Hats off to Eureka! No other UK distributor is so committed to reviving classic features and it scores a resounding triumph by adding the six-disc Lubitsch in Berlin collection to its already excellent catalogue of silent German masterpieces. As well as the gems Ich Mochte Kein Mann Sein/I Wouldn't Like to Be a Man (1918), Die Puppe/The Doll, Die Austernprinzessen/The Oyster Princess (both 1919), Sumurun, Anna Boleyn (both 1920) and Die Bergkatze/The Wildcat (1921), this must-have boxed set also includes Robert Fischer's documentary Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin: From Schönhauser Allee to Hollywood (2006).

Born in Berlin on 28 January 1892, Ernst Lubitsch first came to prominence as a 19 year-old member of Max Reinhardt's celebrated theatre company. However, he reached a much wider audience in the early 1910s as Meyer, a Jewish everyman who was Germany's favourite slapstick clown. But Lubitsch became so associated with the role that nobody took his more dramatic efforts seriously and he decided to concentrate on directing from 1916, forming a fine creative team with cinematographer Theodor Sparkuhl and designer Kurt Richter.

His choice of collaborators proved sapient, as did his decision to eschew the Expressionism that dominated postwar German film-making in favour of sophisticated, but crowd-pleasing escapism. Quickly mastering silent technique, Lubitsch also became an accomplished director of actors. But he will forever be remembered for the droll delicacy that became known as `the Lubitsch touch' and prompted Orson Welles to declare him `a giant', François Truffaut to proclaim him `a prince' and Alfred Hitchcock to dub him `a man of pure cinema'.

Considering it was released while Germany was still at war, Ich möchte kein Mann sein is not only laudably risqué, but it also anticipates the cross-dressing decadence that would become a leitmotif of Weimar culture. Ossi Oswalda (who was tantamount to a Teutonic Mary Pickford) stars as a frustrated young woman whose every bid for amusement is thwarted by uncle Ferry Sikla and governess Margarethe Kupfer. Even when Sikla is unexpectedly summoned to America on business, new guardian Curt Götz proves to be equally strict. So, convinced that men have all the fun, Oswalda dons a disguise, only to discover that being female might have its advantages after all.

Although it culminates in a clench, this is anything but a typical romantic comedy. Aware that women had acquired a new confidence while their menfolk had been at the front, Lubitsch satirically plays with notions of tradition and equality to suggest that sexual politics were about to become decidedly more complicated. However, Lubitsch is never content merely to pass social comment. He can't resist a little innuendo, either, whether he's mocking the serenading bucks beneath Oswalda's window, teasing the tailors measuring him/her for a new suit or forcing Oswalda to decide which washroom to use at the grand ball. Indeed, this opulent finale turns into a trademark comedy of errors that culminates in the evening-jacketed Oswalda and Götz drunkenly kissing at the bar and again in the carriage home.

Yet, the truth about the strict chaperon's precise preferences is left tantalisingly ambiguous. And a similarly mischievous androgyny informs Die Puppe. Adapted by Lubitsch and Hanns Kräly from an Alfred Willner operetta that was itself inspired by a story by ETA Hoffmann, this is a comic delight whose sprightly farce belies its cinematic significance.

Desperate to avoid the 40 maidens that baron Max Kronert has lined up as prospective brides in order to continue the family line, fey nephew Hermann Thimig hides out in a nearby monastery and is extended the most basic charity by gluttonous abbot Jakob Tiedtke. However, on discovering that Thimig will receive a handsome dowry on his wedding day, the monks suggest that he tricks his uncle by marrying a mechanical doll and shows them his gratitude by making a sizeable donation to their coffers. But the plan soon goes awry, as the automaton made in the image of his daughter by toymaker Victor Janson is damaged by clumsy apprentice Gerhard Ritterband, who persuades Ossi Oswalda to spare him punishment by impersonating the doll.

