistic in her futile attempts to throw herself at a man she can’t have, efforts that bring her only contempt from the other characters until she becomes the (resilient) butt of the film’s concluding gag in which she winds up with Gustav merely because he is available, the extra man in the story. (Prevost would go on to appear for Lubitsch as a playboy’s mistress in Three Women and as Blue’s estranged wife in Kiss Me Again. She appears charmingly zaftig in these films, but she committed suicide in 1937 at age thirty-eight by starving herself when her increasing weight caused her problems getting work in Hollywood.)
In 1924 Lubitsch wrote a revealing article discussing how he had to cure actors of bad habits from their earlier work. He wrote that “the hardest task of the director” is “to show the actors how to portray these characters on the screen. The trouble with many of the actors today is that they have just a small number of stock gestures and set facial expressions which they repeat over and over again, no matter what the situation really calls for.” Prevost seemed to be offering an explanation of Lubitsch’s curative methods when she told Harry Carr of Motion Picture Classic on the release of The Marriage Circle in February 1924,
I never realized what acting really meant until I began to hear Mr. Lubitsch’s voice coming to me from behind the camera. He deals in subtleties that I never dreamed of before. His marvelous technique consists of elements and effects that I never heard of before. At first it was terribly discouraging. He made me do simple scenes – just coming in and out of rooms – fifteen or twenty times. At first it seemed as tho [sic] there wasn’t any sense to it at all. Then it began to dawn upon me what the art of acting was all about, and it seemed intolerably and impossibly difficult. Then I began to see as he saw it. He is a tremendous and wonderful artist. To act even one scene under his direction is not only an education but a revelation.
In keeping with The Marriage Circle’s realistically unidealized, if questionable, portrayal of the double standard in 1924 Vienna (and implicitly America), male indiscretions are regarded as laughable but forgivable, but Mizzi’s flirtations are met with harsh responses from everyone but Gustav. Not only is she the target of righteous outrage from Charlotte when she realizes she has been betrayed, Mizzi is also despised by her own husband as well as by the man she is scheming to seduce. In the film’s most oblique but biting touch – a primarily verbal gag hidden in the German language of the director and screenwriter – Franz writes to Mizzi what he intends to be a kiss-off letter, ironically addressing her as the Hochwohlgeborene Frau Mizzi Stock (the Honorable Madame Mizzi Stock). Josef, her soon-to-be ex-husband, tosses the letter in front of her at the breakfast table with a withering look.
Charlotte’s propriety does not preclude sexual fantasies of her own, although it keeps her from consciously acting on them. This can be viewed as a concession to the American audience and Lubitsch’s careful avoidance of censorship; he knew where to draw the line in a story rife with potentially objectionable elements. Showing a flagrantly philandering wife and having the couple remain together at the end would have been difficult if not impossible to get away with at the time. But Lubitsch uses Charlotte’s strength of character as a foil for the other, weaker characters even as he suggests that she too is susceptible to temptation. He directs Vidor with great finesse, making her appear superior to her childish husband, overly trusting in a way that threatens to destroy her marriage, and somewhat reckless (innocently or not) in encouraging Gustav’s ardor. Drawing explicitly from the Freudian psychiatry that had become fashionable by the 1920s, The Marriage Circle shows Charlotte explaining away a seemingly innocently mistaken episode of kissing and embracing Gustav by pretending at first that it was only a dream (as the title of the source play puts it). But in describing that incident as a dream, she is revealing that she has more of a subconscious desire for such pleasures than she can bring herself to admit. She eventually tells Franz, albeit deliberately misleadingly, “Gustav’s kiss was no dream – it was real.” The Marriage Circle also calls humorous attention to the vogue for Viennese psychiatry by having Franz and Gustav practice that profession; their shingle reads “specialisten fur nervose leiden” (“specialists in nervous suffering”).
