Ernst Lubitsch’s meteoric German career spanned ten years, with him acting in about a dozen films before directing several dozen shorts and twelve features. The shorts Lubitsch featured in or directed were mainly comedies or parodies, while his features alternated between comedies and historical melodramas. Lubitsch’s career in Hollywood would last 24 years during which he made ten silent and seventeen sound features as well as produced a number of additional films at Paramount Studios while he was Head of Production. Lubitsch was a prolific filmmaker and a workaholic.
Lubitsch (1892-1947) was born the son of a Berlin draper and it had been expected that he would continue in his father’s business (he did work as an assistant in his father’s shop). Lubitsch, however, had other plans; he wished to become a theatre actor and joined Max Reinhardt’s theatre company in Berlin in 1911, playing, amongst other parts, those of the Second Gravedigger in Hamlet, and the roles of Wagner and Famulus in Faust. His most important role, however, was as Yeggar, the tragic hunchback clown in Friedrich Freska’s stage pantomime Sumurun, a work which Lubitsch would later revisit as his acting swan song for his film version of the play. It was while under the tutelage of Reinhardt that Lubitsch developed an appreciation of performance and acquired his ability to stage large crowd scenes. This influence is best demonstrated by the staging of the director’s historical epics and the vibrant dancehall and nightclub scenes that mark many of his silent movies (such as that found in So This is Paris, 1926). The latter are often remarkable for their ability to create the illusion of sound. He also built a strong ensemble of performers around him, including Emil Jannings, during his time with Reinhardt.
Lubitsch, like many other theatrical performers in Germany and the United States, supplemented his meager income by taking film work (as an actor and stagehand). The theatre had the prestige, but the movies paid the money. Lubitsch quit the theatre in 1913 to pursue an acting career in movies, taking the lead role in just his third film. This quickly led to Lubitsch’s first important role in Die Firma Heiratet (The Firm Weds, 1914), and then his most successful performance in its sequel, Der Stolz der Firma (The Pride of the Firm, 1914). Paradoxically, this success caused Lubitsch to be typecast. To broaden his appeal, he decided to write different roles for himself and sold these to the producer Paul Davidson, in whose films he had regularly featured. Lubitsch was now permitted to direct, and slowly his reputation as a director grew.
Schuhpalast Pinkus (Pinkus Shoe Palace) marks an important milestone in Lubitsch’s career. It was the first three-reel featurette he was permitted to make, after twenty or thirty (1) one- and two-reel shorts. It also shows his growing ambition. The film marks the end of the first phase of Lubitsch’s career; the next phase displaying a wider range of genres and moods, as well as greater experimentation with film form.
Schuhpalast Pinkus was co-written with fellow actors Hanns Kräly and Erich Schönfelder. Kräly would continue to write for Lubitsch in Hollywood up till the end of the silent era and Schönfelder became a director, combining this with acting until his death in Germany in the early 1930s. This was also the first Lubitsch film to feature Ossi Oswalda, with the novice actress in the small role of a female “imp”. By the end of the 1910s, Oswalda would be enormously popular in Germany thanks to Lubitsch, who regularly cast her as the vivacious young lead of his comedies. Lubitsch would also become a hugely popular director in Germany, appealing to every age, gender and social class.
Schuhpalast Pinkus sticks to the formula of Lubitsch’s earlier comedies. The film was made for a mass audience and will now be unfamiliar to those only acquainted with Lubitsch’s sophisticated comedies of the 1930s and 1940s. Lubitsch’s early films were a product of their era, addressing the audience’s senses and emotions. They exhibited flagrant consumerism (the blatant advertising of shoes and the stores that provided them for the film) and an inflating sense of social value and position (Pinkus can no longer run a shoe store, he must manage a Shoe Palace). Like Lubitsch’s earlier films, it draws upon Jewish stereotypes to create its humour (2). It documents the rise and rise of a brazen, opportunistic, self-centred and driven shop assistant (Sali Pinkus, played by Lubitsch). The humour is broad, slapstick and populist, and as unsubtle as the pre-1920 films Buster Keaton made with Fatty Arbuckle. Sycophantic, cunning, overly confident, vulgar, lazy and insolent, Pinkus is as flippant and cruel as Chaplin’s Tramp. Large, unattractive and incessantly chomping cigars, Lubitsch’s persona contains an unadulterated kinetic energy. The momentum of his performance powers the narrative and dominates the image with pure narcissism. In this regard, his role is similar to the performances of his regular German actresses Ossi Oswalda and Pola Negri. Of the young director, Andrew Sarris would never have written: “In the well-mannered, good-natured world of Ernst Lubitsch, grace transcends purpose” (3). But as in the American films, Lubitsch the director doesn’t pass judgement on his fallible heroes – they still win and get the girl at the end of the film. Schuhpalast Pinkus was the last time Lubitsch would use the familiar milieu of the “shop around the corner” until his late American classic in 1940.
