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Ernst Lubitsch was born  in Berlin. He enjoyed performing on stage in gymnasium (high school), and decided to leave school at the age of 16 to pursue an acting career. However, he had to compromise with his father, who wanted him to join the family tailor business, by keeping the account books by day while acting in cabarets and music halls at night. In 1911, he joined Max Reinhardt's famed Deutsches Theater and rose quickly from bit parts to leading roles. He made his screen debut in character roles and in 1914 started writing and directing his own films. His breakthrough film was 1918's The Eyes of the Mummy, a tragedy starring future Hollywood star Pola Negri. The following year he directed seven short films, beginning to perfect the style that later became known as the "Lubitsch Touch" -- sophisticated, subtle humor and wit combined with innovative visuals.

Critic Michael Wilmington would summarize the Lubitsch style as, "At once elegant and ribald, sophisticated and earthy, urbane and bemused, frivolous yet profound." Lubitsch's success in Europe brought him to the attention of Hollywood studios, and he went to the USA in 1923 at the request of his new friend and star Mary Pickford to direct her in his first American hit, Rosita (1923). Lubitsch made a smooth transition from silent films to sound movies, and became famous for his pioneering musical films and dramas in the 1930s. Paramount made him its production chief in 1935, and in 1938 he signed a three-year contract with Twentieth Century-Fox.

He then moved to MGM, where he directed Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas in Ninotchka (1939). During World War II, he directed To Be or Not to Be (1942), perhaps his most beloved comedy. It was controversial in its day but is now considered a classic satire. In 1947, the year of his death, he won a Special Academy Award (after being nominated three times) for his 25-year contribution to motion pictures.
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