How Did Lubitsch Do It?
Joseph McBride. Columbia Univ., $40 (544p) ISBN 978-0-231-18644-5
Prolific film historian and biographer McBride (Writing in Pictures) delivers his best book yet with this study of Ernst Lubitsch, who helped invent the movie musical with The Smiling Lieutenant and The Merry Widow and perfected the romantic comedy in films such as Ninotchka and The Shop Around the Corner. Though McBride notes that this is “not a biography but a critical study,” he does trace Lubitsch’s life story, from his 1892 birth and middle-class upbringing in Berlin and early success in the German film industry as a comedian and director, to his arrival in Hollywood at star Mary Pickford’s invitation in 1922 and career there as a director and producer up until his fatal heart attack in 1947. However, narrative takes a backseat to explaining to contemporary viewers what made Lubitsch’s work unique, since McBride believes that Lubitsch’s star has waned in recent years in comparison to other Hollywood auteurs. He emphasizes the urbane and wry “Lubitsch touch,” placing the filmmaker’s irreverent but subtle treatment of sex and infidelity within the context of an era of increasingly stringent censorship (in The Merry Widow, the king comes out of the royal bedroom fastening a belt that is too small, and one that obviously belongs to someone who has just visited the queen). Censors “knew what Lubitsch was saying, but they couldn’t figure out how he was saying it.” McBride has created a nuanced, thorough look at an important artist and his art. (June)