Ernst Lubitsch: The Actor vs. the Character

by Dan Sallitt

From The Film Comedy Reader, published by Limelight Editions in Feb. 2002.

Even on brief acquaintance with Ernst Lubitschís films, one observes that his actors come to a dead stop after every line, and that a beat of silence separates each bit of dialogue from the next.  The actors further emphasize the artifice by using a rise-and-fall delivery that makes every line a set-up or a summation, stylizing any hints of psychology into elements of rhythm.  By contrast, directors like McCarey, LaCava or Capra try to preserve psychology, and create rhythm more between lines than within them.  Compare, say, the scene in LaCavaís Bed ofRoses (1933) in which Constance Bennett impersonates a journalist in order to seduce wealthy John Halliday, and the scene in Lubitschís Trouble in Paradise (1932) in which Miriam Hopkins impersonates a secretary to gain access to the house of wealthy Kay Francis.  In addition to the startling resemblance of Bennett and Hopkins in their mousy working-girl disguises--was LaCava ďquotingĒ the Lubitsch film?--the dialogue in both scenes snaps back and forth in similar ping-pong style.  But the scenes play quite differently: Bennett embroiders her charade with little bits of characterization that take her speech patterns in many directions, whereas Hopkinsí moments of concealment and unwitting revelation are confined within a narrow tonal range that emphasizes the musical aspect of the repartee.

This acting style, which occurs throughout Lubitschís sound films (and, in spirit at least, in the silent films as well, where actions and gestures are similarly discrete), reminds us that Lubitsch had his start in the theater. Though Lubitsch the actor eventually ascended to Max Reinhardt's theater company, the acting in his films evokes ďlowerĒ forms of comic theater: operetta of course, but also farce and vaudeville skit humor.  The resemblance between the measured, often exaggerated acting style found in these comic traditions and in Lubitschís films points to a more interesting correspondence: Lubitsch's actors, like their theatrical counterparts, tend to establish a direct relationship with the audience, an understanding based on a shared knowing perspective on the fiction.  In the most pronounced instances (such as Maurice Chevalier's characters in the thirties musicals), Lubitsch characters feel free to address the audience directly, and walk through the plot with the smiling detachment of vaudeville entertainers; they are as much narrators of as participants in the drama.  One can see the same tendency, in a more restrained form, in other Lubitsch characters--like Herbert Marshall in Trouble in Paradise or Charles Boyer in Cluny Brown (1946)--who remain more or less within the boundaries of the fiction but express the same amused overview on the action that Lubitsch encourages in the audience.

Not all characters in Lubitsch films enjoy the license of these unofficial masters of ceremonies, of course.  But Lubitsch so desires direct communion with the audience that he devises acting strategies to produce it even when the character is not a stand-in for the audience's perspective.  To illustrate one of these strategies: in a scene from The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), Chevalier, asked to educate sheltered princess Miriam Hopkins in worldly matters, tries to explain what a wink means.  After a moment of uncertainty, Chevalier finds an explanation: a wink conveys not only affection, but also the desire to do something about it.  Hopkins, realizing that the conversation has moved into a dangerous area, composes herself suddenly and says, "That's enough for today."

The joke in this characteristically Lubitschian exchange lies in the character's attempt to end the conversation casually when the audience knows that she is alarmed.  There are two common ways to treat this kind of material:

a) The character can make an effort to conceal her anxiety and end the conversation naturally by delivering the last line matter-of-factly and using diversionary tactics.  The audience would then be in the superior position of seeing through the character, who is unaware how much she is revealing.

b) The character can use looks, knowing smiles, etc. to convey to the other character that she is ending the conversation because of the escalation of intimacy, her words to the contrary.  The character would then exhibit a self-awareness that makes the joke hers instead of the film's.

Lubitsch creates a third possibility: he makes the actor aware of the joke while keeping the character in the dark.  It is not simply exaggeration that creates this separation of the actor from his or her character: it is that the actor's mannerisms put emphasis on things that the character isn't aware of.  Because the acting contains deliberate strategies that are not conscious strategies of the character, a gap opens up between actor and character.  In the example given, Hopkins' stylized delivery conveys a full awareness of the situation.  Clearly her character is not trying to let her primness show, either humorously or seriously; the context forbids such a conscious attempt on her part.  But the acting deliberately brings her motivations out in the open, annihilating all naturalistic semblance of a coverup.  Her face goes blank with exaggerated suddenness, and her line is delivered with the emphatic finality of her maidenly conviction, not modulated to appear natural.  These are the actor's ways of letting the audience know that she is conscious of her character's visible loss of composure, of which the character is unconscious.

In this example, just as with the more openly knowing Chevalier characters, Lubitsch establishes an understanding between the actor and the audience.  In one case, the character participates in this understanding, and in the other she does not; but the direct connection between actor and audience is in both cases the goal of Lubitsch's direction of actors.

Another example, from a later period of Lubitsch's career: in Heaven Can Wait (1943), Gene Tierney breaks down crying over her imminent marriage to Allyn Joslyn, and tells Don Ameche the story of her engagement.  Though she goes out of her way to express her affection for her parents and her home state in the course of this story, she lets slip one phrase after another that shows her true dislike of each.