Over the next few years, Die Puppe would be plundered for films as different as Buster Keaton's Seven Chances (1925) and Raymond Bernard's The Chess Player (1927). But its biggest influence was on two Expressionist keystones, Robert Wiene's The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1919) and Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1926). Despite the Mélièsian look of Kurt Richter's sets, the angular nature of the painted backdrops and the near-pantomimic parting of the cardboard clouds foreshadow the disorientating designs devised by Walter Reimann, Walter Röhrig and Hermann Warm for Wiene's tale of a murderous somnambulist, while Oswalda's mechanised movements clearly presage those of Brigitte Helm's robot in Lang's study of oppressive tyranny. However, Lubitsch's emphasis is firmly on physical comedy rather than a defeated nation's damaged psyche, with Ritterband and Oswalda each excelling as they respectively bring chaos to Janson's workshop and seek to sustain the dollish deception from the altar to the bedchamber.

If this gleeful lampoon of socio-sexual impotence feels like a template for one of Luis Buñuel's assaults on the church and the indolent upper classes, Die Austernprinzessin resembles a co-production between the scurrilous Spaniard and the equally iconoclastic Italian, Federico Fellini. Once again, the irrepressible Ossi Oswalda is to the fore and it's heartbreaking to think that this fabulously talented mummer should have failed to make the transition to sound and have died in direst poverty in Prague at the age of 50.

Oswalda plays the pampered daughter of American oyster tycoon Victor Janson. On hearing that a friend has bagged herself a titled beau, she threatens to trash the house unless her father finds her an aristocratic fiancé tout de suite. Never one to do anything when he can hire someone to do it for him, Janson sets matchmaker Max Kronert on the case and he soon tracks down impoverished prince Harry Liedtke. However, he sends pal Julius Falkenstein to gauge the lie of the land and Oswalda inevitably hurtles to the wrong conclusion.

Working this time in collaboration with Rochus Gliese, Kurt Richter again plays a pivotal role in the success of this intricate comedy, as his sets not only facilitate the pacing of the action, but also stress the ridiculous excesses of the plutocrat's household. Janson has so many African-American servants that he doesn't even need to exert himself when he has a cigar with his coffee, while Oswalda's every whim is pandered to - albeit sometimes only after she has smashed the odd vase to ensure she gets her own way. Indeed, it's Lubtisch's mastery of space and movement that makes his silent comedies so slick. He consigns the occasional joke to an intertitle, but he prefers sight gags that can be choreographed as meticulously as the foxtrot epidemic that climactically blights the mansion.

Lubitsch would again demonstrate this knack for manipulating crowds in his early American pictures. But it was less his exploitation of space and sense of comic timing that got him noticed in Hollywood than his genius for creating neverlands. Hopefully, masterpieces like The Eyes of the Mummy Ma (1918), Madame DuBarry (1919) and Pharoah's Wife (1922) will eventually make it to disc in this country. But Lubitsch's affinity for historical and fantastical realms is readily evident in the Arabian Nights saga Sumurun, the Tudor tragedy Anna Boleyn and the Ruritanian romp, Die Bergkatze.

The first marked Lubitsch's last appearance on screen, as the hunchback at the court of sheik Paul Wegener, who competes with prince Carl Clewing for the favours of dancing girl, Pola Negri. However, she has set her cap at cloth merchant Harry Lietdke, whose beloved, Jenny Hasselqvist, was supplanted in Wegener's affections the moment he cast eyes on Negri. With Margarete Kupfer's old woman harbouring unrequited feelings for Lubitsch's incorrigible jester and slave trader Paul Biensfeldt also interested in Negri, this ménage of love triangles is strewn with extravagant set-pieces and more intimate moments of suggestive sensuality, grotesque comedy and shocking melodrama. Yet, such is Lubitsch's control over his contrasting material, that it never seems trite or tasteless.

