By the early 1920s, German director Ernst Lubitsch had established a reputation as a master of two genres—grand historical epics and sparkling comedies. American audiences happily paid to see his films as well, and superstar Mary Pickford, eager to leave behind little girl roles for sophisticated adult ones, invited Lubitsch to direct her in Hollywood. With the postwar German economy in disarray and the American-funded studio where Lubitsch had his production company shut down, he accepted Pickford’s offer and left Germany in late 1922. The director and star were not a good match, but their 1923 film Rosita did well enough at the box office that the newly-incorporated Warner Bros. studio, seeing its chance to enter the big leagues with the help of a prestigious European director, offered the recent émigré a contract. He signed a six-film, three-year deal that gave him unprecedented control, including provisions for his own production unit. In 1926, after four Warner pictures (plus one loan-out to Paramount) and escalating tensions with head of production Jack Warner, Lubitsch made what turned out to be his final film for the studio, So This Is Paris.
Based on an 1872 French play Le Réveillon—also the basis for Johann Strauss’s operetta Die Fledermaus—the film is a sophisticated comedy about two married couples whose wandering eyes land on each others’ spouses. This romantic roundelay is familiar territory for fans of Lubitsch’s sound comedies, in which sex is the primary undercurrent and motivation for many of the characters. So This Is Paris’s visual inventiveness is proof positive that the famed “Lubitsch Touch” (a press agent phrasing that came to define the director’s distinctive combination of style and wit) was not dependent on language. The film also presages his 1930s musicals, and the climactic Artists Ball, featuring a Charleston contest, is kinetic, kaleidoscopic, the visual equivalent of music—it throbs and vibrates with music. As Lubitsch biographer Scott Eyman writes, the scene “amounts to one of the silent cinema’s most audacious leaps toward the musical.” Also very Lubitschean is some sly Freudian business with a cane. Lubitsch had left Germany before the full flowering of Weimar excess, but the sexual innuendo for which he became famous is more playful than decadent, and flamboyant jazz-era Hollywood was a perfect fit for his witty visual commentary. As Lubitsch himself noted in 1929 about his so-called “touch” to film journalist Herman G. Weinberg, “The camera should comment, insinuate, make an epigram … We’re telling stories with pictures so we must try to make the pictures as expressive as we can.”
So This Is Paris’s stars, while less familiar to contemporary audiences, were either major stars or promising newcomers in the 1920s. Monte Blue had worked with Griffith and DeMille in the 1910s and by the early ’20s had become a well-known leading man, romancing stars onscreen such as Swanson, Bow, and, in Lubitsch’s 1924 The Marriage Circle, Florence Vidor and Marie Prevost. During the sound era, he segued into supporting roles. Patsy Ruth Miller, who was discovered by Alla Nazimova, retired from the screen early in the sound era. Lilyan Tashman was described by a fan magazine writer as “the most gleaming, glittering, moderne, hard-surfaced and distingué woman in all of Hollywood.” André Beranger, the Australian-born George Beringer who changed his name and claimed to be French, appeared in more than 140 films between 1913 and 1950. One actress with a bit part in So This Is Paris had a bigger career in sound films than all four of the film’s stars: Myrna Loy as the saucy maid. Sadly, Loy never worked with Lubitsch again. Neither did Patsy Ruth Miller who had fond memories of Lubitsch. “I adored that man,” she told film historian Kevin Brownlow. “Here was a director who directed. ‘I have worked for months,’ he told us, ‘and every scene the writer and I have visualized. We’ve done it to the best of our ability. And if there is anything an actor feels he cannot do—we will not change the scene, we will change the actor.’”
The New York papers raved about So This Is Paris when it premiered. The Herald Tribune’s Richard Watts didn’t spare the superlatives: “The most uproarious of his farces, the most hilarious of his works, the funniest comedy imaginable … adult and magnificent satirical farce.” John S. Cohen of the Sun compared Lubitsch to the great literary satirists. “We all know, of course, that Lubitsch is one of the two most skillful cinema directors in the world … Let us then remain cognizant of the fact that—as a mind—Lubitsch belongs in the varying classes that include Carroll, Wilde, Congreve.”
New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall described the audience reaction to the Charleston sequence: “This dazzling episode is like the dream of a man after drinking more than his share of wine at such an event. The comedy in this film had, up to that time, kept the audience in constant explosions of laughter, but the startling dissolving scenic effects and varied ‘shots’ elicited a hearty round of applause.”
None of the plaudits could salvage the director’s relationship with Warner Bros., however. Even before beginning So This Is Paris, Lubitsch, who was used to working without executive supervision and annoyed by Jack Warner’s meddling, had tried unsuccessfully to buy out his contract. Now, with So This Is Paris completed, he owed the studio one final film, but his battles with Jack Warner continued and they agreed to part ways. Now much in demand, Lubitsch had no problem negotiating new deals with both Paramount and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
In the two decades that followed, Lubitsch found his métier with sophisticated, dazzling films. His first talking picture, the 1929 operetta The Love Parade, starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeannette MacDonald, which film historian Theodore Huff declared “the first truly cinematic screen musical in America,” was clever and inventive. It was quickly followed by two more early sound musicals, Monte Carlo and The Smiling Lieutenant. All of them pushed the boundaries of what a musical could be. Other standouts include the sleek romantic triangles Trouble in Paradise and Design for Living at Paramount in the early thirties, and the charming classics Ninotchka and The Shop Around the Corner at MGM during Hollywood’s Golden Age. Because of Lubitsch’s disciplined and economical working methods Paramount named him head of production at a time when the studio was struggling to recover from bankruptcy. Remarkably, Lubitsch never received an Academy Award, yet his films earned both critical approval and some popular success even as his health prematurely declined. He closed out his career at 20th Century Fox. In 1947, Lubitsch died of heart disease at age fifty-five. Billy Wilder, a Lubitsch protégé and fellow German import, later recalled an exchange with another Hollywood titan, director William Wyler. As they left the funeral, Wilder said wistfully, “No more Lubitsch,” and Wyler replied, “Worse than that, no more Lubitsch films.”
Presented at A Day of Silents 2016 with live music by Donald Sosin