For Reel


Heaven Can Wait (1943)
February 5, 2016, 8:03 pm
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Director: Ernst Lubitsch
4.5 Stars
Heaven Can WaitHeaven Can Wait
plays as both a typical confectionary delight from director Ernst Lubitsch and something more obscure and mysterious. The bookending sequence is undeniably memorable, wherein recently deceased Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) resigns himself to a fate in Hell, recounting his life story to a man known simply as His Excellency (Laird Cregar). There’s a profundity in Van Cleve’s resignation–he is in good humor about his new endeavor, utterly convinced of his fate due to his unending shame. If these sequences feel dreamlike in both the narrative content and in the magnificently spacious art deco environment, so too does the rest of the film, which travels through decades in a series of flashbacks. Screenwriter Sam Raphaelson’s script brilliantly deals with ellipses in time–often, years will have passed off-screen, and only through conversation do we learn of a significant character’s passing. Lubitsch’s most profound illustration of this transience is the revealed fate of Martha (Gene Tierney), told in voice-over as the two life-long lovers dance in a ballroom to themselves. For a film that deals consistently with death and even a sense of self-hatred (Van Cleve’s shame being so severe he literally volunteers himself to damnation), it is strangely reassuring and beautiful in the way that it details the life of a more-or-less ordinary man who lived purely for pleasure without doing anything of much substance. It is Hollywood’s only biopic without pretension–the “big” moments don’t play as such because they mark a historical turning point, but because they play as the defining resonances of a life fully lived.

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The Smiling Lieutenant (1931)
February 5, 2016, 7:19 pm
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Director: Ernst Lubitsch
3.5 Stars
The Smiling LieutenantErnst Lubitsch, who made a career by poking jabs at aristocracy, delivers what might be his most condensed rebuttal against the traditions of old in The Smiling Lieutenant. In the climax, Princess Anna (Miriam Hopkins) confronts the woman (Claudette Colbert) that her new husband (Maurice Chevalier) has been having an affair with. Instead of a fiery battle between the two women, they treat each other with enormous compassion and respect–it’s an uncharacteristic moment of womanly bonding, showing a certain emotional maturity that Chevalier’s character is wrought as lacking (in fact, he’s often compared to a child). Colbert’s Franzi eventually gives up her connection with Chevalier while simultaneously giving Anna a lesson about what it is to live freely and with confidence. The resulting number, “Jazz Up Your Lingerie”, involves both actresses at their best, and aside from its mere pleasantries, marks a memorable transition between a Victorian sensibility and the new Jazz Age. Some critics have misinterpreted Anna’s transformation as a humiliation and a compromise, neglecting the fact that Anna has shown this passion previously–look no further than her glee when she discovers exactly what a wink means. The Smiling Lieutenant doesn’t rate alongside Lubitsch’s funniest pictures–in fact, it’s actually quite depressing, involving three sympathetic characters caught in a miserable situation–but its third act alone makes it worthwhile viewing. Additionally, although all the cast is on point, Hopkins is particularly terrific, her performance in the early part of the film never so stuffy that she loses a core sense of humanity.



The Love Parade (1929)
February 5, 2016, 7:16 pm
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Director: Ernst Lubitsch
4 Stars
The Love ParadeThe Love Parade might be the kinkiest film made in Hollywood’s Golden Age, its pleasures involving the shifting sadomasochistic relationship between a Queen (Jeanette MacDonald) and the man she makes her love slave (Maurice Chevalier). If that approach isn’t titillating enough on its own, director Ernst Lubitsch makes this a picture very much about voyeurism, riddling the material with games of seeing and not seeing. When Chevalier proclaims his devotion in the musical number “Anything to Please the Queen”, Lubitsch doesn’t simply show the two lovers in the throes of courtship, but cuts to a man peaking through a curtain to watch them. Similarly, not long after, a crowd of onlookers discuss the behavior of the lovers on their date, giving a play-by-play commentary as they enter the bedroom together. Only Hitchcock revels in this level of fetishism–calling this a romantic comedy almost seems too polite. The result is one of the most agreeable and pleasant musicals of its time (it was actually the first non-revue movie musical), an indisputable touchstone in the Battle of the Sexes and an all-in-all sheer delight. Complimenting the relationship between Chevalier and MacDonald is a great sub-plot involving Lupino Lane and Lillian Roth. If Lane initially seems grating in his earliest appearances, his dance number brings the same thrills as Donald O’Connor in Singin’ in the Rain, showing an acrobatic prowess that defies our expectations about what a human being can physically make himself do.