Indeed, such is the ease with which he shifts between the Negri's vampish gyrations and the tomfoolery of doltish servants Max Kronert and Paul Graetz that it's easy to accept more convoluted episodes like the drugged Lubitsch's `funeral' procession, the mixing up of the caskets to enable Liedtke to gain entrance to the palace and his final rescuing of Hasselqvist from the executioner's blade. The easy manner in which Theodor Sparkuhl and Kurt Waschneck's cameras join the crowds milling around Kurt Richter and Ernö Metzner's grandiose sets adds to the sense of authenticity. Yet Lubitsch was always conscious that he had a duty to conjure up spectacle to distract audiences from the grim realities and uncertainties of their post-Wilhelmine world.

It was almost certainly with this populist attitude in mind that Lubitsch parodied both the institution of monarchy and the imperial power that had helped impose the detested Treaty of Versailles in Anna Boleyn. Emil Jannings is allowed to play Henry VIII as a buffoon who is governed by his appetites rather than ministers like the incompetent Cardinal Wolsey (Adolf Klein). Thus, when he is not hunting, jousting or carousing, Bluff King Hal is chasing comely wenches around the palace grounds or feigning coughing fits to prevent his queen, Catherine of Aragon (Hedwig Pauly-Winterstein), from realising that he is flirting in her presence with the demure Anna (Henny Porten). However, when Henry's will is trammelled, he responds with a despotic fury that ultimately accounts for Anna and her supposed lover, Smeaton (Ferdinand von Alten).

Making the most of court intrigue and false perceptions, Lubitsch again relies on romantic conflict to spur the action, with Anna being loved by both the king and Sir Henry Norris (Paul Hartmann), while Anna eventually finds herself vying for the monarch's devotion with both Catherine and Jane Seymour (Aud Egede Nissen). In the process, Lubitsch frequently takes liberties with fact, most notably presenting Jane as a ruthless schemer and Anna as a misused gamine. The roles played in the Reformation by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer (Friedrich Kühne) and the Duke of Norfolk (Ludwig Hartau) are also much simplified. But in showing how Henry's dynastic need for a son prompted him to divorce Catherine and break with Rome, Lubitsch sticks closely enough to tradition to prevent this from descending entirely into a facile exercise in embittered jingoism.

Some have found Madame DuBarry and Anna Boleyn heavy going compared to Lubitsch's frothier efforts. But there are moments of relishable humour here, alongside more majestic set-pieces like Anna's coronation, the spring festival and the street brawl in the shadow of the cathedral. Designers Kurt Richter and Hans Poelzig and costumer Ali Hubert excel themselves, as do Porten and the ever-theatrical Jannings. But the artistic impetus clearly comes from Lubitsch himself, whose deft tonal shifts are matched by the replacement of Merrie England's expansive luxuriance by the stark simplicity of Anna's humble cell and the chilling lyricism of her dignified demise.

Lubitsch didn't solely reserve his Great War disdain for the vanquishers, however, as he obviously had the Prussian military mentality in his sights in Die Bergkatze. High in the mountains of a fictitious kingdom, chocolate soldier Victor Janson is utterly powerless to prevent robber baron Wilhelm Diegelmann and his tempestuous daughter Pola Negri from running rampant around Piffkaneiro. Indeed, he's barely in charge of his own fort, as wife Marga Köhler tends to read his communiqués before him and leaves him to scramble around on the floor after she's discarded them. Even when lieutenant Paul Heidemann is abducted by the outlaws, Janson prefers to hide under the table and finish his breakfast than lead a rescue mission.

Heidemann is hardly heroic himself, however. His assault on the bandits' hideout is woefully inept, with Negri repelling his infantrymen with snowballs. Yet he still has the affrontery to claim a victory. But he is definitely a dashing ladies' man, as his departure from the town's swooning womenfolk and cooing children confirms. Even when he arrives at the fort in his underwear, he still manages to turn heads. But will the wildcat really permit herself to be tamed by such a lascivious jackanapes, especially when he has already agreed to marry Janson's simpering daughter, Edith Meller?

