The director Billy Wilder had a sign on the wall of his office: What Would Lubitsch Do? No, it’s not a religious statement – unless your religion is comedy. It was Wilder’s way of pushing himself to make sure that he created a carefree comic universe in his films and didn’t get bogged down in naturalistic trivia, as most directors do today. He came about as close an anyone has to emulating the master.
The Lubitsch Touch was more than just studio PR. Ernst Lubitsch created a light comic universe in his movies, a universe where expectations were delightfully subverted. Take the following sequence from the beginning of The Love Parade.
Maurice Chevalier is in his bedroom with another man’s wife. She is furious with him because she has found another woman’s garter. She pulls a derringer from her purse and advances on him. Her husband bursts into the room. The woman puts the gun to her own chest and fires. She falls dead.
The distraught husband picks up the derringer and advances on Chevalier. He shoots. Chevalier feels his chest, but cannot find a bullet hole. He shakes his head sadly at the husband, sympathizing with the man’s failure to kill him. Both men then take keen interest in inspecting the gun to figure out why it did not kill Chevalier. The woman peeks at them from the floor. The husband is delighted to discover the gun is filled with blanks.
The woman gets up, straightens her hair and tries to hook the clasp on the back of her dress. The husband helps, but cannot hook the clasp. She goes to Chevalier, who is more familiar with the clasp than her husband. As the husband and wife leave, Chevalier throws the derringer in a desk drawer full of small guns; he has played this scene many times.
The Ambassador of Sylvania enters to chastise Chevalier for disgracing Sylvania with his scandalous affairs. In the course of conversation, the Ambassador mentions his own wife. Chevalier shoots a guilty glance at the garter in his hand, the one the woman who just left was upset about, and hides it behind his back.
In this sequence – the funniest in the film – comic twist follows comic twist.
The Lubitsch touch comes from the lack of seriousness in the characters. Chevalier is never seriously afraid of dying because he knows the gun is loaded with blanks. He’s playing a game, as all the characters in the movie are. Everything is a game to be played with zest. The lightness integrates into a stylized world, a world different from the real world because it is a place where life is only fun and tragedy is not to be taken seriously. The Lubitsch touch is the purest realization on film of what Ayn Rand called the benevolent universe premise.