We have become used to the issuance of trigger warnings before material is presented in college courses or on campuses. That is, students must be forewarned about things they see or hear that would upset them.

This situation has aroused considerable opposition on both the left and the right of the political spectrum, one example of which appeared in The Atlantic:

The Coddling of the American Mind

In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.

I'm not going to enter that debate. What I'm going to discuss is how the popular Hollywood films directed by Ernst Lubitsch could not possibly be shown to general college audiences today, and possibly could not be shown on campuses at all.

Lubitsch was a German Jew, born in 1892, who left Germany long before Hitler came to power. We wouldn't include Lubitsch's Jewish heritage in a description today. But during World War II it became, shall we say, relevant. Lubitsch, as a film director in Germany, came to these shores to make movies. Lubitsch's greatness is not questioned. The magazine, The Tablet, refers to "the great, great director Ernst Lubitsch." Andrew Sarris places Lubitsch among his pantheon directors in his 1968 classic book, The American Cinema

Lubitsch is known for his graceful, biting comedies of manners, filled with sexual innuendos and offbeat topics and relationships, which are examples of the so-called "Lubitsch touch." But Sarris, in a brilliant passage, cautions us not to be taken in by this label:

“In the well-mannered, good-natured world of Ernst Lubitsch, grace transcends purpose…What are manners, after all, but the limits to man’s presumption, a recognition that we all eventually lose the game of life but that we should still play the game according to the rules.  A poignant sadness infiltrates the director’s gayest moments, and it is this counterpoint between sadness and gaiety that represents the Lubitsch touch, and not the leering humor of closed doors."

United Artists poster
Source: United Artists poster

With the backdrop of the New York arthouse film center, The Film Forum, currently running a Lubitsch festival, let's consider five of his films that couldn't be shown without warnings today, or possibly at all, at American universities.

1.  To Be or Not To Be. Lubitsch's arguably greatest film is a screwball comedy, released in 1942, set with startling incongruity in Nazi-occupied Poland. "To be" focuses on the beautiful and graceful actress, Carole Lombard (who died in a plane crash selling U.S. war bonds before the film was released) cheating on her egomaniacal actor husband, Jack Benny.

Lombard's lover, or flirtation (we see no sex), played by Robert Stack, noisily exits his front-and-center seat at the theater for his rendezvous with Lombard as Benny begins the "to be" soliloquy in Hamlet. Lombard also kisses a Nazi official who is trying to seduce her due to his holding a life-and-death position of power over her and her husband. Meanwhile, the Polish acting troupe, led by Benny, stages an elaborate charade in order to smuggle Stack out of Poland after he assassinates a Nazi informant.*

So the film's characters aren't playing beanbags. It's just the way that Lubitsch preferred to present the material, including love, sex, death, Nazis et al. And many were offended by this treatment during the War. But here is how Sarris sees it: "(The film) bridges the abyss between laughter and horror. For Lubitsch, it was sufficient to say that Hitler had bad manners and no evil was then inconceivable."

The most remembered scene in the film is when a minor actor in the troupe recites Shylock's speech on behalf of Jews—of all minorities—from The Merchant of Venice: “Have we not eyes? Have we not hands, organs, senses, dimensions, attachments, passions? If you poison us, do we not die?”  This monologue is spoken against a backdrop of Nazi uniforms, helmets, and swastikas, and is transfixing. (Incidentally, can Merchant be read and performed on campuses today, since Shylock demands that a pound of flesh be cut from a gentile character.)

2.  NinotchkaNinotchka, released in 1939, is not only a great Lubitsch film, it is Greta Garbo's greatest role. She plays a communist commissar sent to Paris where she is seduced by the Parisian lifestyle and the male lead, Melvyn Douglas. In an early scene, Douglas, a roué who already has an older lover, plies Garbo with champagne until she passes out. This is, of course, unlawful on campus, and off campus in most cases. Garbo falls asleep in the character's bed and he ostensibly leaves. But you get the gist of where this is going.

3. The Love Parade. This film was made in 1929, before the 1930 Hays code restricting sexuality in films was imposed in Hollywood. The movie opens in Paris with Maurice Chevalier confronting the husband of a wife with whom he is obviously having an affair, who shoots Chevalier without harming him (this is Lubitschland, where murder and violence aren't acceptable). 