While lightly satirizing Charlotte’s obliviousness to her own desires and her husband’s wandering impulses, in some respects The Marriage Circle anticipates the darker but also dreamlike exploration of extramarital impulses in Arthur Schnitzler’s 1925-26 Dream Novella and Stanley Kubrick’s 1999 film adaptation, Eyes Wide Shut. An ambiguous sensual incident occurs in The Marriage Circle when Charlotte, in the aftermath of a nocturnal quarrel with Franz, tries to make up with him. Thinking he is outside when she sees a man’s silhouette through the door (even though Franz has actually gone off with Mizzi), she mistakenly calls Gustav into the house and invites him to kiss her. She does so while lounging in a chair with an arm outstretched and her eyes (wide) shut. Upon realizing the man’s true identity, she sends him away not with anger but with embarrassment – and, in private, a self-satisfied smile. How much are Charlotte’s misunderstandings only that, and how much are they accurate perceptions of her situation?
There is an even more provocative, more openly ambiguous hint of the wife’s less than absolutely faithful impulses earlier in the film in one of Lubitsch’s first uses in Hollywood of what would become his signature door shot. Generally in a Lubitsch film, we can easily infer what kind of illicit behavior is going on between a couple behind a closed door. That is part of the fun, the game the director is playing with the audience and the censors. But in this case, when Charlotte visits Franz’s office unexpectedly and discovers evidence of possibly compromising behavior on his part, Gustav goes behind a door to “console” the weeping Charlotte, as he is asked to do by her unsuspecting husband. Lubitsch holds the shot considerably longer than expected before suggestively fading out. We simply do not know what is happening behind that door, which makes this touch all the more unusual and significant. And it shows what a powerful effect Lubitsch could make with the timing of his editing. The very indirection of the shot makes us think more about Charlotte’s depth of character. It allows us a subtle opportunity to consider that perhaps she is not as innocent or incapable of infidelity as she initially seems. If she is getting a bit of her own back here, the film would support a reading that the turnabout is fair play, part of the “circle” of its title.
The dramatic possibility that some actual physical contact may go on behind that closed door helps counterbalance, to some extent, the more obvious flirtations of Franz. We the audience are privy to them thanks to Lubitsch’s otherwise allowing us a more omniscient point of view even as Charlotte takes a comically long time to catch on to the dismaying truth about her best friend’s dalliance with her husband. Whether or not Franz actually consummates his flirtation with Mizzi is only hinted at, though there is a strong possibility that he may be doing so when he disappears into her apartment for a suspiciously long period. The initial period of time is carefully clocked by the detective hired by her husband to collect evidence for a divorce action; the rest is left implicit in the fact that Franz returns home around dawn, acting apologetic. Franz’s behavior is far more flagrant than Charlotte’s, but Lubitsch’s subtle use of the door shot with her and Gustav in the office allows us to speculate, as we might wish, that she may be getting a bit of revenge, a quid pro quo for Franz’s behavior. Lubitsch makes clear that she deserves consolation for the way she is treated, and Franz’s behavior is even worse than she knows since she does not realize at that point who the other woman is. This is far from Lubitsch’s first use of doors for sexual innuendo – he does so in some of his German films – but it helps point the way for how, inspired by the need to outwit American puritanism, he will use doors for such purposes many times in his Hollywood work, including in later scenes in The Marriage Circle (such as when Franz, storming out of Mizzi’s apartment, pushes his way even more comically through no fewer than four doors). Lubitsch told Douglas Fairbanks Jr., the star of his last film, That Lady in Ermine, “Doors [are] as important as the actors.”
The intricately oblique pattern of glances and gestures and the deployment of objects that Lubitsch uses to tell the story are best seen in the early series of scenes gradually leading up to Charlotte’s discovery that Franz is deceiving her. This cinematic pattern is an almost entirely visual tour de force and must have been one of the main reasons the film was greeted with such excitement by its contemporary admirers. The couple’s happy state is shown in a loving ritual ingeniously conveyed by Lubitsch’s elliptical treatment of their breakfast. After they are shown gazing wistfully at each other, there is a close shot showing an eggcup, a coffee cup, and their hands. The hands start tapping the egg and stirring the coffee. But breakfast is quickly pushed aside as the couple embrace, and only their torsos are seen in the background of the shot, their faces remaining off camera. This droll sequence using food and drink as objects of foreplay anticipates Lubitsch’s suggestive use of breakfast delicacies to convey other sensual appetites in the “Breakfast Time” number in his musical The Smiling Lieutenant.