In later years, Lubitsch would claim this as his favourite German film. It's essentially a slapstick operetta without music, with the highlights being Heidemann's mock heroic entrance, the knockabout skirmish and Negri's infiltration of the fort with brigands Hermann Thimig, Paul Graetz, Max Gronert, Erwin Kopp and Paul Biensfeldt, who keep the sozzled Janson occupied while she tries Meller's perfume and finery and dabbles with the idea of seducing Heidemann. Negri doesn't quite have Ossi Oswalda's exuberant comic gifts, but her earthy physicality contrasts amusingly with Heidemann's foppish swagger. And if this isn't enough, Lubitsch and Theodor Sparkuhl even have a bit of cinematic fun at the expense of pioneering American director DW Griffith by burlesquing his weakness for self-consciously artistic masking devices.

Several other Lubitsch pictures have been released on DVD, but you may have to do a bit of scouting around to find them. However, in this age of internet shopping and multi-region players, it seems too good an opportunity to miss to luxuriate in a clutch of other Lubitsch classics.

Drawing comparisons with Strauss, Mozart and Hans Christian Andersen, Jean Cocteau dubbed The Love Parade  `a Lubitsch miracle'. Yet the director had only embarked upon his sound debut after the rare failure of the 1929 silent, Eternal Love. He distrusted Talkies, as they limited camera fluidity and made the dramatic content too literal. But his pictures had always possessed an innate musicality and he readily saw the advantages of setting entire scenes to the rhythm of a score. Thus, he sought ways to translate the wit, elegance and innuendo of the Lubitsch Touch into dialogue, music and contrapuntal sound and, in so doing, he not only subverted several stage conventions, but also established many staples of the screen's newest genre.

Having abandoned his amorous existence in Paris to return to Sylvania and agree to marry Queen Louise (Jeanette MacDonald), Count Alfred Renard (Maurice Chevalier) quickly tires of his role as a powerless spouse and is only dissuaded from divorce - much to the lovestruck relief of his valet, Jacques (Lupino Lane), and her maid, Lulu (Lillian Roth) - by the proud monarch's realisation that her regal and romantic ambitions can only be achieved through mutuality.

In the opening sequence, Jacques lays a table and then pulls the cloth from beneath the meticulous settings - and that's exactly what Lubitsch does here with the operetta format, as he sets up an escapist Ruritanian scenario, with its Deco designs and fairytale costumes, and then introduces a disgruntled hero, whose roguish presence brings a hint of ignobility to a rarified artform.

Moreover, in adapting Leon Xanrof and Jules Chancel's 1919 play, The Prince Consort, Guy Bolton and Ernest Vadja revised the typical operetta structure by both reversing the gender roles of the romantic leads and removing the external source of opposition to their union by locating it within their own relationship. By, thus, consistently uniting and dividing the lovers until they learned to compromise, Lubitsch not only brought a new adult sophistication to the musical comedy, but he also initiated a musi-romcomic tradition that would persist for the next 30 years.

The further genius of The Love Parade lay in its unlikely union of operetta and revue. In operetta, the music took precedence over the lyrics and the songs were used primarily to heighten mood and emotion. In a revue, however, the numbers were performed with the express intention of amusing or affecting. So, by blending the two styles, Lubitsch made the lyrics advance both the storyline and character development, while also bringing a satirical edge to a format renowned for its conformism and sentimentality.

Lubitsch also integrated the songs into the action rather than squeezing them into contrived diegetic pauses, and, thus, installed the couple and the duet as the central focuses of the Hollywood musical. Moreover, he managed to restore some movement to the motion picture, by utilising a tracking shot during the wedding sequence, which was choreographed throughout to the beat of a metronome, so that every gesture and expression precisely fitted the accompanying rhythm. There were also flashes of the customary Lubitsch drollery, most notably during `Paris, Stay the Same', which sees Chevalier taking leave of his Parisian belles, while Lane salutes his French maids and the dog bids adieu to his manicured poodles. A similarly inspired use of off-screen space occurs during the dinner sequence, in which everything we need to know about the unseen Alfred and Louise's demeanour is conveyed by their anxious, eavesdropping courtiers.

