Thursday, February 16, 2023

The NFR Project: 'Lady Windermere's Fan' - the Lubitsch touch


Lady Windermere’s Fan

Dir: Ernst Lubitsch

Scr: Julien Josephson, Maude Fulton

Pho: Charles van Enger

Ed: Ernst Lubitsch

Premiere: Dec. 26, 1925

89 min.

Ernst Lubitsch was famous long before he came to America. The legendary king of film’s sophisticated comedies of manners got his start in movies in Berlin as an actor in 1913. He was drawn to working behind the camera, and by 1920 had transitioned to directing duties alone. Varying his output between frothy comedies and weighty historical dramas, Lubitsch soon found his work noticed by Hollywood. By 1922, he had relocated to America.

Soon he was churning out romantic comedies based on popular stage plays. Lady Windermere’s Fan comes between two other stellar Lubitsch features, The Marriage Circle and So This Is Paris, and is of a piece with them – a tale of middle-to-upper-class relationship angst, rife with mistaken identities and false assumptions, a blend of farce and melodrama.

Lady Windermere’s Fan is an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s successful and well-made 1892 play. In it, the lady of the title suspects her husband of having an affair with a Mrs. Erlynne, to whom he has given large sums of money. In fact, it turns out that Mrs. Erlynne is the disgraced mother of Lady Windermere, long thought dead.

Lady’s Windermere’s suspicions drive her into the arms of Lord Darlington, who seeks an assignation with her. It is up to Mrs. Erlynne to protect her unknowing daughter from scandal, without revealing her true identity.

Lubitsch’s directing style is elegant and smooth, light and witty, deliberately paced. He doesn’t do any flashy camera moves – his focus is on the human face and gesture. As social niceties play out on the surface, the turmoil of emotions roils beneath. In a time of melodramatic action and overstated acting in film, Lubitsch’s restraint, wit, and careful and compassionate powers of observation make for an urbane and humanistic kind of filmmaking that has yet to be equaled.

It is of particular note that none of Wilde’s famous quips or aphorisms are referred to here. Fortunately, the skeleton of the play’s plot is strong, and Lubitsch and his scenarist Julien Josephson wisely lean into the familiar mechanics of the story’s melodramatic underpinnings, relieving them of the obligation to drop in Wilde’s bon mots.

Lubitsch had an extraordinary amount of creative control over his output, leading to his admirers referring to his unique sensibility as “the Lubitsch touch.” Billy Wilder famously had a sign on his office wall that said, “What would Lubitsch have done?”

Lubitsch would be remembered for his silent films of this period if for nothing else. Yet he had much more to come – the codifying of the movie musical, for one, and his increasingly wily and wise meditations on human frailties, including Ninotchka, To Be or Not to Be, The Shop Around the Corner.

The NFR Project is one writer’s attempt to review all the films listed in the National Film Registry in chronological order. Next time:  ‘The Lost World’.

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