When a Gesture Told All : ERNST LUBITSCH: Laughter in Paradise, By Scott Eyman (Simon & Schuster; $27.50; 416 pp.)

Dave Kehr writes about movies for the New York Daily News

It is unlikely that the Hollywood of 1993 would have much use for Ernst Lubitsch, or he for it. The undisputed master of the sophisticated sex comedy ("Trouble in Paradise," "Ninotchka" and "Design for Living" are among the director's best-loved films of the 1930s), Lubitsch was also the inventor of a unique film language, based on suggestion, inference, metaphor and ellipsis. In a medium invented to show everything, he showed nothing and yet he revealed all.

If anything, the movies have evolved away from Lubitsch. With the relaxation of censorship codes on one hand and the breathtaking progress of computerized special effects on the other, there are very few human acts that can't be depicted and few imaginings that can't be made thuddingly concrete.

There have been a few features lately, such as Martin Scorsese's "The Age of Innocence" and the Merchant-Ivory "Remains of the Day," that have struggled to free themselves from the burden of sexual literalness, though at the cost of a creeping puritanism that couldn't be further removed from the Lubitsch spirit--a delicate blend of personal pleasure-seeking and moral responsibility, of indulgence and nobility, that stands as the definition of a certain, vanished kind of civilization.

One looks in vain for the source of that spirit in Scott Eyman's new biography, "Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise." Eyman, a film critic for the Palm Beach Post and the author of a previous biography of Mary Pickford, does a superlative job of arranging the facts of Lubitsch's life, though he misses the connection between the life and the work.

In the end, Eyman doesn't tell us how or why this son of a Berlin tailor, a physically unattractive, ill-traveled man whose relations with women were timid and problematical, was able to create such a sophisticated language and such a fully realized world, a world that lay entirely beyond his experience if indeed it existed at all.

Born in 1892, the youngest of four children, Lubitsch was expected to enter his father's business, and for a time worked as a shop assistant--an experience Lubitsch would draw on for his 1940 masterpiece "The Shop Around the Corner." But the theatrical bug bit early, and Lubitsch began taking acting lessons at night, joining Max Reinhardt's celebrated stage company at the age of 19.

Success in comic roles on the stage led to offers of film work, and in 1914 he appeared in featured parts in two comedies--"The Firm Marries" and "The Pride of the Firm." The latter survives and finds Lubitsch as a leering, grossly sexual ethnic caricature--a Polish Jew who arrives in Berlin, scrapes together the money for a new suit and begins aggressively scaling the social ladder, eventually succeeding in marrying the boss's daughter. The film's final shot is a double exposure that compares the new, improved Lubitsch to the scruffy immigrant who arrived in Berlin; the improvement is physical but not moral.

The degree of self-loathing in this portrait is astounding--"One could affirm without exaggeration," wrote French critic Jean-Louis Comolli in 1985, "that 'The Pride of the Firm,' and doubtless the whole series of films that followed, is the most anti-Semitic film ever made, if Lubitsch weren't Jewish himself"--yet Eyman glosses over this vital clue to his subject's character in a few embarrassed paragraphs.

The process of self-denial and self-invention, treated with such contempt and suspicion in early comedies, would become Lubitsch's primary approach to life. The ethnic comedian reinvented himself as a director of sweeping historical spectacles (much on the model of his mentor, Max Reinhardt) in a series of films made in the late teens and early '20s. When these films attracted American interest, the uneducated, middle-class Lubitsch arrived in Hollywood as a representative of European culture and elegance.

The "continental" tone of the comedies Lubitsch subsequently made for Warner Brothers was something he learned, as he freely acknowledged, from Charles Chaplin's groundbreaking 1923 feature "A Woman of Paris." As Eyman points out, it is in Chaplin's work that we find the first-known example of the "Lubitsch Touch"--when Adolphe Menjou removes a handkerchief from a dresser drawer in a way that immediately suggests he is not a casual visitor to the apartment of Edna Purviance.

Lubitsch experienced his final and perhaps most traumatic transformation in 1930, when he discovered that Leni, his wife of eight years, was having an affair with Hans Kraly, his screenwriter and closest collaborator. Finding himself a character--and a supporting character, at that--in one of his own films, Lubitsch was unable to maintain the sophisticated facade. He was devastated and angry; even after the divorce was granted, he and Kraly scuffled at a Hollywood ball, when Lubitsch decided that the tall, handsome Kraly was making fun of his short stature.

The next two years at Paramount brought an astonishing rush of creative energy, as Lubitsch completed his invention of the Hollywood musical with "Monte Carlo," "The Smiling Lieutenant," "One Hour With You" and his three musical numbers in "Paramount on Parade," produced and directed "The Man I Killed," one of his rare forays into straight drama; supervised "If I Had a Million" and created "Trouble in Paradise," the film he considered his most formally perfect work. Themes of seduction and betrayal, of deception and hypocrisy, run compulsively through this period; never has Lubitsch's tone been so playful and amused, so airy and insouciant. His heart, Eyman tells us, was broken, but his style remained intact and impermeable.

For many observers, Eyman included, this period remains the center of Lubitsch's achievement; it is certainly a source of continuous, bubbling delight. Yet Eyman is too quick to dismiss those Lubitsch films that don't fit the glittering, witty, continental image, including "The Man I Killed" (1932), the somber, very personal "Angel" (1936) and Lubitsch's completely re-imagined version of Oscar Wilde's "Lady Windemere's Fan" (1925), a film that now looks, in its magnificent recent restoration by the Museum of Modern Art, like one of the absolute pinnacles of silent film storytelling, a movie in which the expressive nuances of cutting and framing more than make up for the lack of Wilde's theatrical dialogue.

Interviewing several performers who worked for Lubitsch, including Don Ameche, Robert Stack, Burgess Meredith and Vincent Price, Eyman fully documents Lubitsch's distinctive method of directing actors, which was to act out every role himself, male or female, down to the tiniest gestures and most precise vocal inflections, and insist that his actors imitate him exactly.

This highly eccentric approach is no doubt the source of what critic Dan Sallitt has described as the double perspective of Lubitsch's acting style--the sense that the performers are standing apart from the characters they are playing, aware of the humor and irony of the situation in ways the fictional participants could never be.

But it also suggests how deeply Lubitsch invested himself in each of his creations, of how profoundly and effectively they served as masks for the heavyset tailor's son from Berlin. Better than a new suit of clothes, they were new bodies and faces, voices that spoke without comic accents, figures that stood straight and tall.

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