Thursday, 28 October 2010

An evening with Lubitsch

SCHUPALAST PINKUS (Ernst Lubitsch; Germany; 1916)
ONE HOUR WITH YOU (Ernst Lubitsch; USA; 1932)

I've found every film that I've seen by Lubitsch to be utterly beguiling, which is why it feels odd to have viewed so few of his films. Prior to seeing Schupalast Pinkus and One Hour With You, I had only viewed 5 Lubitsch films, and Schupalast Pinkus was the inaugural viewing of a silent Lubitsch film. Dear Lord, the growing list of playing cinema-catch-up gets ever longer.

Schupalast Pinkus depicts the rise of the hero, Sally Pinkus, from cheeky and disorderly school-boy to a wealthy and successful businessman. Success does not come from tenacity, persistence, and hard work, but from happily and haphazardly pursuing one's own interests, and for Sally this means idleness and pursuing women. The surprise, and the delight, in seeing this film is watching Lubitsch as a young actor, grinning his way through the role of the proto-slacker Pinkus. His comedic style is not necessarily masterly, but it's effective, cheeky, and charming. His face reels off a vast array of gurning expressions, silly grins, bug-eyes, and an unusual yet hilarious predilection for poking out his tongue, done as a gesture of taking pleasure in his own audacity. As an actor, he has a knack for making simple moments amusing, such as a impudent gleeful expression he has when arriving late to class then climbing over his class-mates to get his seat in the front, or cheating at vaulting over a pommel-horse by running under it. It almost feels reassuring or heartening to know that Lubitsch's gift for directing comedy stemmed from his own gift in playing comedic roles.

I haven't seen Lubitsch's earlier silent work The Marriage Circle, from which One Hour With You is the musical version, made 8 years later, but I will hasten to view it after having seen the latter. It's interesting how an opinion of a actor can change due to one film. After viewing Love Me Tonight a while ago, I honestly didn't know what to make of Maurice Chevalier's cheerfully lecherous demeanour. Yet, in One Hour With You, he makes sense to me now. He's no longer gleefully seedy, but brash, playful, gallant, merry, and irrepressibly lusty. What helps his cause is the direct addresses to the camera, winning us over by including us in his world and even wooing us with directly-addressed song, asking repeatedly what we would do in his place.

To watch Lubitsch is to also listen, to bask in a cascade of intelligent, jaunty dialogue, delivered without pretension but with grace and sprightly ease. Every Lubitsch always seems to reveal a swathe of superb lines, so many that the viewer struggles to recall any of them by the film's end. I'm wondering if a little book could be made, replete solely with quotes from Lubitsch's films – although this would defeat the impact of the lines, for the richness also lies in the delivery, often deadpan and with a gentle natural rhythm that embeds the humour deep within the moment.

I missed a third film by Lubitsch (these were all showing in the one evening, at a season of screenings at Melbourne Cinematheque). I stayed for the first 5 minutes of his 1918 silent costume drama Carmen, because I was determined to at least see some part of this film, but had to leave due to work commitments. As I always hope in moments like this, some time in the future I'll get the chance to see this in full.

I want more. I feel a Lubitsch-athon coming on.

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