“What would Lubitsch do?” a sign in Billy Wilder’s office famously read. It was both a testament to Wilder’s respect for the German-born director (for whom he co-wrote two films) and a tribute to Ernst Lubitsch’s ability to balance light comedy with resonant humanity.
If you love classic film, you love Lubitsch. From his cheeky early musicals like THE SMILING LIEUTENANT, to seminal Pre-Codes like the free love farce DESIGN FOR LIVING, to romantic comedies like NINOTCHKA and THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER, Lubitsch had a wit, elegance, and attention to detail that is largely unmatched.
But there’s another Lubitsch – a silent film stylist who mastered the art form and used the absence of dialogue as a storytelling tool. This is a Lubitsch with whom some classic film fans (like me, admittedly) have not much experience. But thanks to the Film Society of Lincoln Center, I’m one step closer to correcting that oversight.
On Sunday, the Film Society presented an “ultra-rare” screening of Lubitsch’s THREE WOMEN as part of the 24th annual New York Jewish Film Festival with an introduction by Variety chief film critic Scott Foundas. The 1924 film (which is not available legitimately on DVD or illegitimately on YouTube, as far as I can tell) unspooled in a newly restored 35 mm print from the George Eastman House, with delightful live accompaniment by Donald Sosin on piano.
After a successful career as both actor and director in Germany, Lubitsch was lured to America in 1922 with a contract from producer/superstar/United Artists co-founder Mary Pickford. Their first project was ROSITA, an adaptation of the comic opera Don César de Bazan, with Pickford in a rare adult role as a street singer. The film was not a success, nor was the behind-the-scenes collaboration between producer and director.
“They clashed like cats and dogs,” Foundas said.
Although Lubitsch usually prevailed in their disagreements, the director questioned whether Pickford and U.A. were the right partners. Then Warner Bros. entered the picture.
“Lubitsch was used to making movies in Germany on his own terms: final cut, you obey me, nobody tells me what to do. That was not his experience with Mary Pickford,” Foundas said. “Warner Bros. offered him what, at the time, was fairly unprecedented. ROSITA hadn’t even opened yet, but they were willing to give him a contract to make films upon which he would have complete control over everything except budget.”
Lubitsch signed with the studio and made THE MARRIAGE CIRCLE, a comedy with Adophe Menjou and Marie Prevost. Foundas called the film – which was remade by Lubitsch and George Cukor in 1932 as the comic musical ONE HOUR WITH YOU – one of the director’s “silent masterpieces.” THREE WOMEN, which also features Prevost in a small but pivotal role, was next.
“These actors were used to churning out these fast Warner Bros. quickies by directors who moved very quickly,” Foundas said. “Marie Prevost is on the record as saying it was an awkward experience for her at first, because she didn’t know what he wanted when he kept doing all these takes. Eventually she understood, and it gave her a new perspective on the art of acting.”
Foundas said the director’s repetition of incidental things like walking through a door contributed to the subtle nuances of behavior that became his trademark. And this is on full display in THREE WOMEN, wherein a romantic quadrangle implodes with tragic results.
Wealthy widow Mable Wilton (Pauline Frederick) – the first of the titular WOMEN – meets cute with lothario Edmund Lamont (Lew Cody) at the bottom of a playground slide built in the ballroom of a Jazz Age Bacchanal. Mable is just young enough to pass for thirty-ish, but old enough that she needs to dispatch her nearly adult daughter to boarding school to camouflage impending dowager-dom. Lamont doesn’t care about her age, because he doesn’t care about her. This is obvious to everyone, of course. Except Mable.
Cut to school, where Jeannie Wilton (May McAvoy) – the second of the WOMEN – is celebrating her 18th birthday (accompanied by Donald Sosin’s buoyantly jazzy rendition of “Happy Birthday.”) In a set piece that’s typical Lubitsch, her milquetoast med-student beau Fred (Pierre Gendron) tries to maneuver Jeannie out the door, only to be repeatedly blocked by wildly dancing couples. Before Fred can present his gift – a bracelet bought from a jeweler played unstereotypically (for the era) by Max Davison – Jeannie opens an ostentatious package from her mother. Fred realizes he’s too broke to marry a rich girl, so he punts on his proposal.
Jeannie heads off to the big City (with some fun 1924 footage of the exterior of Grand Central Station) and surprises her mother with an unplanned visit. Lamont knows who she is, but she doesn’t know who he is, so he starts pursuing Jeannie behind Mable’s back. Inexplicably, his wooing works, and soon THREE WOMEN transforms into bedroom farce, with the creepy Casanova dating both generations of Wilton women.
The quadrangle is completed by Woman #3 (Marie Prevost), a flapper Lamont continues to dally with whilst stringing along mother and daughter. Mable eventually discovers the duplicity and tries to save Jeannie, but Lamont is having none of it, and threatens blackmail with embarrassing love letters. This earns him a bullet in the gut, and it earns Mable a trial.
And, in perhaps the most inventive moment of the film, Lubitsch chooses to not reveal the jury’s verdict in a text inter-title. Instead, we watch the behavior on screen to determine Mable’s fate. It’s a moment of storytelling that might have been handled more obviously by a lesser filmmaker.
“You certainly recognize all the signature Lubitsch touches in (in THREE WOMEN),” Foundas concluded. “When it opened in October of 1924, my own publication Variety said, ‘This is as pretty a piece of direction as has been seen on screen in some time.’ And I have a feeling that you will agree.”
The New York Jewish Film Festival continues through January 29 with more than 40 contemporary and classic films, documentaries, and shorts. For more details, click here or visit the Film Society of Lincoln Center website.