The director also uses an intricate floral motif in The Marriage Circle to develop Charlotte’s growing suspicions that Franz’s behavior may stem from something even worse than indifference. As Gustav’s car pulls up at the house, Franz and Charlotte are shown embracing in a wider shot, and then Charlotte goes to the patio to clip roses for her husband to take to his office. Her ardent suitor down below tips his straw hat lovingly as Charlotte, innocently enjoying the flirtation, drops a rose to the ground by “accident,” another Freudian touch. Gustav smells the rose suggestively, again to her amusement. She goes back inside and gives Franz the bouquet of roses, but as he embraces her, he carelessly lets them fall to the floor, suggesting how shallow his love for her is compared with hers for him. After he departs, Charlotte leaves the frame as Lubitsch holds on the flowers briefly for unspoken emphasis. Gustav brandishes her rose behind Franz’s back as they drive off. Charlotte’s laughter vanishes as she discovers the mess of flowers on the floor and stands like a disconsolate statue at the fade-out.
While Gustav is busy at the office with a chattering female patient whose neurotic complaints comically infuriate him (“Anyone who talks so much can’t be sick,” he says, thumping his desk), a mysterious woman in a veil enters Franz’s office. She unwinds her facial covering, revealing herself to be Mizzi, and sits brazenly on his desk. She plays with his hair and strokes his forehead. Gustav enters and sees them from the back, embracing; Franz, head turned, tells him to leave as the woman’s hand waves him away. The disconsolate Gustav naturally assumes that Franz is having a romantic visit from Charlotte. But he is immediately surprised to find Charlotte sitting in the waiting room, holding her bouquet of flowers. Angered at her husband’s carelessness, she has come to present the bouquet again, “to teach him not to throw my roses away.” Gustav, behaving like the audience as we watch a Lubitsch film, puts two and two together in his mind with delicious deliberation and makes four without the director spelling it out. Lubitsch’s style fully flowers here.
This realization of Franz’s betrayal of Charlotte makes Gustav smile slyly: he sees his opening. But he is too much of a gentleman to usher Charlotte into Franz’s office, which would cause the kind of direct confrontation Lubitsch prefers to avoid as long as possible, increasing the suspense. (It is no coincidence that The Marriage Circle made such an impact on Hitchcock because it is a master class in how to create visual suspense as well as how to dissect romantic problems between couples, an obsessive concern of Hitchcock’s films; Hitchcock also paid a perverse tribute to Lubitsch by having Joseph Cotten’s psychopathic, woman-hating Uncle Charlie called “the Merry Widow Murderer” in Shadow of a Doubt.) While Charlotte is in Gustav’s office, she is delighted to see her rose in a glass on his desk. Mizzi leaves by another door after an awkward embrace in which she and Franz knock over a vase containing some other flowers. Charlotte, hearing the noise, is ushered into Franz’s quarters where she hands him her bouquet and tries to straighten up his hair. His guilty expression is emphasized during the sequence in an unusually large close-up, and Gustav is shown from behind, scratching his head. Charlotte, seeing the new floral mess, becomes upset all over again. Franz lies that a “nervous man” knocked them over. Accusingly, Charlotte holds up a woman’s glove. Franz sheepishly explains, “But I have many patients!” Charlotte, who has now added up the math in her head, realizes that her husband may be deceiving her, yet she still remains ignorant of Mizzi’s involvement. And then comes the scene of Gustav going behind the door to “console” Charlotte.
