This Week on TCM: Lubitsch!
January 25, 2011

Friday, Turner Classic Movies is highlighting the movies of Ernst Lubitsch, one of my favorite writer/directors. Known for “The Lubitsch Touch“, his films were sophisticated romantic comedies that often pushed the boundaries of the 1930s culture he was working in. (That’s why they were often set in European capitals, to provide a veneer of the exotic to American audiences and an excuse for hinting at sex.) Sadly, I note that several of these movies, while once available on DVD, are now out of print (according to Amazon), so take this opportunity to check these classics out for free.

The Shop Around the Corner cover
The Shop Around the Corner
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The Shop Around the Corner (Friday, 1/28, 10:30 AM ET) — Perhaps the best-known of his movies (given its status as a “Christmas movie” and the 1998 remake as You’ve Got Mail), Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan feud at work as sales clerks while falling in love as pen pals. There’s a surprisingly dark subplot about the store owner, his wife, a smarmy co-worker who may be getting too close to her, and a gunshot “accident”, demonstrating how Lubitsch handled mature material through suggestion and implication. Adults know what’s going on without visually wallowing in anything or forcing it in front of younger viewers. These films reward attention and reveal new details on repeated viewings. As you know what will happen, the small moments between Sullavan and Stewart take on additional depth and meaning.

To Be or Not to Be cover
To Be or Not to Be
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To Be or Not to Be (Friday, 1/28, 12:30 AM ET) — If you haven’t heard of the former, how about this one? Jack Benny and Carole Lombard (in what became her final film) fight as married Polish actors trying to satirize and then avoid the Nazis. It came out in 1942, making it both prescient and nose-thumbing. It also needs the time period for context, as Mel Brooks demonstrated in his 1983 remake.

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Ninotchka (Friday, 1/28, 2:30 PM ET) — My favorite of the batch being shown, it’s Greta Garbo being funny as a strict Soviet agent seduced by the charms of Paris and playboy Melvyn Douglas. The politics — where the hedonism of the western countries is shown as superior to the cold stereotypical restrictions of the relatively new mechanized Russia — seem quaint today, but Garbo is wonderful falling in love with a ridiculous hat. This was also remade, with songs, as Silk Stockings. If so many of his movies are seen as worth redoing, Lubitsch must be doing something right!

(My favorite Lubitsch of all of his is difficult to decide. I do very much like Design for Living, about an artistic threesome and how love (really sex) affects the creative process, as well as the lesser-known Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, in which Claudette Colbert becomes the rich Gary Cooper’s eighth wife, and decides to punish him by withholding her favors.)

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Trouble in Paradise
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The Merry Widow (Friday, 1/28, 4:30 PM ET) — If you think you know Jeanette MacDonald from her horrible operatic duets with Nelson Eddy and Maurice Chevalier from his old roue in Gigi, this will make you rethink them both. I’m trying to remember if I’ve seen this one before, but their two previous musicals together — found in the Criterion Eclipse set — are eye-opening. He’s suave and sexy! She’s playful and lusty! In this one, he’s a prince, she’s a rich widow, and he has to make love to her to keep her finances in the country. You may also want to check them out in Love Me Tonight, not Lubitsch but another royal musical being shown by TCM on Thursday morning at 1 AM Eastern.

Trouble in Paradise (Friday, 1/28, 6:30 PM ET) — Kay Francis becomes part of a love triangle with two jewel thieves and con artists. Early Lubitsch, so it’s not as heart-warming, more caper-ish.

Other Films of Note

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Pandora’s Box
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Night of the Lepus (Saturday, 1/29, 3:45 AM ET) — Late night camp classic about killer bunnies, excuse me, “giant man-eating rabbits”. Gather the kids!

Pandora’s Box (Friday, 12/24, Midnight ET) — The classic silent film starring Louise Brooks, whose immortal bob inspired a timeless look. I’m not sure I understand the movie, but it’s certainly something to watch. Take note: last time I recorded this, it cut off early, so pad the time past the stated two hours if you don’t want to be disappointed.

11 Responses  
Jim Perreault writes:  

I caught Ninotchka on PBS recently. The plot stuck me as very odd, but I agree Garbo is fantastic.

Steely Dan writes:  

Re: “To Be or Not To Be”

In your reference to the remake, I think you meant to say Mel Brooks, not Mel Blanc.

Johanna writes:  

Ha! You’re right, thank you for the correction. I’ve fixed it.

bern writes:  

hello- i think lubitsch was ahead of his time and he did get away with a lot pre code
but to say that the movies of jeanette and nelson were awful- what planet is that true- perhaps your not a romantic or dislike opera or musicals-but i respectfully so-disagree

Johanna writes:  

To be fair, I haven’t seen an actual full movie with them — it’s the old-fashioned singing style that turns me off. What do you like about their films? Maybe you can educate me on their appeal.

Grant writes:  

I’m looking forward to Pandoras Box. But yeah, some of Pabst stuff is hard to follow. I recently watched his Mistress Of Atlantis (L’Atlantide) and found it incomprehensible.

I’d also recomend a couple very well made film noirs. one by Robert Siodmak called Phantom Lady. It’s not available on dvd and rarely shown on TCM. It’s on tonight at eleven. The other by Fritz Lang called “Ministry Of Fear”, on at 9am on the 30th.

And there’s a very sweet, early 30s coming of age comedy/drama with Walace Beery called “Ah, Wilderness”. It also stars one of my favorite 30s actresses Aline MacMahon. It’s on the 31st at 6am.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Ernest Borgnine marathon at 8pm on the 30th. Some great stuff there, Bad Day at Black Rock, Marty, Wild Bunch, among others.

Johanna writes:  

Thanks for sharing those additional recommendations!

bern writes:  

hohanna- i cannot explain it – their voices blended so beauitfully together- they were so intimate with each other- very addicting and also they gave depression audiences a chance to appreciate operetta-a genre that most folks were not in tune with- they called them crossover artists -rock stars of their time
and anyone with a heart could see the real love and passion between them
a liflong love affair with many issues-
many folks watch one of thier movies expect corniness but it was a different time- but then realize the charm of them-
i would try maytime or sweethearts or rosemarie-ya never know if you may get “hooked” too

Grant writes:  

I’m not a huge fan of the MacDonald/Eddy films either, mostly because I’m not a big “musical” guy. But even I thought Maytime was good.

Another musical thats pretty good is “Seven Sweethearts” by one of my favorite directors of classic film Frank Borzage. About a cynical new york reporter stuck in a small dutch village in Michigan during the “tulip festival”. Funny stuff.

Grant writes:  

I thought Trouble In Paradise was fun. Not Lubitsch best film ever, but lots of fun. I liked Kay Francis wooing Marshal and the bit about Marshal getting the goods on Francis accountant. Miriam Hopkins was in a lot of really fun early thirties comedies.

I missed out on Pandora’s Box. My cable went out, bummer. :(

This Week on TCM: Short Thoughts » DVDs Worth Watching writes:  

[…] this movie was director Billy Wilder’s homage to Ernst Lubitsch. Instead, why not try the real thing? Wednesday night (Thursday morning), starting at 1 AM, TCM […]


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