Sometime in the late 1960’s, I asked Jean Renoir what he thought of Ernst Lubitsch. He raised his eyebrows and said, enthusiastically, “Lubitsch!? But he invented the modern Hollywood.” By “modern Hollywood,” Renoir meant American movies from about 1924 to the start of the ’60s. Before Lubitsch’s arrival to California from Germany in 1922 (to make a Mary Pickford vehicle called Rosita), Hollywood films were under the overwhelming influence of D. W. Griffith, circa 1908 through the epoch-making The Birth of a Nation in 1915 and beyond. Victorian, puritan, Southern, montage-driven, Griffith was the father of film narrative. As pioneer Allan Dwan told me, he would go to see Griffith’s movies and just do whatever Griffith was doing. The majority of American directors felt similarly, including John Ford and Howard Hawks.
When Lubitsch arrived, however, things started to change. He brought European sophistication, candor in sexuality and an oblique style that made audiences complicit with the characters and situations. This light, insouciant, teasing manner became known far and wide as “the Lubitsch Touch.” By the end of the 20’s and throughout his short life—he died in 1947 at age 55—Lubitsch was probably the most famous film director internationally, except perhaps for C. B. DeMille. Today hardly anyone remembers either one of them. Yet while most of DeMille is pretty forgettable, if sometimes fun, Lubitsch is always fun and often as good as it gets.