This virtuosic series of scenes performs many functions smoothly, gracefully, and with a clockwork precision in its staging, framing, and choreography that makes everything in the story seem logical and inevitable. The main narrative effect is to convey the disruption in what initially seemed a placid marital arrangement, at least in the eyes of the wife, whose complacency has now been shattered. Franz’s continuing pattern of thoughtlessness and mendacity digs him ever deeper into a hole, while Mizzi’s scheming and their mutual concealment of their growing involvement lay the foundation for Charlotte’s still-misdirected suspicion. The suspense of how she will find out that Mizzi is involved is sustained even as the marriage starts showing signs of unraveling. Gustav’s involvement in the midst of all this neatly intensifies his sadly futile role as the would-be seducer of Charlotte. But Lubitsch and Bern follow up not with a dramatic confrontation revealing Mizzi’s perfidy and a clash between husband and wife, as would be the conventional expectation, but with a surprising reversal, playing another game with the audience and prolonging the suspense for further comical and emotional development. The film introduces an elliptical passage of time in which Charlotte’s early suspicions are somehow “forgotten” as an intertitle assures us. The next scene shows Charlotte and Franz vowing not to quarrel again and embracing with relief that their marriage is safely back on track. They are about to throw a formal dinner party as if in celebration.
Charlotte’s newfound trust in Franz – clearly based on a denial of reality – is quickly disrupted all over again in a very Lubitschean sequence of confusion over the place cards at the dinner table (a favorite device he will employ in later films as well). Charlotte imagines that Franz is trying to manipulate the cards so he can sit next to a certain Fraulein Pauline Hofer (soon revealed to be a ravishing, lissome young blonde, Esther “the American Venus” Ralston). The irony is that Franz has replaced Mizzi’s place card with Fraulein Hofer’s in another vain attempt to fend off Mizzi’s relentless advances. Charlotte, in her increasingly seriocomic complacency, assumes the opposite, trying to get Franz to sit next to Mizzi, but Mizzi ironically maneuvers Franz into sitting next to Pauline, in order to try to sow more seeds of distrust. By weaving this elaborate pattern of marital deceit, obliviousness, and misinterpretation, Lubitsch has established the “circle” that by constant turns will keep revolving, seemingly effortlessly, from comedy to nearly catastrophic drama. Charlotte’s eventual realization of how seriously Franz has been deceiving her with her “best friend” leads to her attempt at retaliation. She reveals to Franz that Gustav has been pitching woo and has even kissed her (this is when she says, “Don’t ask my forgiveness – I’m as guilty as you . . . Gustav’s kiss was no dream – it was real”).
The ultimate joke, revolving the film back from drama to comedy, is that when she forces Gustav to confess what he did with her, Franz smugly eggs him on behind Charlotte’s back, refusing to believe his friend or his wife. But the joke is now on Franz, though more from our point of view than his. And now that Charlotte thinks she has established a new level of parity with her freshly tamed, or at least temporarily domesticated, husband (“Fifty-fifty,” she tells him), Mizzi is exiled to the street, with Gustav chasing like a pet dog after her automobile as she beckons to him.
Conveying such a complex pattern of emotional interchanges – loving, suspicious, deceitful, and hurt – with a minimum of intertitles, Lubitsch created a dazzling tour de force of seriocomedy that showed everyone in Hollywood what the word “direction” really means. Small wonder that The Marriage Circle was hailed by Photoplay for having “the characters themselves reveal the story, which runs smoothly along to its logical ending. There is no straining for effects. . . . It’s all very simple, very human and immensely entertaining.” Robert E. Sherwood, later a noted playwright and screenwriter, praised the film’s “fragile grace,” writing in Life, “Ernst Lubitsch is, in many ways, the greatest director of them all. He has a delicately tuned sense of comedy, great control of the forces of drama, and an instinct for literary construction.” When Film Daily in 1927 asked ten leading directors to name their favorite films, Lubitsch picked The Marriage Circle, declaring,
In this production I was experimenting. . . . My desire was to create a story that would reflect life as it is lived by thousands of married couples – just everyday people that we meet all around us. In back of the idea was a desire to create a new form – a different technique. . . . I mean the processes employed in developing a story along natural, human lines, with the characters all flesh and blood people who were just a little bit bad and not too good. . . . There was suspense – interest – comedy – human beings reacting to given situations as they do in life. . . . There is not one single change I would make if I had to do it again.