It turns out that seduction is Chevalier's full-time occupation. Chevalier is sent as punishment (he is also servicing his commander's wife) to Sylvania as military attaché. Jeanette MacDonald is a lonely queen who spends much of the film in revealing negligees and gowns. She reads Chevalier's dossier as though it is pornography, after which she quickly commands him to have dinner alone with her. They soon marry, making him the royal consort. Everyone in the kingdom knows what that's about. MacDonald in fact wants Chevalier to be always available for her sexual needs, but he insists on playing a more masculine role as her husband. He eventually compels the queen to accept his demands by withholding his sexual favors.

But none of that would be the trigger so much as a scene in which Chevalier's manservant dances with, kicks, and pummels the queen's maidservant. The lyrics of their song (Parade is an operetta) say this is how the "common" people deal with marital conflicts. The woman finally gets even by pushing this cad out of the second story window of her room, to which they repair after beating one another (again, no actors or characters are actually hurt in a Lubitsch film).

4.  Heaven Can Wait. The plot of this 1943 film requires one to enter Lubitschland. The male lead (played by Don Ameche) has a long and affectionate marriage with the delicate and beautiful Gene Tierney, on whom he philanders throughout the marriage, while not working a day of his life. But he is nonetheless a considerate husband. Ameche must now confront the devil to decide his fate. If the person is sent to hell, which undoes many others who enter that place, Laird Creegar releases a trap door sending them to the "basement."

The decision process involves reviewing Ameche's life together with Tierney, which is portrayed in tender, affectionate—if also contentious and ironic—terms. All ends well for Ameche. But the story is tinged with nostalgia and sadness (remember Sarris saying that Lubitschland displays "a recognition that we all eventually lose the game of life but that we should still play the game according to the rules").

5.  Bluebeard's Eighth Wife. This 1939 film, starring Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert (with David Niven as a flunky) sounds as though it could be a horror film.  Lubitsch doesn't make horror films. Cooper plays a blustering American businessman used to getting his way who has been married and divorced seven times; Colbert plays an impecunious Parisian flirt (the mirror image of the character Melvyn Douglas plays in Ninotchka). She marries Cooper, but withholds marital sex (like Chevalier in The Love Parade). They divorce, Colbert gets a prenup settlement so that now the two can be equal partners in a real marriage.

Sweet. But during the part of the film where Cooper is trying to have sex with Colbert, after plying her with champagne (remember Ninotchka), Cooper reads The Taming of the Shrew, marches into Colbert's room, and slaps her. She takes no guff and slaps him back. He rereads the Shrew text, then returns and spanks Colbert, who this time bites him (remember the violent love making by the servants in The Love Parade). In fact, we may ask whether Shakespeare's Shrew, from which Cooper gets his ideas for physically dominating Colbert, is permitted on American campuses today.

After the divorce, Cooper has a breakdown, is confined to an asylum, and is put in a straight jacket. (Note: Cooper in this film is shown in various stages of disrobement, one might say used as a sex object, including in a bathtub, as MacDonald was—but not Chevalier—in The Love Parade. Cooper is a well-built man.) Restricted in this way, even as he actively resists, Colbert kisses and caresses Cooper, and eventually seduces him.

This seduction would now be a crime.

It is also kinky, raising the question of whether we are in a more permissive sexual time, when physical restraints and other equipment are openly sold and used for sexual purposes. Or are we in a more restrictive one, since the scene as depicted qualifies as a sexual assault and would be impermissible today, as so much in Lubitsch would be.

Actually, we are both more licentious and more Puritanical now, and Lubitschland is long gone. As Sarris says, "we shall never see his like again because the world he celebrated had died—even before he did—everywhere except in his own memory."


* Although the Lombard character might have been cuckolding Benny, she risked her life to save his, gladly.  The story of her going to the Nazi HQ on Benny's behalf actually resembles the life of the producer of the film, Alexander Korda, a Hungarian emigrée whose non-Jewish wife came to Arrow Cross (the Hungarian Nazi party) headquarters and somehow extricated Korda from the building, where he been taken for questioning, and from which few emerged whole.

As to the final state of the Benny and Lombard characters' marriage, they end up in England together after escaping Poland.  Benny begins his soliloquy for an English audience where Stack is sitting prominently in front.  At the words "to be or not to be," Benny peers intently at Stack, who remains in his seat.  However, to the consternation of both men, a young man in the row behind Stack rises and laboriously makes his was towards the theater aisle.

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