Yesterday I decided to allow my readers to evaluate David Denby’s claim that “American Hustle” was “into the magical sphere—Shakespeare rules over it and Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges are denizens—where profound human foolishness becomes a form of grace.” Thanks to Youtube, it is fairly easy to provide sample film clips that make comparisons possible. Let’s start with David O. Russell’s “American Hustle”.
In this scene above you see Abscam conman Irving Rosenfeld (played by Christian Bale, which makes about as much sense as Woody Allen playing a Nazi general) bickering with his wife Roslyn. I imagine that some people must have found this scene funny but the humor was lost on me. Like “Nebraska”, “Inside Llewyn Davis”, and “August: Osage County”, this is just one more Oscar-destined film whose main characters are repulsive. It is beyond the scope of this article to trace the origins of this tendency to create such characters, but I think that Martin Scorsese played a major role. Creating sympathetic characters must strike the up-and-coming director or screenwriter as passé. Throughout “American Hustle”, you see scenes like this one after the other. They left me feeling soiled and depressed.
Made in 1940, “Shop Around the Corner” is considered Ernst Lubitsch’s crowning achievement and is ranked among the greatest ever made in Hollywood. It stars James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan as a couple of department store clerks who can’t stand each other but have not yet discovered that they have been carrying on a passionate correspondence all along—they have been using fake names. In the clip below, Stewart is about to meet Sullavan and discover that she is simultaneously the woman he loves and the woman he can’t stand.
The gentle kidding between Stewart and a fellow clerk is typical Lubitsch, which is to say that it is supremely wise about the human heart.
Wikipedia cites his biographer Scott Eyman who characterized the “Lubitsch touch”:
With few exceptions Lubitsch’s movies take place neither in Europe nor America but in Lubitschland, a place of metaphor, benign grace, rueful wisdom… What came to preoccupy this anomalous artist was the comedy of manners and the society in which it transpired, a world of delicate sangfroid, where a breach of sexual or social propriety and the appropriate response are ritualized, but in unexpected ways, where the basest things are discussed in elegant whispers; of the rapier, never the broadsword… To the unsophisticated eye, Lubitsch’s work can appear dated, simply because his characters belong to a world of formal sexual protocol. But his approach to film, to comedy, and to life was not so much ahead of its time as it was singular, and totally out of any time.
Preston Sturges was the greatest director of “screwball comedies”. In this scene below from “Sullivan’s Travels”, his greatest, you see Joel McCrea playing John Lloyd Sullivan, who is a top-grossing maker of escapist Hollywood comedies. He has assumed the identity of an unemployed and homeless worker in order to find out how the “other half” lives. The end result of his research will be “socially aware” film that lives up to the Daily Worker’s expectations. Veronica Lake is a struggling actress who takes pity on him. Listen carefully to their dialog. Lubitsch’s name comes up.
Sullivan’s working title for his new leftist movie is “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Does that ring a bell? It should. That’s the title of a Coen brothers comedy starring George Clooney in a 1930s prison escape tale based loosely on Homer’s Odyssey. Although Sturges was just as cynical in his own way about society as the Coen brothers, you always rooted for his characters.
In my review of the Coens’ “A Serious Man”, I referred to them and Preston Sturges:
In some ways, “A Serious Man” demonstrates all the flaws of the Coens’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, a reworking of Homer’s Odyssey. Without the grandeur of Homer’s characters, all you end up with is a kind of road movie that requires the talent of a Preston Sturges to pull off. Without a finely honed sense of comedy, the best that Coen brothers can come up with is characters that they can feel superior to while hoping that the audience can share the joke. In Preston Sturges’s Depression-era comedies, you cheer for the characters. Set in the same historical period, the characters of “O Brother, Where Art Thou” are involved with what film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum calls pop nihilism.
Finally, to remind you of what Shakespeare is about (any comparison between him and David O. Russell should be punishable by a mandatory prison sentence of 5 years), check the excerpt above from the 1935 Hollywood production of “Midsummer’s Night Dream” directed by Max Reinhardt that I reviewed in December 2010. I wrote:
This 1935 movie was the only one that Max Reinhardt would ever make. Born in 1873 to orthodox Austrian Jewish parents with the surname Goldmann, he became one of Europe’s most respected stage directors. He had a special affinity for “Midsummer’s Night Dream”, staging a wildly popular version in 1927. After the Anschluss in Austria, he would leave the country for good and settle in Los Angeles, like many other refugees from Nazism. He staged a version of the play at the Hollywood Bowl in 1934, using some of the same actors who would appear in the movie, including Mickey Rooney and Olivia De Havilland. When the movie was released to theaters, the Germans banned it because the director was a Jew and because the film used Felix Mendelssohn’s (another Jew) score.
As a stage director, Max Reinhardt would hire Ernst Lubitsch, a fellow Jew, in 1911 as one of his actors. One imagines that the “Lubitsch touch” was influenced by what he learned from Reinhardt. By 1918 he began directing films.
If you leave David O. Russell out of the equation, a much more rewarding research topic would be the parallels between Shakespeare, Lubitsch and Sturges. Perhaps the humanism of Shakespeare’s plays and the effervescence of Lubitsch and Sturges’s film comedies belong to a different epoch and matter less to someone at the NYU or UCLA film schools. But for me, they will always be the gold standard.