Tierney: Well, you see, I always wanted to live in New York.  I donít want to say anything against Kansas, but--life on my fatherís estate...Donít misunderstand me, we have all the modern conveniences and luxuries, but...oh, and you donít know Father and Mother.
Ameche: Well, Iíve only just met them.
Tierney: Donít you think theyíre sweet?
Ameche: Well, yes, very sweet.
Tierney: Yes, they are.  But itís not very easy to live with them.  You see, most of the time they donít talk to one another.  And whenever a young man--and there were some very nice ones...
Ameche: Oh, Iím sure of it.
Tierney: ...if one of them asked for my hand, and my mother said yes, my father said no.  And when my father said yes, my mother said no.  But Albert came at one of those rare moments when they were both on speaking terms.  And if I hadnít said yes, who knows when my parents might have been talking to each other again.  I might have spent the rest of my life in Kansas.  Donít misunderstand me--I love Kansas.  Itís just that I donít feel like living there.  Besides, I donít want to be an old maid.  Not in Kansas!
As with the scene from The Smiling Lieutenant, there are two usual approaches to such material: Tierney's hostile feelings toward family and home could slip out without her meaning to reveal them; or she could show an awareness of her emotional contradictions by acknowledging them.  Instead of either approach, Tierney delivers both positive and negative feelings in identical tones of tearful confiding; she is completely untroubled at moving from one extreme to the other without transition.  Tierney the actor realizes the contradictions of which Tierney's character is plainly unaware, demonstrating this by leveling her affect to heighten the contrast between content and delivery.

If we look at the scenes discussed above and the three alternative acting approaches that I've suggested--the poles of unawareness and awareness, and Lubitsch's actor-aware/character-unaware strategy--it's interesting to note that, in the context of the scriptwriting, only Lubitsch's approach is obviously comic.  Both the other approaches tend to illuminate the character's psychology; if we try to apply them to the scenes in question, the tone moves a notch toward drama, mitigating against big laughs.  This is not to say that psychologically oriented acting can't be funny--there are almost as many counterexamples as there are comic directors--but it does suggest that Lubitsch's comic style is built into his material, and that his acting strategies work only because they are set up at the writing stage.

(The Chevalier-Jeanette MacDonald musical One Hour with You (1932) is a Lubitsch project begun by George Cukor but eventually completed by Lubitsch.  Intriguingly, there are acting moments in the film in which Chevalier partly abdicates his usual winking position outside the narrative and drifts toward naturalism.  The most memorable example is the "That's What I Did Too" number, in which Chevalier's defensive and anxious self-justifications are for once motivated by the plight of the character; he displays less knowledge of himself than does the audience.  Typically, one would expect Chevalier to grin and nod at the audience during a Lubitsch musical number no matter what his character's emotional state might be.  Hardly an open-and-shut case, but one wonders if one detects in Chevalierís performance the influence of Cukor--also a man of the theater, but far more inclined toward immersion in the story's emotions.)

What Lubitsch loses in immediacy by showing himself behind the curtain, he gains in reflexivity and perspective.  A few examples show that Lubitschís seemingly playful strategies could be the means to unusual and subtle ends.  Consider the last shot of Angel (1937), in which Herbert Marshall, having bid farewell to his unfaithful wife Marlene Dietrich, leaves her with her lover and walks toward the door, the camera tracking behind him.  Dietrich unexpectedly overtakes the camera (having taken leave of her lover off-screen), enters the frame and walks to Marshall's side; without breaking his stride, and barely looking at her, Marshall gives Dietrich his arm, and the two walk out of the house together with the composure of actors returning for a curtain call.  A more naturalistic ending would give the audience a chance to observe Marshall's surprise and Dietrich's contrition; Lubitsch, prefering not to provide us such an advantage over the actors, abandons psychology and allows the characters the grace and composure that they would like to present to the world.  A related example occurs at the beginning of the grand waltz scene in The Merry Widow (1934).  Chevalier and MacDonald are quarreling bitterly, with no hint of affection or play beneath their anger; but when they hear the first chords of the "Merry Widow Waltz," they pause for a moment, then fall into each other's arms with choreographed grace, whirling off onto the dance floor as the camera recedes to lose them amid the other dancers.  Here Lubitsch is playing with the conventions of the musical comedy, according to which the characters must reconcile; the actors therefore abandon psychology and comply with genre.  In a different mood, one can imagine Lubitsch carrying this scene off with a wink, but the tone here is more serious, as if the too-abrupt triumph of musical convention has suggested to the filmmaker by contrast the precariousness of real love: the echoes of the rather harsh quarrel remain in our ears, and the lovers do not smile as they spin away.  We can see in their faces either the compliance of actors moving to the director's instructions, or the resignation of the lovers to the troubled but compelling bond between them.

Perhaps Lubitschís only reason for drawing on the conventions of theater is the opportunity they provide him to insert his overseeing viewpoint into the fiction.  His actors acquire an all-knowing aura which is nonetheless curiously life-sized: they sit in the privileged seat of the film spectator.