Lubitsch even found novel ways to open up sequences - and avoid editorial problems - by shooting the footage he was going to intercut on neighbouring soundstages linked by a single orchestra, so that he could crosscut on exact notes. The result was an exquisite, innovative and irresistible concoction that the critics lauded and the Academy feted with six Oscar nominations. However, so few cinemas were wired for sound that most audiences saw it in a shorter silent version, although French patrons got to see their own variation, Parade d'Amour.

Within three years, Lubitsch had mastered sound techniques and Trouble in Paradise (1932) remains one of his finest achievements. The most sophisticated comedy ever produced in Hollywood was loosely adapted from Laszlo Aladar's play The Honest Finder, which was itself based on the exploits of the notorious Hungarian swindler, Georges Manolescu, whose colourful career had already twice been filmed, most notably by the Russian actor Ivan Mosjoukine in Victor Tourjansky's Manolescu - Der König der Hochstapler (1929).

Lubitsch had a habit of taking unprepossessing stage properties and turning them into cinematic gold. But the strict enforcement of the Production Code from 1934 ensured that he never surpassed the delicious indelicacy of this scintillating study of sexual intrigue and shameless duplicity, which sees gentleman thief Gaston Monescu (Herbert Marshall) fall for  the equally duplicitous Lily Vautier (Miriam Hopkins) and perfume heiress Mariette Colet (Kay Francis), while seeking to fleece them both.

Rejecting titles like The Golden Widow, Thieves and Lovers and A Very Private Scandal and Paramount's offer of such talents as Cary Grant, Lubitsch deliberately cast Herbert Marshall opposite Kay Francis and Miriam Hopkins, as he knew they had both previously been his lovers and the scorned frisson is simmeringly evident on the screen. But it's the famed Lubitsch Touch that makes this such a timeless delight.

The opening sequence mercilessly subverts the postcard image of Venice as a city of refined beauty by showing the aria `O Solo Mio' being sung not by a gondolier but a garbage collector. But this is much more than an impish gag, as it efficiently establishes the theme of corruption and opulence that dictates Gaston's relationships with both Lily and Mariette. Similarly, the dinner sequence, in which Gaston and Lily pose as aristocrats only to spend the entire meal stealing each other's watches, wallets and jewellery, persuades us to empathise with these thoroughly reprehensible characters (something which her vague acknowledgement of the city's poor does for the otherwise hideously decadent Mariette).

The sublime opera parody and Marshall's respective shirt-sleeved and silhouetted seductions of Hopkins and Francis are equally assured. But there isn't a false step here, with Hans Dreier's Art Deco sets being as exquisite as Samuel Raphaelson's screenplay and the ensemble playing being as finely tuned as the dialogue, which often has the musicality of a recitative.

Lubitsch later wrote, `As for style, I have done nothing better or as good as Trouble in Paradise'. And he was right. However, he would produce many more gems, including The Merry Widow (1934).

When Franz Lehár's operetta Der Lustige Witwe opened in Vienna in 1905, it caused a sensation. With a libretto by Victor Léon and Leo Stein, that was based on a French play by Henri Meilhac, it rapidly become an international success and within months of the British and American premieres, in 1907, the Swedish Nordisk company produced the first of 10 screen adaptations.

In 1925, MGM acquired the rights for Erich von Stroheim, who starred John Gilbert and Mae Murray in a silent reworking that subjected the slender storyline of a disgraced prince's bid to seduce a wealthy widow in order to prevent her from removing her fortune from the Mitteleuropean kingdom of Marshovia to a Freudian reinterpretation that unexpectedly helped it turn a $758,000 profit. However, production chief Irving G. Thalberg, who detested Von Stroheim, was keen to remake the picture. But attempts to mount sound productions in 1929, 1930 and 1932 (with Jeanette MacDonald and Roman Novarro) all foundered, largely because the studio lacked a stable of musical talent capable of doing The Merry Widow justice.