To Be or Not to Be (1942)
January 4, 2015, 7:48 pm
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Director: Ernst Lubitsch
4 Stars
To Be or Not To BeDirector Ernst Lubitsch’s most radical film was understandably not met with universal appreciation at the time of its release. Making jokes involving the dire circumstances of the era didn’t sit well with many audiences, including New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, who said, “To say it is callous and macabre is understating the case.” It is a misunderstanding, however, to suggest that To Be or Not to Be is as simple as a making light of the Nazi agenda. While it undoubtedly does have its fun at the expense of fascism, it is most representative of Lubitsch’s particular skill at mixing comedy with tragedy. That is, the film has remained such a classic because of the precarious balance it strikes in both lampooning the Nazi cause and in doing justice to the high stakes horror of the situation. The multitude of hilarious inflections of “Heil Hitler!” never undermines the fact that men are performing as mindless machines for the most evil of causes. Jack Benny, who Lubitsch had in mind from the inception of the project, is perfectly cast for this type of production. The corners of his lips are always pointed downwards in a half-frown, his one-liners delivered with a caustic cynicism. His is one of the great comedic performances of the period.



That Uncertain Feeling (1941)
June 13, 2014, 12:14 am
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Director: Ernst Lubitsch
3 Stars
That Uncertain FeelingThe opening title card of That Uncertain Feeling characterizes men of masters of the world–fearless conquerers who’ve championed their domain… well, all but the ladies’ room, where they’ll never set foot inside. Given this start, one would assume that this would be the set up for a competitive battle of the sexes. Rather than an even-handed contest pitting wife against husband, however, the picture involves little more than a husband’s elaborate revenge fantasy against a woman who is ridiculed for her lack of producing excitement. Calling a Hollywood film from this period so conservative as to be misogynistic is beside the point, but it’s a grand disappointment that Merle Oberon can’t hold a candle to some of Lubitsch’s best leading ladies. She plays the straight woman and is so suffocated by her co-stars that she might as well serve as part of the production design. The same can’t be said for Burgess Meredith as the man she begins an affair with. He gives her culture and presumably the sex that her husband won’t, but the fact that he parades through the picture like a capricious nine-year-old makes their dynamic hardly convincing. Because it’s Lubitsch, the picture has worthwhile moments, but largely it’s a forgettable affair–rote and possessing an anti-intellectual bent that carries its own off-putting brand of snobbishness.



Design for Living (1933)
January 19, 2012, 12:18 am
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Director: Ernst Lubitsch

Loosely adapted from Noël Coward’s play by arguably the greatest writer in Hollywood history, Ben Hecht, Design for Living is a pre-Code comedy with a liberalism in dealing with sex that was rarely seen in American films, even in those glorious few years before Joseph Breen’s Production Code was rigorously enforced. Neither Hecht nor director Ernst Lubitsch were prudes, certainly, and their ways with innuendo would continue well into the Hays Era, but the ménage à trois at the center of this picture depicts the human spirit at its most lustful and pleasure-seeking. What is most startling about the material is that it is a woman with a teeming appetite – not the other way around, which is mentioned as often being the case in Hecht’s script – and, as Miriam Hopkins kisses one lover after the other before the end credits, Design for Living cements itself as a proto-feminist monument unlike any other. In addition to the pleasantries that one can find simply in the freeness with which this picture deals with romantic possibilities, it is wrongfully overlooked as minor Lubitsch. The unforgettable opening sequence is the most charming of meet cutes, and in it, Lubitsch not only teases the audience with a lack of dialogue for several minutes, but he then has the audacity to have his characters speak in French. Clever, indeed, and a technique that distances the piece far from the source material into something that is self-consciously cinematic, so utterly in control by a master of his form.