starring Fredric March, Gary Cooper, Miriam Hopkins, Edward Everett Horton
screenplay by Ben Hecht, based on the play by Noel Coward
directed by Ernst Lubitsch
by Walter Chaw The impulse to call the work of Ernst Lubitsch "frothy" and "bubbly" and otherwise insubstantial (a practice excoriated, rightfully so, by film scholar William Paul on Criterion's Blu-ray release of Design for Living) obscures the fact that none of Lubitsch's romantic masterpieces would carry any kind of resonance without an essential heart of darkness and decay. The oft-invoked "Lubitsch Touch"--that well-circulated anecdote that Billy Wilder hung the words "What Would Lubitsch Do" above his office door--suggests to me the wellspring of the asshole element in Wilder's works: the idea that Wilder was just Hitchcock undercover, with Lubitsch influencing both directors in ways obvious and not so and not in terms of a "light" touch so much as a decidedly bitter one. Take my favourite Lubitsch film, Trouble in Paradise, which begins with a trash barge in the middle of the night in a Venice we don't see again until Nicolas Roeg's Don't Look Now. The picture proceeds to document the love affair between two professional thieves and the innocent woman who falls victim to them. In that, there's a direct reference to hated President Hoover's deep-in-the-Depression platitude that "prosperity is right around the corner," offered in piercing irony for a cash-strapped audience for whom the theatre had most likely just lowered their admission to a dime. The "Lubitsch Touch," indeed: edged and between the ribs before you know it's being brandished.