Ernst Lubitsch

In discussing Lubitsch’s career film-by-film, Eyman shows that the well-known phrase “the Lubitsch touch” oversimplifies the versatile gifts of an accomplished filmmaker as much as “the master of suspense” trivializes Alfred Hitchcock’s talents. Some of Lubitsch’s early German films, for example, emphasize spectacle in a way that rivals the work of Cecil B. DeMille and D. W. Griffith. During the high period of Lubitsch’s most memorable work, the director’s sophisticated films defined the comedy of nuance and insinuation as well as the screen musical. Eymans also shows that Lubitsch eventually saw the need to reshape his film world. NINOTCHKA (1939), THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (1940), and TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942), three later works, add realism to the director’s comic gifts.

Although Eyman draws the broad strokes of Lubitsch’s personality, he treats this human element somewhat less fully. Since other good books discuss Lubitsch’s films, Eyman may miss the chance to deliver a study that captures and explores the subject’s personality. In addition, Eyman’s writing distracts at times by mixing breezy cliches with a mostly formal style. For example, Eyman describes Lubitsch’s rejection of catering to American audiences as refusing to play “reciprocal pattycake,” he calls THE SMILING LIEUTENANT (1931) “too ooh-la-la by half,” and TROUBLE IN PARADISE (1932), he says, has “style to the nth degree.” Eyman often provides instructive statistics, such as the claim that in 1930 the profits for Paramount, Lubitsch’s studio, far exceeded those of any other, including giant Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). The lack of endnotes, unfortunately, prevents readers from finding the exact source of such information. Nevertheless, readers with a built-in interest in Lubitsch, film comedy, or Hollywood’s Golden Age should rightly overlook these lapses and enjoy Eyman’s biography.