The Ridiculous and the Tragic
A measure of how unconventional and groundbreaking The Marriage Circle appeared in its day is in a comment in Moving Picture World. While praising Lubitsch for handling “a rather daring and sensational theme with simplicity and directness,” the trade paper observed, “So different is this picture that its box office appeal is difficult to gauge. With its distinctly continental flavor and atmosphere and with the code which surrounds married couples weighing lightly on the conscience of several of the characters, although there is no great moral transgression, the theme is snappy and skims on thin ice and will not appeal to the conventionally minded, [and] its subtlety and wit may also be over the heads of certain classes of patrons.” Lubitsch’s American films, including this one, were never box office barn burners. A Lubitsch film was generally a succès d’estime that turned a modest profit; as this early review suggested, his films tended to be better received in the more sophisticated markets than in what Variety used to call the “stix.” The films did well enough at the box office to keep him bankable, and his reputation as a star maker and as a director who could be relied upon to bring out the best in every actor also meant a great deal in Hollywood. His peers in Hollywood and the reviewers were his greatest champions, gratefully recognizing how he advanced the medium and admiring his skills with their connoisseurs’ taste. Perhaps John Ford best expressed what Lubitsch had meant to the industry: “None of us thought we were making anything but entertainment for the moment. Only Ernst Lubitsch knew we were making art.”
Lubitsch’s agility in adapting to the cultural mores of a new country was a talent he had honed when making films in Germany that were aimed at an international market, the United States in particular. His careful study of the American market, the world’s largest at the time and the artistic terrain he was aiming to occupy, was refined in Hollywood with a clever exile’s cunning and adaptability as he bent the American system of production to his own ends. If Lubitsch, as a consequence, had to be careful to walk a fine line between tweaking American puritanism and blatantly, self-destructively offending it, a critic who would find him at fault for doing so would seem to want him to be a different person, and one without a long, successful, and influential career. Lubitsch rather quickly evolved subtle means of portraying characters and situations in ways that would enable him to entertain and, to some extent, enlighten American audiences while maintaining his artistic and commercial freedom to a degree shared by few other directors. These stylistic means included relying more on visual suggestiveness than on more easily interpreted and reductive intertitles as well as encouraging his actors to explore nuances in their characters that kept them from being easily categorizable and (in some quarters) objectionable.
With his ability to make lightning transitions from comedy to drama and back again, to see people from all sides, Lubitsch defies categorization and keeps his films creatively unsettling, just as his films usually defy categorizing characters as simply good or bad. If a character such as Mizzi might seem an exception with her shameless disruption of her best friend’s marriage, the kind of behavior that would be condemned by puritanical moralists and feminists alike, Lubitsch qualifies Mizzi’s “badness” by making her seem too harshly dismissed by her husband and pathetically desperate for love (or at least affection) and by having her take advantage of the flaws in the Brauns’ marriage. Both Franz and, to a lesser degree, Charlotte are partially culpable for any success Mizzi temporarily achieves in disrupting their marriage. Indeed, as Graham Petrie notes, “Relationships which are resolved or held together in this manner, on a basis of self-deception, deliberate deceit, or a refusal to acknowledge facts, cannot be said to be particularly healthy.” But to blame the problems in the Brauns’ marriage purely on Mizzi, even if she is “shallow, opportunistic, and disloyal,” as Petrie puts it, is largely to miss the central point of the film. She is a flawed person but also a handy catalyst for Franz’s weaknesses and deceptions. In Hitchcock’s terms, she is the MacGuffin, “the device, the gimmick, if you will, or the papers the spies are after. . . . It doesn’t matter what it is.”