Then, in 1934, Thalberg persuaded Maurice Chevalier against returning to France in order to headline Sidney Franklin's adaptation of Lehár's masterpiece, alongside Joan Crawford, who had been chosen over Lily Pons and Vivienne Segal. However, Chevalier preferred to team with Metropolitan Opera diva Grace Moore and was most piqued when MGM not only denied his request - having sampled her temperament during the making of A Lady's Morals and New Moon in 1930 - but also paired him with frequent collaborators Ernst Lubitsch and Jeanette MacDonald, neither of whom he could abide. Yet while Chevalier and MacDonald complained about the reunion, she recognised his wit and charm and he admired the vulnerability and vivacity that he inspired in her.

Lubitsch, however, was less concerned with casting than with demonstrating that music was audible romance. Consequently, he set about making a continental sophistication that proved to be the least MGM musical in the studio's history. Disregarding art director Cedric Gibbons's disquiet about the opulence of the sets and Front Office concerns that a frothy romance was being transformed into a satire on the risibility of sex, Lubitsch further exploited his contract's unprecedented levels of latitude by hiring Lorenz Hart and Gus Kahn to produce new lyrics that emphasised the lovers' growing attachment.

Moreover, he also anticipated Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers by using dance as an emotional barometer. Danilo and Sonia only realise their feelings while cheek to cheek in the private dining-room at Maxim's. But a comedy of errors (which became another Fred`n'Ginger staple) conspires to keep them apart until the same `Merry Widow Waltz' reunites them at the Embassy Ball, where they seal their passion in a glorious progress that irradiates every room they enter, including a mirrored corridor.

Thus, for the first time, Lubitsch employed music as a metaphor for love rather than lust and he even shifted the gender emphasis by having Chevalier succumb to MacDonald rather than have her pursuing him. But the Hays Office was appalled by the way in which `filth' had been introduced into such a respectable artform and it insisted on 13 cuts being made to tone down Danilo's pleasure at his sexual prowess. In all, three minutes of footage was excised from the US release, although they were restored in 1962.

Despite the success of the French-language version, La Veuve Joyeuse (which retained Chevalier and MacDonald), the film's failure outside the major American cities and the ensuing loss of $113,000 on the $1,605,000 budget persuaded MGM to rethink its approach to the genre. With screwball comedies and Busby Berkeley musicals concentrating on the middle and lower classes rather than the upper echelons, the days of the `naughty' operetta were numbered. Lubitsch abandoned the musical altogether, while Chevalier left Hollywood in 1935, not to return for another 25 years. MacDonald went on to become the studio's biggest singing star in partnership with Nelson Eddy. But she never again exhibited such spirit or sensuality.

The same, sadly, was true of Greta Garbo following her mesmerising display in Ninotchka (1939). Directed by Lubitsch and co-scripted by Billy Wilder, this enduring delight stands at the crossroads of American screen comedy. Studded with instances of the `Lubitsch Touch' and imbued with the screwball spirit, it contains significant traces of the acerbic satire that would become Wilder's directorial trademark in the less innocent postwar world.

Yet, what most people remember about Ninotchka is the advertising slogan, `Garbo Laughs!', which consciously echoed the `Garbo Talks!' tag that boosted her sound debut in Clarence Brown's Anna Christie, just nine years earlier. She would only make one more picture, another comedy with Melvyn Douglas. But while it also suggested that the great diva was a deft comedienne, the writing and direction of George Cukor's Two-Faced Woman (1941) left a lot to be desired and Garbo opted to quit rather than endure such negative criticism again.

Despite her misgivings, Garbo was always set to headline this romantic comedy of political manners. However, William Powell and Cary Grant were originally considered as her co-star and Lubitsch only consented to direct after George Cukor decamped to Gone With the Wind and MGM agreed to make The Shop Around the Corner (1940) as part of the deal. However it's hard to see how Lubitsch could have resisted a storyline that sees assistant Soviet commissar Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) arrives in Paris to see why agents Buljanoff (Felix Bressart), Ironoff (Sig Ruman) and Kopalski (Alexander Granach) are taking so long to sell Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire)'s confiscated jewellery. However, she soon discovers that they have been corrupted by the Western ways epitomised by Count Leon Dolga (Melvyn Douglas), who delights in introducing her to the frivolous pleasures of capitalism.

