Archive for Ernst Lubitsch

Princess Diary

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 23, 2013 by dcairns

With the kind permission of the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Film, I’m reproducing here my article which was handed out to the audience attending THE OYSTER PRINCESS.


“His life was an uninterrupted ribbon of film.” — unnamed friend of Ernst Lubitsch.

Ernst Lubitsch is best remembered for the sophisticated comedies of his Hollywood career, such as Ninotchka (“Garbo laughs!”) and To Be Or Not To Be: as Hitchcock was known for thrills and DeMille for epics, we was associated with “the Lubitsch touch,” an indefinable continental wit and daring that was exotic yet accessible, risqué yet tasteful.

But he first made his mark in his native Germany, as a low comedian, often playing a naughty (and rather superannuated) schoolboy, but as his career progressed his act grew slicker. By 1919 he had almost abandoned performing, but had preserved his fame while moving behind the camera. Having mastered knockabout farce and broad innuendo, he swiftly began to explore the possibilities of storytelling by suggestion, and the use of design, framing and editing to create films which were beautiful objects as well as machines for producing belly laughs.

In the first ten years of his career, he made a fantastic range of dramas and comedies: he could alternate between vast historical tragedies and bawdy comic romps, but somehow established an accepted public image that encompassed all those things. In his period films, the focus was often on observing behaviour, thus humanizing history; whereas his contemporary comedies came complete with exaggerated sets and expressive décor, making them as sumptuous as the courtly antics of Ann Boleyn or Madame DuBarry.

With The Oyster Princess, he was out to make something giddily strange, broadly caricatured, and very silly. He succeeded!


EIN GROTESKES LUSTSPIEL — it’s easy to see what the subtitle of this 1919 farce is driving at. Lust and grotesquery figure prominently from the off, even in the way Victor Jansen, his pouchy face like a conglomeration of morning rolls, puffs on a cigar as fat and smouldering as the Hindenberg.

Jansen is going at that cigar, which is clasped by a liveried footman, while dictating to a roomful of stenographers, establishing him as a big-shot American businessman, as such a figure might be viewed in a newspaper cartoon. His face is scarily enormous, but his body has been padded out so that his head sits atop it like an insignificant cherry on a cake. The groteskes lustspiel has begun.

Lubitsch was always amused by the pretensions of the powerful, hence all the Ruritanian kings in his later Hollywood movies (eg The Merry Window), and Jansen is ancestor to all those big but oddly helpless men. To aid in the send-up, the film is staged in palatial yet surreally impractical sets, making every frame an elegant, eye-popping oddity. Lubitsch is out to prove that the grotesque can be beautiful.

The title immediately makes us realize that this “oyster king” must have a daughter, and so it proves: toothsome Ossi Oswalda, who sets about her role with a twinkling savagery that’s hilariously Teutonic. A room-wrecking temper tantrum is immediately followed by an outburst of joy that’s just as elementally destructive. From her spontaneous desire to keep up with her fellow heiresses by marrying a European aristocrat, the story expands to include a matchmaker, and then a penniless prince and his manservant, and so on, until a universe of bizarre types is parading before us.


The plot, which is relatively simple by farce standards, hinges on arranged marriage, mistaken identity and personal eccentricity, but works mainly as a pretext for fabulously extended comedy moments, most notably the celebrated foxtrot epidemic, in which a dance spreads through the film like an airborne virus, infecting everyone with its insistent rhythm. In Hollywood, Lubitsch would stage similarly ebullient Charleston and waltz numbers, but never with the crazy invention he shows here. It’s probably the highlight of this whole, manically experimental phase of Lubitsch’s long and distinguished career, and it seems a metaphor for the way his comedy starts small and focused on specific details, then expands to envelop the whole of life. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky wrote, “A Lubitsch comedy isn’t just a meal — it’s the table, the cooks, the menu, the friends invited for dinner, the waiters, and even the competing restaurant across the street.”

As Lubitsch himself later told David Niven, “Nobody can play comedy who does not have a circus going on in his head.”

THE OYSTER PRINCESS is available from Masters of Cinema in a box set to which I contributed liner notes on DIFFERENT movies. And if you but it via this link, I get a percentage, which will help keep the timberwolf from the transom.

Lubitsch In Berlin [Masters of Cinema] [DVD] [1918]

The Sunday Intertitle: Uncle Harry

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on March 3, 2013 by dcairns


VIDEOBRARY? It is an ugly word.

