Out of the past

Sixty-year-old movies seem contemporary indeed.


runs April 12-25 at Grand Illusion

THE AD SLOGAN Hollywood devised for Ernst Lubitsch (1892-1947) cuts both ways. "The Lubitsch touch" was meant to signal a sophisticated European pedigree for the movies the German-born director began making here in 1923. Studios eagerly promoted his subtlety over their usual slapstick, but today he looks like the father of the well-wrought sitcom. No innovator, his meticulous crafting of genre material makes Lubitsch both hugely influential and fundamentally conservative.

This two-week retrospective begins with 1939's Ninotchka (April 12-14), famous for being Greta Garbo's first comedy. It's delightful despite its staginess, as our dour Bolshevik heroine (Garbo) is corrupted by Paris and falls for an aristocrat (Melvyn Douglas). Throughout, the pointillist Lubitsch lavishes attention on individual gags and comic details without transcending convention—opposites attract, love trumps politics, Paris outshines Moscow, champagne unlocks the heart.

Oddly, Ninotchka is most lively for the 20 minutes before Garbo arrives. That's why the three Soviet apparatchiks are so enduringly funny: The fish-out-of water humor of their being insidiously Westernized—yet still peasants at their core—portends The Beverly Hillbillies. (Garbo is like the glamorous guest star who doesn't belong.)

Situation comedy relies on fixed types perpetually off balance but unable to learn from their foibles. ("This week on Friends, Joey pretends to be a Ph.D. to impress a sexy physicist!") Lubitsch's vaunted touch often amounts to how he reveals these signature character traits—becoming running gags, however refined. In Ninotchka, Garbo's abrupt, unconvincing transformation is both inevitable (the love story demands it) and inadvisable (it changes her character). At the same time, because the movie's so pleasing, you want the romantic tension to last for, say, five or six seasons—plus reruns.

BY CONTRAST, though 1934's The Merry Widow (April 16-18) is considerably livelier, you're glad when it's over. The chestnut costume musical stars Maurice Chevalier as a rake and Jeanette MacDonald as the rich widow his government orders him to seduce. Although the bits of comic business and vaudeville-level gags keep the mood light between cumbersome production numbers, Lubitsch's lingering devotion to a 19th-century Austro-Hungarian never-never land proves cloying. (When in doubt—waltz!) His writers' Americanized zingers are often funnier than his deft elisions of sex. (Half the film is set in a Moulin Rouge-style whorehouse/music hall.) And like Ninotchka, you know where everything's going too long before you get there.

1940's endearing The Shop Around the Corner (April 19-21) is the ber-template for workplace situation comedies like Just Shoot Me. Bickering co-workers Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan are unwitting pen pals in love; around them swirls a zany assortment of supporting characters. Restage the thing in a dot-com or a law office, cast it with equally attractive leads, and the Lubitsch touch might shed its historical dust and shine again on prime time.


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