The Verbal-Visual “Touch”: Reconsidering Ernst Lubitsch’s Transition to Sound

Kyle Stine


Using theories of intermediality, this article reconsiders film director Ernst Lubitsch’s transition to sound and argues, against the prevailing understanding that his sound films represent a continuation of his silent film style, that he cultivated two distinct ways of handling word–image interactions. Lubitsch, a director sworn to limiting his use of intertitles in his silent films, adhered to a visual logic that to a great extent reflects the narrative constraints of silent film style, in that his sophisticated comedies show causal structures motivated and constrained by vision. These narrative constraints, however, opened up considerably in his sound films, particularly in one of the director’s lesser examined films, The Smiling Lieutenant (1931). Beyond its relative obscurity, the film is an apt object of study for its unique thematic reaction to the introduction of sound. Its self-conscious response to sound technique and its ludic exchanges between word and image emphasize the new narrative and organizational configurations of Lubitsch’s sound films in particular and sound cinema more generally.


film studies; intermediality; Ernst Lubitsch; sound; technology

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Online Magazine of the Visual Narrative - ISSN 1780-678X