Disliking Gottfried Reinhardt and S.N. Behrman's screenplay (in which Buljanoff, Ironoff and Kopalski were played straight), Lubitsch commissioned a rewrite from Wilder, Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch, although he also made major uncredited contributions. Yet for all the sparkling wit, some of the Bolshevik-Capitalist gags feel forced and the storyline droops after Leon follows Ninotchka back to Moscow.

However, Lubitsch's major concern was Garbo, whose insecurities were exacerbated by the demands of deadpan clowning. She was particularly nervous about the drunk scene, which she considered highly vulgar. Reports vary as to the nature of their relationship. But Lubitsch managed to relax Garbo to the extent that she was not only very funny, but also more feminine than in any role bar Camille and it's the fact that she comes across as a woman and not an icon that makes this performance so memorable.

Cole Porter musicalised the story as Silk Stockings, which was filmed by Rouben Mamoulian with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in 1957. Similarly, The Shop Around the Corner was reworked by Robert Z. Leonard for Judy Garland and Van Johnson as In the Good Old Summertime (1949), which stuck closely enough to the Nikolaus Laszlo stage play, Parfumerie, to which Lubitsch had owned the rights before selling them to Louis B. Mayer for $62,500. In the 1940 version, Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) comes to work at Hugo Matuschek (Frank Morgan)'s Budapest clothing store unaware that trusted clerk Alfred Kralik (James Stewart), with whom he has struck up an immediate mutual antipathy, is the lonelyhearts pen pal she has come to know as `Dear Friend' during their secret romantic correspondence.

Although he always claimed that Matuschek & Company was inspired by a shop that he fondly recalled in Budapest, there's little doubt that Lubitsch had his father Simon's Berlin outfitters in mind. Such personal inspiration was reinforced by exhaustive research to ensure that Matuschek's sold exactly what was then for sale back home. Even the $1.98 dress that Margaret Sullavan unearthed for her character had to be altered and bleached in the sun to conform to Lubitsch's precise vision of both the emporium and its employees. But such meticulous preparation enabled him to complete the shoot in just 27 days at a cost of $474,000.

With Europe already at war, this was an unashamedly nostalgic film about maintaining the status quo. The clerks tolerated the indecision and impoliteness of the customers for fear of alienating Mr Matuschek, who himself dreaded the discovery of his wife's long-suspected infidelity, lest it damage his reputation and authority. Even Alfred and Klara resist the temptation to meet their epistolary sweetheart, in case their romantic illusion was shattered by cruel reality.

However, life at its most melodramatic does intrude upon the idyll, with Matuschek firing Kralik in the mistaken belief that he is his wife's lover (when it is, in fact, the arrant Ferenc Vadas - who is played to ingratiating perfection by Joseph Schildkraut) and then attempting suicide. But such extremes enabled Lubitsch to establish a new idealised harmony, in which Kralik is promoted to manager and, thus, gains the confidence to declare his feelings for Klara.

But while the storyline was undoubtedly sweet, it was the sense of community - complete with its petty rivalries and sycophancies - and the need to remain employed at a time of economic uncertainty that made the film infinitely more charming than its descendants, the aforementioned In the Good Old Summertime and Nora Rphron's You've Got Mail (1998).

Lubitsch had always abhorred jokes about blindness until he saw WC Fields's It's a Gift (1934) and that realisation that serious subjects could be funny underpinned his vituperative black comedy, To Be Or Not To Be (1942), which centres on an egocentric ham actor in occupied Poland, Joseph Tura (Jack Benny), who is persuaded to impersonate both Professor Alexander Siletsky (Stanley Ridges) and Gestapo officer Colonel Ehrhardt (Sig Rumann) after exiled pilot Stanislav Sobinski (Robert Stack) enlists the help of Tura's vivacious wife Maria (Carole Lombard) to prevent a plot to compromise the resistance.