In a Lubitsch film (or in real life), a Mizzi can always be found by a husband who has a roving eye. The equivalent character played by Genevieve Tobin in the musical remake One Hour with You is even more brazen, partly because the husband played by Chevalier has fewer struggles with his scruples than the husband in The Marriage Circle. One Hour with You is an entertaining romp, subversive in its relative tolerance of adulterous impulses, but a minor film, on a different level of complexity, seriousness, and achievement from The Marriage Circle, which stands as an example of Lubitsch at his best.
As Molly Haskell observes in her insightful 1974 book From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies,
Lubitsch’s greatness was largely self-concealing: It lay in an ability to blend different elements – satire, musical comedy, and melodrama, for example – in a manner so effervescent that genius was mistaken for mere “touch.” At the same time, he created women characters of depth and complexity whose originality was glossed over in the general designation of “Continental sophistication.” But Lubitsch’s worldliness was as deceptive as his touch. If anything, it was in going against the grain of the polished surface, in the hints of awkwardness with which he invested his men and women, that they – particularly the women – acquired complexity.
Lubitsch’s belief in the existence of such a thing as a good marriage is not achieved at the expense of blindness to human weakness in The Marriage Circle. The study of human weakness is, after all, ingrained in the nature of comedy. Twenty-four centuries ago, Aristotle wrote in his Poetics, “As for Comedy, it is (as has been observed) an imitation of men worse than the average; worse, however, not as regards any and every sort of fault, but only as regards one particular kind, the Ridiculous, which is a species of the Ugly. The Ridiculous may be defined as a mistake or deformity not productive of pain or harm to others; the mask, for instance, that excites laughter, is something ugly and distorted without causing pain.” When Mizzi, Franz, and other characters in a Lubitsch film are being merely ridiculous, they are comic; when they are causing pain, they approach tragedy. The best of Lubitsch’s works often combine these two modes in a delicate equilibrium with a skill few other film directors have ever managed to approach. So trying to define the characters in his films, however admirable or reprehensible their behavior may be, by merely assigning labels or by expecting them to be role models for any particular period would not only be ridiculous but would also miss what Lubitsch is all about.
In the perfection of his style in The Marriage Circle, which remains one of his masterpieces in its precision and incisiveness and wisdom, Lubitsch shows as clearly as in any other film that he is a moralist in the Noël Coward sense of the word rather than the puritanical one: more tolerant of weakness but more exacting about deliberate choices about how men and women should behave toward each other. Since Lubitsch clearly believes that the Brauns’ marriage, however imperfect, has value, this undoubtedly makes him romantic. Does that also make him conservative? In the eyes of Petrie and [E. Ann] Kaplan [author of the 1981 essay “Lubitsch Reconsidered”] and others, it does, and thus simplistically implies his disqualification from the ranks of major artists. But we need to look at artists for who they are, not who we might wish them to be.
Audiences, reviewers, and fellow filmmakers alike recognized that The Marriage Circle paved a road for a more mature, more truthful understanding of subject matter that was too often trivialized or sensationalized on American screens. That, as much as its stylistic brilliance, accounts for the film’s great influence in showing the way for a higher level of sophistication in the romantic comedy genre, giving Lubitsch the right to claim the title as true creator of the genre. And in so doing, The Marriage Circle set the pattern for the rest of his career, defining the terrain and style he would triumphantly make his own. It is a style with many imitators that none could surpass.
