The Sunday Intertitle: Catherine Was Great

This is the little essay I penned for HippFest to accompany the screening of FORBIDDEN PARADISE: introducing a general audience to the filmmaker and stars, that sort of thing. Hope you enjoy.

Ernst Lubitsch came to Hollywood as part of the first European exodus, what Billy Wilder called “the exodus of the talented ones.” In other words, Lubitsch didn’t leave Germany because he was Jewish, but because Hollywood offered him a lot of money and a set of fresh challenges. Later, he would become Wilder’s mentor, teaching the director of Some Like it Hot much about the art of comedy.

In his native land, Lubitsch had begun as a rather broad clown, before becoming a sensitive director of historical epics which uncovered the private lives of kings and queens from Ann Boleyn to Marie Antoinette. His ability to probe these boudoir activities without ever upsetting the censor made him ideally suited to the movies’ golden age: the famous “Lubitsch touch” referred to this ability to be discretely suggestive, titillating without vulgarity. He became famous for his use of closed doors (much on display here, along with the attendant keyholes), which could imply offscreen antics far filthier than anything that could be shown at the time.

In Hollywood, Lubitsch embarked on a series of more modern stories with The Marriage Circle, where he found star Adolphe Menjou an ideal interpreter of his sly wit. And Menjou, as the fixer to a lusty queen, is very much the star attraction in Forbidden Paradise, despite the presence of the stellar glamour icon Pola Negri, with whom Lubitsch had made several German films.

Negri had always wanted to play Catherine the Great, and that’s more or less what she’s doing here, though the story is updated and the location changed to one of those little Ruritanian films so beloved of this director. The idea of the royal lady who uses her personal guard as a male harem certainly derives from gossip about the tsarina. Here, hilariously named leading man Rod La Rocq is on hand to be seduced – something of a stiff in early talkies, his wooden demeanour is perfectly exploited by Lubitsch as he plays an upright plank of a man, astonished to find he’s as corruptible as anyone else. Among Lubitsch’s many gifts was an ability to find comedy gold in unlikely places, often transforming unpromising stars into effective comedians by exploiting their weaknesses (comedy is all about weakness).

Pola is tempestuous and lusty as her fans expected, but also poking fun at her own persona. Having taken royalty slightly seriously in Europe, he was waking up to the comic possibilities, which he would go on to exploit in a whole series of operetta-films and Ruritanian romances. In Lubitsch’s world, power is always in the hands of people as basically ignoble and petty as the rest of us, so the contrast between the dignity of office and the indignity of basic human life is sharply expressed. “At least twice a day, the most dignified man in the world is ridiculous,” he was fond of saying.

But it’s the silk-hatted, mustachioed Menjou, exuding the satisfaction of a cat who’s just cornered the world market in cream, who captures the attention, his smallest gesture registering as a comic tour de force. Always on top of the situation even when it seems he’s sure to be flummoxed, never at a loss for words (no mean trick in a silent film), and somehow just slightly aware of our admiration (or maybe it’s his own?), Menjou holds the film together, adding dry wit even to scenes he’s not in.

One of Lubitsch’s advantages in Hollywood was his background in European theatre: he knew of seemingly thousands of obscure but well-designed plays that could be adapted to the screen. Rivals suspected him of employing a secret roomful of Hungarians, penning all these plays especially for him to turn into films.

Lubitsch must have liked this story: he adapted it again as A Royal Scandal in 1945, with Tallulah Bankhead as a formidable Queen Catherine. But Pola got there first.

9 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Catherine Was Great”

  1. Sinton Stranger Says:

    I love your column/blog. I have a lot of trouble with searching! I read what you wrote about Playmates, (i studied John Barrymore for many years but never saw this film) got the film, but cannot find wheee you wrote about it. I imagine it to be within the Laurel and Hardy remarks but cannot locate it even by search. Please give me help. Thank you Sinton Stranger

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. The only solid reference to Playmates I can find is here:
    There’s a brief bit about it in the comments section.
    I’ve never actually seen it!

  3. DBenson Says:

    Warner Archive has it on DVD in a Kay Kyser double feature:

  4. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Late in her career, Mae wrote and starred in a show called “Catherine Was Great” A pal of mine from the 70’s (now deceased I’m sure) either saw it or heard about it. He loved doing Mae’s big entrance “Russia needs her men. I fact I need a man!”

  5. It’s a plot point in the lamentable/gobsmacking Sextette also that Mae has such a property in her catalogue.

  6. chris schneider Says:

    What you say about Menjou here reminds me of the Menjou performance in Kazan’s MAN ON A TIGHTROPE. The difference is that, in the Kazan, he serves a questionable political regime rather than a questionable monarch. Also that the cream you allude to is in short supply.

  7. He’s equally suave, and again far less endearing, in Paths of Glory. He had a numbered bag of tricks, apparently, many derived from Lubitsch, but he could turn them to widely different purposes.

  8. I always admired Menjou for his fearlessly contemptible heel turn in PATHS OF GLORY, but then I saw bits of his HUAC testimony, and started to suspect he thought he was the good guy in PATHS.

  9. Since Menjou was a guy who used the same adaptable tricks for every role, there’s little to separate what he does in Roxy Hart (comic scoundrel) from Little Miss Marker (sweetie) from Paths of Glory (out and out villain). The man himself clearly had a lack of understanding of democracy that would also allow have allowed him to adapt to modern times with alacrity.

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