“I want to thank three people: I want to thank Billy Wilder, I want to thank Billy Wilder and I want to thank Billy Wilder.” These were the closing words of director Michel Hazanavicius, thanking the Academy for awarding The Artist Best Picture of 2012. This tribute to his inspiration brings me to next month’s film (on March 1st) and prompts me to observe a further degree of separation/inspiration. While Hazanavicius rightly looks to Billy Wilder, one of the greatest writer-directors of the 20th Century, for creative stimulation, Wilder similarly looked to his mentor with the words he had pinned above his desk as a paean to his inventive muse: “What would Lubitsch do?”
Ernst Lubitch (1892 –1947), the director of next month’s film, was a Jewish, German/American director, producer, writer and actor who received an Honorary Academy Award in 1946 for his contribution to the art of motion pictures. His films, often advertised as having “the Lubitsch touch”, were mostly urbane comedies of manners that earned him the reputation of being Hollywood’s most elegant and sophisticated director.
Born in Berlin, he appeared as an actor in some 30 films between 1912 and 1920, and began directing comedies and large-scale historical dramas in 1918. His film Carmen (1918) was listed by The New York Times as one of the 15 most important US releases of 1921. With glowing reviews under his belt, he was lured to Hollywood under contract to Mary Pickford in 1922 and then signed a remarkable three-year, six picture deal with Warner Brothers. Later moving to MGM and Paramount he established a reputation for stylish sophisticated comedy and seized the opportunity of sound films to make musicals. A romantic comedy Trouble in Paradise (1932) was withdrawn from circulation by the censors in 1935 (It was not seen again until 1968. The film was never available on video and only became available on DVD in 2003). The Lubitsch touch was light, a subtle detail that could reveal a world of ironic – even titillating – intrigue.
Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (Claudette Colbert, David Niven, Edward Everett Horton, Franklin Pangborn, Gary Cooper, Herman Bing) is an archetypal battle-of-the-sexes comedy that benefits from a Billy Wilder/Charles Brackett script. The plot involves Michael Brandon (Gary Cooper), an oft-married financial wizard, who has firm principles … on pyjamas. He sleeps wearing only the top so doesn’t see why he should be forced to buy the trousers. The department store, however, refuses to sell the top without the bottoms. Fortunately a fellow shopper, Nicole de Loiselle (Claudette Colbert), has a need only for pyjama trousers and agrees to buy the other half of the set. Unfortunately they can’t agree on the colour. (Don’t you just hate it when that happens?) Pretty soon Brandon is buying a Louis XIV’s bathtub from Nicole’s Marquis father (Edward Everett Horton) and sizing up a wedding suit. But when Nicole learns that Michael has been married seven times before, she hatches a plan to knock him down a peg or two (or 10) and, in addition, take him to the cleaners.
No-one was better than Colbert in this sort of material. She was was a French-born American known as an expert screwball comedienne but also able to play drama with a range from vamps to housewives. She was a leading lady for two decades and starred in more than 60 movies, winning an Oscar for It Happened One Night (1934). Here she is supported by a cast of scene-stealers from Edward Everett Horton to Franklin Pangborn and David Niven (Nicole’s idiotic suitor). Gary Cooper, meanwhile, demonstrates a rarely seen comic talent. Having started out as a film extra and stunt rider in westerns, then built a career on playing naturalistic, rather serious and cautiously heroic characters in adventure films, dramas in the 1930s. Although he is best remembered for the strong, quiet Everyman characters he played in his two Oscar winning performances (Sergeant York, 1941 and High Noon, 1952 ), he appeared in other comedies such as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Meet John Doe (1941) though never in the same way he does here for Lubitsch – who also gives him the chance to sing! Cooper received five nominations for Best Actor and, like Lubitsch, also received an Academy Honorary Award for his career achievements.
Of Lubitsch biographer Scott Eyman writes:
With few exceptions Lubitsch’s movies take place neither in Europe nor America but in “Lubitschland”, a place of metaphor, benign grace, rueful wisdom… What came to preoccupy this anomalous artist was the comedy of manners and the society in which it transpired, a world of delicate sangfroid, where a breach of sexual or social propriety and the appropriate response are ritualized, but in unexpected ways, where the basest things are discussed in elegant whispers; of the rapier, never the broadsword… To the unsophisticated eye, Lubitsch’s work can appear dated, simply because his characters belong to a world of formal sexual protocol. But his approach to film, to comedy, and to life was not so much ahead of its time as it was singular, and totally out of any time.