THE SILENT TREATMENT: Ernst Lubitsch's "Three Women"

For many years, the brilliant film director Billy Wilder (Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot) had a sign mounted on his office wall, which read “What would Lubitsch have done?”: a fitting offering to his personal movie god. Like Wilder would later master after him, the German-born Ernst Lubitsch was a genius at concocting sophisticated comedies of manners, plots of highly intertwining complexity, and deft undercurrents of emotional resonance — all of which amounted to what was commonly known around early Hollywood as “the Lubitsch Touch.” Among the great silents that Lubitsch touched is the saucy melodrama Three Women, starring May McAvoy (The Jazz Singer, Ben-Hur) as an eighteen-year-old in a dizzying, whirlwind triangle between her estranged socialite mother and her weasel-like suitor who, after getting a whiff of May’s trust fund, stays true to his cad nature by wooing the young dame. Often favoring devastating facial expressions (to convey the story’s soapy twists and turns) over the typical expository intertitles, Three Women is a nimble, nuanced and surprising dose of Lubitsch’s movie magic.
Dir. Ernst Lubitsch, 1924, 35mm, 83 min. (Archival print courtesy of the George Eastman House)