1947: A Man Who Made Movies About Sex Before One Could Say 'Sex' Dies

'Friendly gargoyle' Ernst Lubitsch hit home with his films, all driven by a sensuality that the world couldn't admit to, but thoroughly enjoyed.

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Ernst Lubitsch and his wife, Helene Kraus. They are seated in folding chairs outside in the sun. Helene sits with legs crossed at the ankles, and is wearing a long-skirted suit and loose jacket that appear grey in this black & white photograph, and a white shirt. One arm reaches behind Ernst's shoulder. He is sitting cross-legged, his arms folded on his lap. They are smiling at each other.
Ernst Lubitsch and his wife, Helene Kraus.Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On November 30, 1947, filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch died, killed by heart disease at age 55, after a brief life spent massively entertaining audiences with subtle sexuality on screen. Lubitsch’s career spanned from Berlin to Hollywood, and silent movies to talkies – with his work in each of those realms both prolific and successful. Behind the lightness and flippancy of his romantic comedies and musicals lay a sophistication and human understanding that came to be known as the “Lubitsch touch.”

Lubitsch’s movies – which included “Ninotchka,” “The Shop Around the Corner” and “To Be or Not to Be” -- were all about sex, but since the rules and mores of the American film industry prior to World War II insisted that sex didn’t exist, he had to say much of what he wanted through implication and hint.As film historian Ephraim Katz described it, Lubitsch was a master at such communication: his “incisive pictorial detail, his perfect timing, the nuances of gesture and facial expression enabled his performers to reveal in a single brief shot the psychology of the characters they were playing.” 

Face of a 'friendly gargoyle'

Ernst Lubitsch was born on January 29, 1892, in Berlin, Germany. His father, Simon (or Simcha) Lubitsch, from the Russian city of Grodno (today in Belarus), was a tailor who made and sold women’s clothes. His mother, the former Anna Lindenstaedt, was from the German town of Wriezen, and because of her better German and more outgoing personality, she ran the retail side of Simon’s successful shop.

Ernst, the youngest of four siblings, hated school from early on, and his formal education ended when he quit the Sophien Gymnasium at age 16. By then, he had discovered acting, and so he spent his days keeping the books for the family business and his nights performing in local cabarets and music halls.

In 1911, when he was 19, Lubitsch was accepted into Max Reinhardt’s prestigious Deutsches Theater, where he acted in classics by Shakespeare, Moliere and the like.

To supplement his income, he found work at Berlin’s Bioscope movie studios as an apprentice and handyman. This behind-the-scenes work soon led to acting roles, and in 1913, Lubitsch, whom biographer Scott Eyman described as possessing a face like “a friendly gargoyle,” began appearing in a series of comic shorts about a Jewish character named Meyer. Soon, he was also writing and directing these highly popular films.

Ernst Lubitsch - Scene from The Merry Widow (1934) Credit: YouTube

By the time Lubitsch left Germany for Hollywood, having been invited by Mary Pickford to direct her in the 1923 “Rosita,” he had directed some 40 movies, which included some of the first German pictures to be distributed abroad. Although he and Pickford did not get along well, the silent “Rosita” was well-received, and led to a three-year, six-movie contract with Warner Bros., with full artistic control.

Mocking Communists and Hitler

Lubitsch made “The Love Parade,” his first sound film, in 1929. An operetta and the first of five Lubitsch pictures starring Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette McDonald, it won him his second nomination for Best Director. Lubitsch was now at Paramount, which in 1935 named him head of production, a headache of a position that he was happy to relinquish after a year, returning to directing exclusively.

Ninotchka clip - Don't Make An Issue of My Womanhood (1939)Credit: YouTube

It was at MGM, where he moved in 1939, that Lubitsch made his most remembered films, beginning with “Ninotchka,” in which Greta Garbo, in a rare comedy (ads for the movie boasted that “Garbo Laughs!”), plays an Soviet official who comes to Paris on a state mission, and is gradually won over by the City of Light and by the debonair and decadent Melvyn Douglas.

Though hardly a political filmmaker, Lubitsch also knew how to mock Hitler – in particular in “To Be or Not to Be” (1942) – who supposedly ordered a billboard displaying Lubitsch’s photo to be mounted in a Berlin train station, bearing the caption, “The Archetypal Jew.”

After a serious heart attack in 1943, a weakened Lubitsch several times had to turn to Otto Preminger to complete a production for him. “Heaven Can Wait,” from that year, was the last movie he made with his full powers.

In March 1947, he was awarded an honorary Oscar for his “25-year contribution to motion pictures.” By November 30, Lubitsch was dead.

To Be or Not To Be — "Heil Myself"Credit: YouTube