By 1919, Lubitsch had no rivals, artistically or commercially. Fritz Lang and Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau had just begun their directorial careers and, technically, Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920) was years behind Lubitsch’s films. That year Lubitsch produced three hugely successful features – Die Austernprinzessin (The Oyster Princess), Madame Dubarry, and Die Puppe (The Doll). As a reward he was given carte blanche by the Ufa production heads and decided to revisit the terrain of his early comedies with Kohlhiesels Töchter (Kohlhiesel’s Daughters). The film is a reworking of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew set in the Bavarian Alps. The film utilises the play’s main conceits: Peter Xaver (Emil Jannings), a love-struck hulk cannot marry Gretel (Henny Porten) until her older ill-tempered sister (Liesel, also Porten) is married. This plot follows an old Teutonic tradition and allows Lubitsch to have loads of fun playing with Bavarian caricatures. The characters are dim-witted (already apparent in the opening scene) and arrogant. Gretel wears dirndls (a traditional Bavarian costume, the female equivalent of lederhosen) throughout the film and there is a beer hall scene and sausage eating as well. As the film was shot on location, glistening alpine peaks complete the overriding sense of cliché.
As was Lubitsch’s method, he assembled his usual crew for Kohlhiesels Töchter, including scriptwriter Kräly and cinematographer Theodor Sparkuhl. Sparkuhl began his association with Lubitsch in 1916 and it continued until Die Flamme in 1923, the director’s final German film. With the coming of sound, Sparkhul worked in the United Kingdom and France (most notably on Renoir’s La Chienne ), before moving to the United States where he worked continuously until 1946. The male lead of the film was given to Jannings, Lubitsch’s long-time friend, an actor who had already appeared in several of the director’s films, most importantly as Louis XV in Madame Dubarry. Henny Porten played the film’s female lead. Porten appeared in the title role of Lubitsch’s subsequent Anna Boleyn (1920), and went on to have a 50-year career in the movies.
The performances in Kohlhiesels Töchter are ratcheted up a level, as is apt for a slapstick comedy, especially one dealing with Bavarian yokels. Jannings, with over-caked, theatrical makeup, appears as an expansive bully who chomps through cigars. He is also rude to a group of young women who want to dance, and threatens to break his friend’s bones when he sees him as a potential rival for Gretel’s affection. When Xaver dances with Gretel at the beer hall the oversized performances and egos push everyone else off the dance floor, and spectators are left cowering at the edge of the frame. But Porten is the revelation of the film in the double role of the sisters She even appears simultaneously on screen a couple of times, thanks to the wonders of trick photography. But the disparity of these performances means that it is almost a shock to discover that it is the same actress playing both roles. As Gretel, Porten is graceful, ornate and impulsive, albeit vain and dumb. As Liesel she “lets rip”, wears no (or little) make-up, wears her hair in a pointy bun, and swaggers around like an uncoordinated farmhand. She is uncouth and rude, throwing her arms around wildly and eating with her mouth open. She’s a lot of fun. Initially the role of Gretel was much larger than that of Liesel, but once Lubitsch saw the rushes he realised he needed to expand the latter role at the expense of Gretel.
As with many of Lubitsch’s films, the opening scene sets the tone. A Yiddish hawker appears selling trinkets. Young Gretel is fooled by his salesmanship and buys a cheap brooch. Liesel, on the other hand, won’t stand for any of his nonsense and throws him out. The scene nicely illustrates the strong visual and physical humour of early Lubitsch, as well as his ongoing fascination with language. In his Hollywood films, Lubitsch was able to subvert the Production Code through the clever use of language. In the early silent films, Lubitsch frequently used slang (in the intertitles), especially Yiddish, but here he also incorporates some Bavarian colloquialisms. The characters nevertheless display their foibles, dreams and weaknesses, as in his later films. With other directors the characters would be damned for their shortcomings, however, we know from the beginning that the conflict in the film will be resolved with minimal adverse consequences for the protagonists. Lubitsch’s films are ultimately optimistic and he never passes judgement on these fallible humans. For Lubitsch love is never exclusive and it usually favours those who least deserve it. Kohlhiesels Töchter was Lubitsch’s greatest German success and was remade at least three times in 1930 (with Porten producing), 1943 and 1962. It remained one of Lubitsch’s favourite German comedies. He quickly followed up its success with another comedy based on Shakespeare and filmed on location in Bavaria, Romeo und Julia im Schnee (Romeo and Juliet in the Snow, 1920).
- This is according to Hanns Kräly, and is many times greater in number than the list of early shorts attributed to Lubitsch in any current filmography. Perhaps most of the additional titles have been lost.
- This shouldn’t be conflated with the Nazi’s future anti-Semitism. Just as modern comedies use a variety of stereotypes to comic effect, Lubitsch was not averse to using caricatures to his comic advantage. Alongside the frequent use of Jewish stereotypes in his early comedies, Lubitsch also lampoons Bavarians and other ethnicities in Kohlhiesels Töchter and his other films.
- Andrew Sarris, The American Cinema: Directors and Directions, 1929-1968, E. P. Dutton, New York, 1968, p. 66.
Schuhpalast Pinkus/Pinkus Shoe Palace (1916 Germany 60 mins @ 18fps)
Prod Co: Projektions-AG Union (PAGU) Dir: Ernst Lubitsch Scr: Hanns Kräly, Erich Schönfelder
Cast: Ernst Lubitsch, Guido Herzfeld, Else Kentner, Hanns Kräly, Ossi Oswalda, Fritz Rasp.
Kohlhiesels Töchter (1920 Germany 61 mins @ 18fps)
Prod Co: Messter Film Dir: Ernst Lubitsch Scr: Hanns Kräly, Ernst Lubitsch, from a story by Friedrich Raff and Julius Urgiss Phot: Theodor Sparkuhl Art Dir: Jack Winter, Hans Baluschek [uncredited] Cos Des: Jan Baluschek
Cast: Emil Jannings, Henny Porten, Gustav von Wangenheim, Jakob Tiedtke, Willi Prager