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NOTES ON SOURCES
Jean Renoir regarding Ernst Lubitsch (EL) and “Berlin style”: his 1967 letter to Herman G. Weinberg in Weinberg’s book The Lubitsch Touch: A Critical Study (New York: Dutton, 1968; revised ed., 1971; 3rd revised and enlarged ed., New York: Dover, 1977). Weinberg also provides the quote on EL from David Niven. EL’s remark on “Paris, Paramount” to Garson Kanin, quoted in Peter Bogdanovich, Who the Devil Made It (New York: Knopf, 1997). How EL “played the game” and “find some new”: James Harvey, Romantic Comedy in Hollywood, from Lubitsch to Sturges (New York: Knopf, 1987). “A poignant sadness”: Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929–1968 (New York: Dutton, 1968). Noël Coward, “Morals”: his play Private Lives (London: Heinemann, 1930). EL usually smoked Upmanns: Samson Raphaelson, “Freundschaft: How It Was with Lubitsch and Me,” first published as “Freundschaft,” New Yorker, May 11, 1981, reprinted in Raphaelson, Three Screen Comedies by Samson Raphaelson: Trouble in Paradise, The Shop Around the Corner, and Heaven Can Wait, with Introduction by Pauline Kael (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1983).
Alfred Hitchcock defines the “MacGuffin” in François Truffaut, with the collaboration of Helen Scott, Hitchcock (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1967), originally published as Le Cinéma selon Alfred Hitchcock [The Cinema According to Alfred Hitchcock] (Paris: Éditions Robert Laffont, 1966). Robin Wood on Hitchcock and “Pure Cinema”: Hitchcock’s Films Revisited, revised ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002). Yasujiro Ozu influenced by EL and The Marriage Circle in particular: Donald Richie, Ozu (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974); and David Bordwell, Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (London: British Film Institute; Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988). Douglas Sirk on EL and The Marriage Circle: Jon Halliday, Sirk on Sirk: Interviews with Jon Halliday (London: Secker & Warburg, 1971; New York: Viking Press, 1972). Oscar Wilde on “the one charm of marriage”: The Picture of Dorian Gray (London: Ward, Lock, 1891). EL on Heaven Can Wait: EL’s July 10, 1947, letter to Weinberg, published in Films in Review, August-September 1951, and reproduced in Film Culture, Summer 1962, and reprinted in Weinberg. Comments on The Marriage Circle: Graham Petrie, Hollywood Destinies: European Directors in America, 1922–1931, revised ed. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2002. 1st ed., London: Routledge, Kegan Paul, 1985); Thomas J. Saunders, Hollywood in Berlin: American Cinema and Weimar Germany (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994). How EL “decided to make American audiences laugh” about sex: Weinberg. EL’s conflict with George Cukor on One Hour with You: Barry Sabath, “Ernst Lubitsch and Samson Raphaelson: A Study in Collaboration.” PhD thesis, New York University, 1979; Gavin Lambert, On Cukor (New York: Putnam, 1972, and revised ed., ed. Robert Trachtenberg, New York: Rizzoli, 2000).
Screenwriter Paul Bern: Samuel Marx and Joyce Vanderveen, Deadly Illusions: Jean Harlow and the Murder of Paul Bern (New York: Random House, 1990); and E. J. Fleming, Paul Bern: The Life and Famous Death of the MGM Director and Husband of Harlow (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2009), with EL quote “Everybody is divorced” from his interview with the Los Angeles Evening Herald Express, June 30, 1930. John Ford on EL: quoted in Scott Eyman, Laughter in Paradise (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993, 2015; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000). Douglas Fairbanks Jr. quoting EL’s comment “Doors [are] as important”: Weinberg. On “Lubitsch’s greatness”: Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, 1st ed. (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1974; 2nd ed., with new preface, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987; 3rd ed., with new introduction by Haskell, and foreword by Manohla Dargis, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016). Aristotle’s discussion of comedy in his Poetics: On the Art of Poetry, trans. Ingram Bywater, with preface by Gilbert Murray (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1920).
