How many filmmakers have been celebrated for having a “touch”? Hitchcock had a style, assured and recognizable. So did John Ford, Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, and other star directors of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
But only Ernst Lubitsch had a “touch.”
Is that why this one-time king of Hollywood is in danger of being forgotten today, even as some of his movies remain among the most delightful experiences you’ll ever have? A Lubitsch film is sly, sophisticated, and often sexy as hell, and it assumes a flattering worldliness in its viewer. Most movies are desperate to please; these invite us into the joke with an understanding that things left unsaid can often speak louder than any dialogue. Perhaps that’s why they have fallen out of pop culture circulation. Lubitsch knew it was more fun when the audience was allowed to do the math.
Starting Friday and running through the end of August, the Harvard Film Archive is shining a welcome spotlight on this pantheon director with a series called “That Certain Feeling. . . The Touch of Ernst Lubitsch.” Co-presented with the Goethe-Institut Boston, the retrospective collects more than 40 titles — not the full filmography but close — and includes movies from both Lubitsch’s early years in Berlin and his quarter-century reign in Hollywood.
There are happy surprises here and pleasurable oddities, a few classics that haven’t stood the test of time, and one or two unknown masterpieces. And there are the handful of Lubitsch comedies that belong on any movie lover’s list of the all-time best, period. Let’s start with those; even if you can’t make it to Cambridge, they’re often available on DVD at your library, via Netflix, or through various streaming options.
“The Smiling Lieutenant” (1931) Lubitsch landed in Hollywood in 1923 but truly consolidated his success at the dawn of the Talkie Era with a series of four ribald little musicals made at Paramount. This one’s the best, and it is hilarious, with Maurice Chevalier a soldier hot for bandleader girlfriend Claudette Colbert but forced to marry prim princess Miriam Hopkins. Made before the Production Code clamped down on movie morals, it’s a breezily carnal good time, with Colbert inculcating Hopkins in proper bedroom attire with a song called “Jazz Up Your Lingerie.” (July 17)
“Trouble in Paradise” (1932) More swank pre-code sauciness and perhaps the most amoral comedy to ever come out of early Hollywood. Upscale thieves Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins fleece the swells of Venice and Paris until Kay Francis as a chic perfume CEO threatens to steal Marshall away. The movie serves as the epitome of the Lubitsch Touch: It drips sex without ever saying anything naughty and presents static shots of doors that dare us to imagine what’s going on behind them. (June 16; Aug. 26)
“Design for Living” (1933) A slightly stagy but well-written and played comedy about a merry menage a trois, this just made it in under the Production Code wire. (It still got condemned by the Legion of Decency.) Hopkins, Gary Cooper, and Fredric March square off, pair off, and more or less go to bed together while the director’s favorite boob, Edward Everett Horton, dithers in a corner. Ben Hecht wrote the script from Noel Coward’s play. (July 8)
“The Shop Around the Corner” (1940) You know the plot from the 1998 remake, “You’ve Got Mail,” with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, but you don’t know classic filmmaking until you’ve seen the original, a romantic comedy that teeters on the edge of heartbreak. Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan have never been more tender as battling Budapest shop clerks unknowingly in love with each other by mail. (Aug. 5)
“To Be or Not to Be” (1942) It still seems impossible: How did Lubitsch pull off a blistering black comedy about Nazis? In 1942 Hollywood? Starring Jack Benny? A breathless, peerless high-wire farce that casts Benny as a ham actor, Carole Lombard (in her final performance before her death in a wartime plane crash) as his vain wife, and a theater troupe of character actors to bedevil the German occupation of Warsaw. Lubitsch knew a secret: If you can make your enemy look laughable, you’ve won. (Aug. 11; Aug. 20)
Those are the best in the series, and there are a few duds: “Ninotchka” (1939) hasn’t aged as well as one would like — there’s a reason Greta Garbo wasn’t known for comedy — and the celebrated touch is so light in “Heaven Can Wait” (1943), about a womanizer (Don Ameche) who doesn’t seem to do much womanizing, that the film evaporates on contact. “Eternal Love” (1929) is a rare Lubitsch melodrama, with John Barrymore a wronged lover in the Swiss Alps, and it is fascinatingly awful.
Overall, though, the HFA series is a reminder that Lubitsch had much more in his arsenal than sophisticated laughter. The early German comedies veer between high slapstick and low vaudeville, with the director, who got his start playing buffoons onstage, occasionally appearing in front of the cameras; “Shoe Palace Pinkus” (1916), in which Lubitsch comes off like a Yiddish-theater Bart Simpson, is a good example.
There are historical epics (“Anna Boleyn,” 1920; “Madame DuBarry,” 1919), Oscar Wilde adaptations (“Lady Windemere’s Fan,” 1925), marital round-robins (“The Marriage Circle,” 1924), and comedies of divorce (the antic but uneven “That Uncertain Feeling,” 1941). But if you’re looking for the best of lesser-known Lubitsch, here’s where to start.
“I Don’t Want to Be a Man” (1918) and “The Doll” (1919) Two funny, still-shocking shorts from the Berlin days, the first a cross-dressing comedy about a teenage girl in drag, the second a farce about a mechanical robot-woman. Ossi Oswalda stars in both and Lubitsch has never seemed so high-spirited or visually inventive. (June 25)
There are happy surprises here and pleasurable oddities, a few classics that haven’t stood the test of time, and one or two unknown masterpieces.
“The Wildcat” (1921) The fearsome Pola Negri plays a desert pirate princess spiriting a fatuous army officer off to a fate worse than death. Both a ruthless military satire and a gender-reversed goof on “The Sheik,” this may be the most stylistically gonzo movie Lubitsch ever made. (Aug. 14)
“Angel” (1937) Another marital mix-up comedy, this one featuring Marlene Dietrich, Herbert Marshall, and Melvyn Douglas as the three corners of the triangle. Lubitsch only worked with Dietrich once but you can tell he was fascinated by her otherworldly languor; it’s hardly his best movie but it touches areas of mystery and sadness that few others did. (Aug. 21)
“Cluny Brown” (1946) Lubitsch died at the age of 55 of a heart attack — the final of many — on Nov. 30, 1947. His last released film is a gem: an adaptation of a Margery Sharp novel that casts a glowing Jennifer Jones as a servant girl with a taste for plumbing and Charles Boyer as an impish émigré who falls for her; together they dismantle the class system of wartime England. It’s an unexpected farewell about the dangers of knowing one’s place, from an artist whose own place is less valued than it once was and still should be. (Aug. 19; Sept. 1)Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.