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169 Chapter 7 Transnational Jewish Comedy: Sex and Politics in the Films of Ernst Lubitsch—­ From Berlin to Hollywood Richard W. McCormick Migration and Transnational Cinema Ernst Lubitsch (1892–­ 1947) was the most successful of all the German film directors who came to Hollywood, and his influence on American film comedy was unparalleled.1 Not only was his career, like the cinema itself, shaped by transnational movements of peoples, stories, artists, technicians, and technologies , but his very perspective was also a product of transnational experience. His father, a tailor, migrated from Russia to Berlin in the nineteenth century, and he himself migrated from Berlin to Hollywood in 1922. Lubitsch had what Germans today would call a “migration background,” and it was precisely this “migration background” that made him and so many European Jews suited for careers in the new international medium of cinema at the beginning of the twentieth century.2 There is no doubt that Lubitsch’s own familial experience of migration and his transnational cultural heritage contributed to his early success as a film comedian in short films set in the Jewish milieu of Berlin’s retail garment industry (Konfektion). In those comedies, he often played migrants from Germany’s eastern (Polish) provinces who had come to Berlin to make their fortune. Miriam Hansen, who developed the concept “vernacular modernism” to describe the cinema, especially in its initial years, argued that its origins among and its appeal to an audience of immigrants in American cities is precisely what made American cinema so internationally powerful from the beginning. It was a cinema of immigrants, by immigrants, and for immigrants. The experi- 170    Three-Way Street ence of migration and a transnational perspective was a central ingredient in the success of European film artists like Lubitsch and one of the reasons why he adapted well to Hollywood.3 As Thomas Elsaesser has written, Lubitsch—­ the Jewish, Berlin-­ born son of a tailor from Grodno in Russia—­ was making “American” films even before he moved to America: first Die Austernprinzessin (Oyster Princess, 1919), his German comedy set in an imaginary America, but even more so Madame Dubarry (Passion, 1919), his racy historical melodrama set in Absolutist France and the French Revolution, which was a huge box-­ office success in the United States, thereby opening the US market in 1920 to German films again.4 The success of the latter film made Hollywood pay attention. Within a year, Lubitsch had American financing as well as American technical crews and equipment for his last two German films, Das Weib des Pharao (The Loves of the Pharao, 1922) and Die Flamme (Montmartre, 1923). These films were produced by a European film company that was financed by Famous Players-­ Lasky, the American studio later named Paramount.5 When Ernst Lubitsch left Berlin for Hollywood at the end of 1922, he was the most successful director in Germany. Hired to direct Mary Pickford in a film, he was the first of many European directors to come to Hollywood in the 1920s. It was a very transnational decade for the cinema; there were many international coproductions, especially between the German film industry and Hollywood, and many German film artists followed Lubitsch’s lead in coming to Hollywood. If Lubitsch had already been making “American” films while still in Europe , in America he would make “European” films, or films that matched American fantasies about Europe. In Hollywood, Lubitsch ended up representing “European sophistication” (something his anarchic, farcical, slapstick German comedies had never done). In America, he made “sophisticated,” escapist sex comedies set in an imaginary Paris or Vienna, first as silent films, then as sound films, sometimes with music and sometimes without. But even then, he continued using central European plays and operettas as the basis for most of his films. This had also been the case in Germany; for example, an operetta was the source for The Oyster Princess, as was one for Madame Dubarry as well.6 Over the course of the 1920s Lubitsch brought over German technicians to Hollywood and followed the German cinema, imitating technical achievements he saw there and attempting to make the same types of genre films that were popular in Germany—­ not just operettas but also Heidelberg romances (The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg, 1927) and even a Bergfilm, a “moun- Transnational Jewish Comedy    171 tain film” (Eternal Love, 1929, his last silent film, starring John Barrymore and, newly arrived from Germany, Camilla Horn). In the late 1920s, the German actor...


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