January 25th, 2011

carole lombard 02
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Serving up a Lubitsch five-course Friday

Carole Lombard had known Ernst Lubitsch for about a decade before she finally had the opportunity to act in a film he directed. In 1931, Lombard lobbied hard to get the role given to the more experienced Miriam Hopkins in "The Smiling Lieutenant." In 1935, Lubitsch briefly served as Paramount's head of production -- the only occasion in classic Hollywood history where a major studio gave a director that kind of authority -- and while he didn't direct any of Carole's films, he had a lot to do with them during his brief tenure in that position (notably "Hands Across The Table"). For the rest of her tenure at Paramount, she was treated like the top-tier star she was, and Lubitsch's guidance played a key role.

Lombard finally made a film for Lubitsch, what would be her last, "To Be Or Not To Be" (Lubitsch is shown on the set with co-star Jack Benny). It would be the victim of bad timing; the U.S. had entered World War II as production was nearing an end, and Lombard died shortly before the film's release. Consequently, many people -- not even some staunch Lubitsch fans -- were in the mood to see this film when it came out.

As time went on, history vindicated Lubitsch, and "To Be Or Not To Be" has justly been recognized as a brilliant dark comedy. Friday marks the anniversary of his birth, and Turner Classic Movies in the U.S. is commemorating it with five fine examples of "the Lubitsch touch." Here's the schedule (all times Eastern):

* 10:30 a.m. -- "The Shop Around The Corner" (1940). For many years, this workplace comedy of manners set in a Budapest store went relatively unappreciated, but now it's being recognized as the masterpiece it is; there's not one false note throughout the picture. An excellent cast, headed by Frank Morgan (perhaps his finest performance), James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan. (There's a non-Lubitsch Stewart-Sullavan pairing at 9 a.m., 1938's "The Shopworn Angel.")

* 12:30 p.m. -- "To Be Or Not To Be" (1942).

* 2:30 p.m. -- "Ninotchka" (1939). Greta Garbo shows off her comedic chops (and how about that hat!) as a Soviet official sent to Paris, only to fall under its decadent spell. Had William Powell not fallen ill, he would have played the male lead, but instead that went to Melvyn Douglas.

* 4:30 p.m. -- "The Merry Widow" (1934). Lubitsch made several memorable musical comedies at Paramount with Maurice Chevalier and/or Jeanette MacDonald. Here all three reunite at MGM for some frothy fun, aided by Una Merkel and Edward Everett Horton.

* 6:30 p.m. -- "Trouble In Paradise" (1932). An elegant heist story, as jewel thieves (Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins) plan to rob Kay Francis, only to have love get in the way. Many view this as Lubitsch's finest achievement.

To get you in the mood for Friday, and to show "the Lubitsch touch" at work, watch this exchange between Lombard and Robert Stack -- who'd known Carole since he was a boy -- from "To Be Or Not To Be." If double entendres can be deemed elegant, they certainly are here:

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