Billy Wilder on EL sign in office, “How would Lubitsch do it?”: Michael Blowen, “The Art of Billy Wilder,” Boston Globe, October 22, 1989, reprinted in Robert Horton, ed., Billy Wilder: Interviews (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002). Orson Welles’s comment on EL: 1964 interview by Juan Cobos, Miguel Rubio, and J. A. Pruneda, Cahiers du Cinéma, April 1965, reprinted as “A Trip to Don Quixoteland: Conversations with Orson Welles,” trans. Rose Kaplin, Cahiers du Cinéma in English no. 5 (1966), reprinted in Mark W. Estrin, ed., Orson Welles: Interviews (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002). Mervyn LeRoy quote upon presenting EL’s honorary Oscar: Philip K. Scheuer, “Lubitsch Looks at His ‘Oscar,’” Los Angeles Times, April 6, 1947. “They’ll love you forever”: Wilder, “Wilder’s Tips for Writers,” in Crowe. Truffaut, “Lubitsch était un prince” [“Lubitsch Was a Prince”], Cahiers du Cinéma, February 1968, reprinted in his book The Films in My Life (Paris: Flammarion, 1975; reprinted, trans. Leonard Mayhew, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978).
EL on The Marriage Circle, “in this mixup”: “When Women Bluff,” New York Times, March 30, 1924. Hitchcock on EL and The Marriage Circle: “A Tribute to Lubitsch 1892–1947,” Action, Directors Guild of America, November–December 1967, reprinted in Weinberg. EL on Florence Vidor: May Allison Quirk, “‘All Women Are Sirens at Heart,’ says Mister Lubitsch,” Photoplay, August 1933. EL “the hardest task” from his article “The Motion Picture Is the Youngest of All the Muses,” in The Truth about the Movies by the Stars, ed. Laurence A. Hughes (Hollywood: Hollywood Publishers, 1924), quoted in Kristin Thompson, Herr Lubitsch Goes to Hollywood: German and American Film after World War I (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005).
Marie Prevost interview with Harry Carr, Motion Picture Classic, February 1924, quoted by Petrie; Prevost’s death: Dixie Laite, “Marie Prevost—The Movie Star Eaten by Her Dog (Or Was She?),” September 4, 2013, Dametown (blog), dametown.com. Reviewers on The Marriage Circle: Photoplay, quoted by Eyman; and Robert E. Sherwood, Life, October 1924, in his review of Three Women, quoted by Weinberg. EL on The Marriage Circle in Film Daily, 1927, quoted by Eyman. Moving Picture World review quoted in Petrie. E. Ann Kaplan on Lubitsch’s approach to sexuality: her essay “Lubitsch Reconsidered,” Quarterly Review of Film Studies 6, no. 3 (Summer 1981).
Picture of sign in Wilder’s office and quote from Wilder defining the Lubitsch Touch as “a different way of thinking”: in conversation with Volker Schlöndorff for his and Gisela Grischow’s documentary Billy Wilder, wie haben Sie’s gemacht? [Billy, How Did You Do It?], Bioskop Film (Munich)/Hessischen Rundfunk/Westdeutschen Rundfunk/Bayerischen Rundfunk, 1992; shown on BBC-TV [UK] as Billy, How Did You Do It?, 1992, and released in the United States (without Wilder’s comments on EL) as Billy Wilder Speaks, Kino International, 2006. Renoir, “He invented”: quoted in Peter Bogdanovich, feature on Trouble in Paradise, DVD, Criterion Collection, 2003. EL on his Touch from Paramount press releases, AMPAS (Ernst Lubitsch file at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library, Beverly Hills): “I would like to know myself,” February 3, 1938, and “I want no misunderstanding,” May 1937; and from AMPAS: EL, “I cannot give you,” “Biography of Ernst Lubitsch,” unspecified studio release; see also “Epilogue: The Lubitsch Touch” in Thompson. James Naremore on EL as “ineffable”: JM conversation with Naremore; Sarris also referred to EL as “ineffable” in “Lubitsch in the Thirties, Part II: All Talking! All Singing! All Lubitsch!,” Film Comment, Summer 1972. Renoir on the interactive nature of films: “La Recherche du relatif” [“The Search for Relativity”] in the 1967 Jacques Rivette television documentary series Jean Renoir le patron [Jean Renoir the Boss], filmed in 1966 for the series Cinéastes de notre temps, quoted in Renoir on Renoir: Interviews, Essays, and Remarks, trans. Carol Volk (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
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