HELEN’S BABIES stars a positively nubile Edward Everett Horton as a man who’s found fame as an author of a book on child-rearing, but who has no practical experience of the subject whatsoever. It’s a classic Hollywood situation, the man with book-learning but no life-skills — of course he gets landed with a couple of tiny terrors, one of whom is played by the marvelous Baby Peggy, an authentic prodigy. The movie’s situations may be somewhat hackneyed, but B.P.’s sparkle flashes through the decades and outshines even that of her co-star Clara Bow.


B.P. or Peggy-Jean Montgomery to use her birth name, is the subject of a fascinating documentary, BABY PEGGY: THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM, by Vera Iwerebor. The child star fondly and not-so-fondly relates the story of her cinematic career, providing a unique and moving insight into the silent era. Regular readers may also be interested to spot a brief appearance by the late F. Gwynplaine MacIntrye…

Iwerebor’s doc is just one  of the attractions screening at this year’s Hippodrome Festival of Silent Film in Bo’ness, which in just three years has become one of the key events in Scotland’s movie calendar, along with Glasgow and Edinburgh’s varied programmes.

This year I’m writing a piece for Bo’ness on Lubitsch’s THE OYSTER PRINCESS — in fact, I better stop writing this and start writing that. But if you’re in Scotland this month, consider the short schlep to this fair town, to see silent classics starring the likes of Laurel & Hardy, Buster Keaton and Gloria Swanson, with live musical accompaniment, projected in Scotland’s oldest purpose-built cinema. Check out the programme here.


The Sunday Intertitle: Big head of Pola

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on January 20, 2013 by dcairns


I’ve been on a Lubitsch kick lately — I did a lecture about him on Friday, so it was quite useful, as well as pleasurable. It finally got me motivated to watch DIE BERGKATZE (THE WILD CAT), which I own in a terrific Masters of Cinema box set, to which I actually contributed essays (on SUMURUN and ANNA BOLEYN), but which I somehow had never gotten around to. Now that the thing’s out of print, I should start appreciating it.


Like THE OYSTER PRINCESS, my favourite German Lubitsch, this is billed as “a grotesque,” and more than lives up to the billing. It might have been called ROMEO AND JULIET IN THE SNOW, except that Lubitsch had already used that title, and also that might give an impression of tragic romance rather than knockabout foolishness. But the plot deals with star-crossed lovers, a womanizing soldier (much like Chevalier in THE MERRY WIDOW) and a wild bandit girl (Pola Negri), and the whole thing is set around the bandit camp and the ridiculously ornate army fort, both situated in the snow-capped mountains. The film somehow unites baroque sets with real locations, partly by framing everything through fancy vignettes. The arched, or circular, or leaf-shaped frames are so relentless that when an occasional rectangular shot shows up, that looks peculiar.


Lubitsch had a gift for inspiring comic performances from actors not noted for being comedians (he told David Niven: “Nobody can play comedy who does not have a circus in his head.”) Pola can incline to the grotesque in her mannerisms anyway, so she might seem easy to divert into self-parody, but the lady had a mind of her own. In fact, her performance suits the film’s rambunctious tone, but she still manages to be the main character you care about, to the extent that you care at all.

The “Lubitsch touch” may be present in spots, but really the comedy here is broad and big and cartoony: a distraught lover weeps in his tent until a river flows from the flaps, snaking through the snow in a miniature canyon. When the very drunk commander of the fort tries to open a closet that Pola is hiding in, she snaps ~


“It’s occupied!”

“In my wardrobe? Shame on you!” the befuddled lush mutters, before staggering off.

So when I ask the trivia question “Which Lubitsch film has a joke about Pola Negri shitting in a cupboard?” you’ll know, won’t you?


Title of blog post explanation: according to Micheal MacLiammoir, Orson Welles was fond of a story about an émigré director in Hollywood who asked for a closeup of his star by demanding a “big head of Pola.” The phrase became code for a closeup on the set of Welles’ OTHELLO. Maybe it’s a German tradition — Hitchcock used the expression “big head” for a facial close-up throughout his career. It’s quite useful, since a close-up can be of a foot, a hand, a chair or anything. When one asks for a “close-up of Pola,” one’s cinematographer might well ask, “What part?”


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 385 other followers