Ernst Lubitsch (1892-1947)

Ernst Lubitsch
Ernst Lubitsch

Ernst Lubitsch was a German emigré director and producer whose career began in the Silent era and continued until the late 1940s. He developed a reputation for sophisticated, elegant and witty romantic comedies with a unique style which became known as "The Lubitsch Touch".

Among his most well known works are 'Trouble in Paradise' in 1932, 'Ninotchka' in 1939 and 'To Be or Not to Be' in 1942. Although he never won an Oscar in competition, he was nominated three times for Best Director. In 1946, he received an Honorary Academy Award for his distinguished 25 year contributions to the art of motion pictures.


He was born on January 29, 1892 in Berlin in the German Empire. His family were Ashkenazi Jewish, and his father, Simon, ran a successful clothing manufacturing business. At school Ernst got his first experience of stage acting and when he left, aged 16, as well as dutifully working for his father as a bookkeeper, he also enjoyed a completely different life at night, appearing in music halls and cabarets.

Early Stage Career

In 1911 he began working as a performer in Max Reinhardt’s famous Deutsches Theater Company. He also worked as a general assistant at Berlin's Bioscope film studios. His acting talent was soon recognised and in 1913 he began appearing in a number of stage slapstick comedies emphasising Jewish humour and in which he became well known paying a character called Meyer.

In 1913, He made his film debut as an actor in 'The Ideal Wife' but he soon realised that his métier lay in directing rather than acting. He acted in about thirty films from 1913 gradually reducing his acting commitments to concentrate on directing, eventually writing and directing his own movies and becoming part of the legendary UFA studio. Some of his films during this period attracted international recognition such as 'Carmen' in 1918 and 'The Oyster Princess' and 'Madame du Barry' the following year. He directed his last acting film appearance in the 1920 movie, 'Sumurun', co-starring Pola Negri after which he was invited to work in Hollywood by American movie superstar Mary Pickford .

Hollywood 1922

On arriving in America, Lubitsch rejected the film which Mary Pickford proposed and instead directed her in 'Rosita' in 1923. Although Lubitsch and Pickford did not get on well, the movie was critically well received and started a long run of successes for the director. He was signed to a 3 year contract by Warner Bros and was guaranteed his choice of actors and crew and, remarkably, full control over editing the final cut. His next film, 'The Marriage Circle' in 1924, was a major triumph and was followed the following year by another great success, 'Lady Windermere’s Fan' and in 1926 by 'So This Is Paris'. The expression "The Lubitsch Touch" was becoming well known in movie going circles.

Well received as his films were, they were barely profitable for Warner Brothers, and the studio and the director eventually parted company amicably. His contract was bought out by MGM and Paramount. His first film for MGM, 'The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg' in 1927 was a critical success but did not fare well at the box office. However his next film, 'The Patriot' in 1928, produced by Paramount Studios was a great success and earned for Lubitsch his first Oscar nomination for Best Director.

Talkies 1929

The transition from Silent Movies to Talkies proved painful to many in Hollywood but not to Ernst Lubitsch. He became a pioneer of sound films with movie musicals such as 'The Love Parade' in 1929 and and 'The Smiling Lieutenant' in 1931, both starring Maurice Chevalier.

Lubitsch was a natural for the pre-Hays Code Hollywood era when the sexual innuendo, of which he was a master, could be included in such romantic comedies as 'Trouble in Paradise' in 1932, 'Design for Living' the following year and 'The Merry Widow' in 1934, all of which added to his legend and which were exceptionally well received by the Great Depression audiences.

Lubitsch was now regarded as a master filmmaker and his successes continued. He had one of the greatest successes of his career in 1939 with Ninotchka, a political-sexual comedy starring Greta Garbo. After the delightful comedy 'The Shop Around the Corner' in 1940 he again hit the headlines in 1942 with his anti-Nazi comedy 'To Be or Not to Be', followed by 'Heaven Can Wait' in 1943.

In 1940, he directed a movie which is regarded as one of his greatest, ' The Shop Around the Corner', a clever comedy starring James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan.

Later Career

Lubitsch signed a contract with 20th Century Fox in 1943, but he had a massive heart attack later in the year which severely curtailed his creativity. After 'Heaven Can Wait' in 1943 he was too ill to seriously contemplate any more films. He was credited as producer of 'A Royal Scandal' in 1945, but he hired Otto Preminger to take over the direction. His health improved sufficiently for him to make 'Cluny Brown' in 1946, with Charles Boyer and Jennifer Jones but his final film, 'That Lady in Ermine' was again completed by Otto Preminger and released posthumously in 1948.


Lubitsch was married once, to British actress Vivian Gaye, in 1935. The couple had one daughter, Nicola.

In 1936, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States.

Ernst Lubitsch died of a heart attack on November 30, 1947 in Hollywood. He is interred at Glendale's Forest Lawn Memorial Park.

The Lubitsch Touch

Lubitsch truly had an extraordinarily successful Hollywood career with an unprecedented string of hits in both Europe and America, and bridging both Silent and Sound Movies.

His comedy style was sophisticated, fast-paced and wickedly funny. Many directors tried to imitate him but were never able to match his wit, his perfect timing and his compression of small details which revealed important character traits. His was a unique talent.

Ernst Lubitsch Academy Awards

No Wins:

Three Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Director ... The Patriot (1928)
Best Director ... The Love Parade (1929)
Best Director ... Heaven Can Wait (1943)

Honorary Award:
"For his distinguished contributions to the art of the motion picture." (1947)

Ernst Lubitsch Filmography

Fräulein Seifenschaum
Zucker und Zimmt
Aufs Eis geführt
Der letzte Anzug
Der Kraftmeier (Short)
Wo ist mein Schatz? (Short)
Schuhpalast Pinkus
Der gemischte Frauenchor
Der G.m.b.H. Tenor
Die neue Nase (Short)
Das schönste Geschenk
Der erste Patient (Short)
When Four Do the Same (Short)
Ossis Tagebuch
Der Blusenkönig (Short)
The Merry Jail
Prinz Sami (Short)
Der Rodelkavalier
Der Fall Rosentopf
Das Mädel vom Ballet
I Don't Want to Be a Man
The Eyes of the Mummy
Meine Frau, die Filmschauspielerin
Fuhrmann Henschel
Meyer aus Berlin
Das Schwabenmädel
Käsekönig Holländer (Short)
The Oyster Princess
Madame DuBarry
The Doll
Die Wohnungsnot
Kohlhiesels Töchter
Romeo und Julia im Schnee
Anna Boleyn
The Wildcat
The Loves of Pharaoh
Die Flamme (Short)
The Marriage Circle
Three Women
Forbidden Paradise
Kiss Me Again
Lady Windermere's Fan
So This Is Paris
The Honeymoon Express (uncredited)
The Student Prince
The Patriot
Eternal Love
The Love Parade