Though it does not please me that Ernst Lubitsch – who, despite his German lineage, is carved into the Mount Rushmore of American sound comedy alongside Howard Hawks, Preston Sturges and Groucho Marx – is little more than a footnote in today’s popular culture, I can at least excuse it as an unavoidable product of the ruthless march of time. Lubitsch’s movies were the height of sophistication in their day; asking modern audiences to keep track of the multitudinous nuances of a ribald masterpiece like Trouble in Paradise hardly seems fair, especially since we’ve been worn down by decades of increasingly on-the-nose coarseness courtesy of Billy Wilder on down to Judd Apatow. And that’s just the good stuff.
Again, I’m almost fine with this. As long as the quality of craft and depth of thought are sufficient to offset the escalating randiness of the material, who really cares if the relatively advanced wordplay of a State and Main gets marketed exclusively to an art house audience? At least thet smart stuff’s still getting made! What’ll iron my trousers with me in them, however, is a self-proclaimed, clearly unknowledgeable "critic" like Michelle Pierce (aka "The Barenaked Critic" – and way to cheapen yourself right out the gate, though I suppose it’s better than "The Filmgoing Fuck-Chassis") receiving column space from a very knowledgeable (if too horny) film journalist like Jeffrey Wells in order to expound on the daring satiric subversiveness of Ernst Lubitsch’s classic To Be or Not to Be… as ineptly remade by that great, great vulgarian Mel Brooks.
As I’m not in the habit of reading the featured columnists on Wells’s Hollywood Elsewhere, I would never have known to be upset over this egregious feat of film ignorance; unfortunately, a commenter in an equally baffling entry regarding Bing Crosby’s twenty-first century obsolescence had to go and do this:
"Apropos of this topic, check out Michelle Pierce’s "Barenaked Critic" column, linked to on this site — she reviews the Mel Brooks remake of To Be Or Not to Be without mentioning (or seeming to be aware of the fact) that it is indeed a remake."
My acceptance of Lubitsch’s marginalization does not extend to the ranks of the internet’s "amateur" film critics. It’s one thing to hop all over the perceived awfulness of Michael Bay’s oeuvre while lacking the education to appreciate his considerable technical fluency; it’s quite another to weigh in on Brooks’s errant To Be or Not to Be redo without once mentioning that it’s based on one of the classic comedies of the 1940s. And yet it isn’t surprising at all that a dilettante of Pierce’s public relations pedigree could make it through the opening credits (and, presumably, pull the title up on the IMDb), and still think nothing of Lubitsch’s name. This is because Lubitsch is a nonentity in today’s Hollywood. If he’s known, it’s as the "mit out sound" German dude who mentored Wilder and inspired You’ve Got Mail.
Were Wilder still alive, he’d be more pissed off about that than anyone. He revered Lubitsch. As he told Cameron Crowe in Conversations with Wilder, "To think as [Lubitsch] did, that is a goal worth having." It’s a goal Wilder strived to attain everyday he wrote; a sign reading "How would Lubitsch Do It?" adorned the wall of his office for most of his career. Whatever it is that is worth celebrating about Wilder’s best films (Ace in the Hole, Double Indemnity, and The Apartment), it’s all directly derived from the Lubitsch "touch". The "touch" is too ineffable to pin down, but, in a sense, it’s about innuendo (i.e. finding a way to say or do something without explicitly saying or doing it). That said, it didn’t solely apply to jokes of a sexual nature; everything – every gag, every plot development, every establishing shot – in a Lubitsch picture is designed to honor the audience’s intelligence by visually and verbally supplying them with information in a sideways manner. You might work a little, but discovering the profound meaning of ephemeral flourishes or recognizing (usually after the fact) the uncommonness of every last detail is exhilarating. Repeat viewings aren’t just desired, they’re essential to fully understanding not just the genius of Lubitsch, but the eerie perfection. And if nothing manmade is truly perfect, then, with Trouble in Paradise, The Shop Around the Corner and To Be or Not to Be, we have conclusive proof that God exists and, in lieu of halting World War II, made romantic comedies for a time in the 1930s and 40s.
I’m not writing this to exclusively lambaste Pierce; despite working in marketing (and we know what Bill Hicks had to say about that), I’m sure she’s a wonderful gal. But her willful ignorance is indicative of a rampant incuriosity plaguing the online film critic community (yesterday’s street-corner blowhards are today’s amateur, online critics). Why, if you love movies enough to write about them, would you choose to be entirely ignorant of Lubitsch’s work? And this is a choice, too, because if you you spend even a little time reading the great critics of the twentieth century, it won’t take long for you to learn that Lubitsch begat Wilder. Since Wilder is (wrongly) considered the Christchild of American comedy, that should be enough to get you watching Lubitsch’s best work (and it’s all readily available, too). And it shouldn’t take you much more than five minutes of To Be or Not to Be to realize you’re bearing witness to greatness ("Mr. Rawitch, what you are, I wouldn’t eat.").
Please don’t take this as elitist kvetching. I’d love nothing more than to visit the CHUD Message Boards every morning and add my thoughts to a rapidly expanding "Ernst Lubitsch Appreciation Thread". But it’s hard to do that when the man continues to be undervalued or outright ignored by an industry that might not exist without his groundbreaking efforts.