Sig Rumann's boast, `So they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt?', must rank as the most subversive joke of the entire Second World War. Yet, it was closely followed by his earlier quip, `What he did to Shakespeare, we are now doing to Poland', which so shocked some members of Lubitsch's cast and entourage that they suggested its removal. But the only dialogue that was cut from this courageous farce thriller was the question `What could happen in a plane?', as the answer had been made all too chillingly clear by Carole Lombard's tragic death on a bond-selling rally less than a month after the picture wrapped.

Having prompted Charlie Chaplin to make The Great Dictator (1940), producer Alexander Korda must take some credit for ensuring United Artists's backing for this contentious project. Lubitsch had originally considered making it a comeback vehicle for Maurice Chevalier and Miriam Hopkins, but his preference soon switched to Jack Benny and he dropped  Hopkins after she began lobbying to have her role boosted. However, Carole Lombard was only cast in the face of opposition from her husband, Clark Gable, who not only objected to the screenplay, but who also (in true Tura fashion) disliked Lubitsch's habit of flirting with his wife.

However, it proved a happy production, despite Benny's occasional bouts of anxious inferiority and Miklos Rosza's refusal to compose the score. But a storm of protest greeted its release and Lubitsch was forced to defend his film against accusations of trivialising both Poland's plight and the German threat. Insisting that he had depicted Tura's troupe as resourceful and united in their reckless heroism, Lubitsch countered claims that his Nazis had been mere cartoon buffoons by stressing their potential for evil that had been established in the opening footage of a blitzed Warsaw. But, like most satire on a supposedly taboo topic, this masterpiece could only be fully appreciated with the passage of time.

Lubitsch would be dead within five years of the release of this comic masterpiece. Billy Wilder lamented `No more Lubitsch', as he left his funeral. But companion William Wyler summed up the mood of the whole of Hollywood when he replied: `Worse than that. No more Lubitsch pictures.' Ironically, his penultimate solo outing as a director, Heaven Can Wait (1943), centred on recently deceased Kansas lothario Henry van Cleeve (Don Ameche), who descends into Hell and is asked by the Devil (Laird Cregar) to recount his womanising adventures, with particular reference to his  relationship with the love of his life, Martha Strabel (Gene Tierney).

Newly arrived at 20th Century-Fox after two decades at Paramount and frustrated in bids to film A Self-Made Cinderella and Margin for Error, Lubitsch and longtime writing partner Samuel Raphaelson set about revising Leslie Bus-Fekete's 1934 play, Birthday. Himself going through a reasonably amicable divorce during pre-production, Lubitsch had a sharper than usual insight into gender politics and there's clearly something of himself in Henry Van Cleeve. Indeed, this would explain his dual intent of depicting a man who is always ahead of his times, while exploring how quickly recent memory becomes the distant past.

But this is anything but a regretful veteran's lament. Lubitsch wrote the part with Fredric March and Rex Harrison in mind and was disappointed when studio boss Darryl F. Zanuck insisted on casting Don Ameche to bring some commercial appeal to a character he felt would be wholly resistible to respectable audiences. However, Lubitsch came to admire the subtlety of Ameche's genial roguery and he was even eventually pleased with Gene Tierney's patient loyalty (although his determination to rein in her tendency to emotional excess caused initial friction). Indeed, there isn't a bad performance here, with the supporting turns of indulgent grandfather Charles Coburn, prosaic cousin Allyn Joslyn and nouveau riche grotesques Eugene Pallette and Marjorie Main among the standouts.

Yet this is always Lubitsch's picture. His famous `Touch' is in evidence everywhere, but most notably in the scenes in which Henry learns that he's just bribed a showgirl that his son no longer cares for, in which Martha delivers her charming speech about realising Henry would no longer stray because he'd developed a tummy, and in which the couple dance a last waltz on their 25th anniversary. But even more impressive are Lubitsch's restrained use of Technicolor and period trapping, the narrative control that permits flashbacks within flashbacks, and the measured pacing that not only conveyed the mood of a bygone era, but which also encapsulated a classical style of Hollywood film-making that was soon to disappear forever as realism intruded upon the postwar world.