Archive for November 13, 2022

The Sunday Intertitle: In short pants

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on November 13, 2022 by dcairns

I had associated Ernst Lubitch’s clowning with his very early days, and it’s true that the director-star’s days as Sally Pinkus, horrible schoolboy, were behind him by the time he started doing really notable work, but I was forgetting that MEYER FROM BERLIN is actually a fairly mature Lubitsch product — Sally Meyer is a more restrained creation than Pinkus. The comedy is broad, but not grotesquely so, though EL’s schnozzola and gurn always impart a slightly vulgar aspect to his capering.

But this is a movie made after his CARMEN so it’s the work of a man who has developed some regard for a credible dramatic framework, and Meyer is a well-heeled bourgeoise, not an improbably superannuated teenager. He has a wife and presumably responsibilities though he discards both within ten minutes, launching himself upon an ill-advised Alpine holiday trek.

The film does tend to behave as if Lubitsch in lederhosen were the kind of comedy gold you just needed to lay before the public, at as much length as possible, to paralyse it with mirth. I guess there’s a double joke in Ernst’s physical appearance, a (poorly) grown man in short trousers, and in the ethnic joke of an undisguisedly Jewish stereotype (affectionately played) dragging up in Tyrolean garb. At any rate, we have plenty of time to appreciate it.

This is not yet the Lubitsch of sly inference. Early on, he attempts a pratfall in the street, and it’s a graceless, unmotivated thing, interesting only for the way it inspires an apparently real schoolkid in the far distance to copy it. Though his leaping around in the bedroom does show some verve.

Like later Lubitsch lubriciousness, this is a comedy of infidelity — the dramatic tension comes from the fact that all married men are presumed to crave opportunities for cheating, but they still love their wives and want to protect them from painful discoveries — material that would still be in play at the time of HEAVEN CAN WAIT, at the far end of the distinguished career. Meyer’s seduction technique is kind of impressive: making no pretense at subtlety, he is fearless of looking ridiculous — maybe he even WANTS to look ridiculous, to be disarming. One feels that such self-confidence might actually pay off, at least upon occasion, and if it were applied continuously, as here, a few successes might justify it, especially as nobody seems offended by his blatant lechery.

Lubitsch retired from acting with SUMURUN, but appears in the trailer for THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER, Hitchcock-fashion, and toyed with playing the lead in a film of The Inspector General when his heart condition made directing seem inadvisable. So the urge to perform was still there, but he satiated it mostly by vicarious means, through those he directed.

This is also kind of Lubitsch’s version of a bergfilm or mountain film, a genre he toyed with occasionally, in his own idiosyncratic way. Meyer, told that he has to climb a mountain with his potential mistress, has a nightmare in which the mountain comes to Meyer, squatting rockily at his bedside like one of Richard Dreyfuss’ domestic Devil’s Tower assemblages.

At times, Meyer resembles a silent Groucho Marx — though his social gracelessness is born mostly of naivety, rather than being assumed, like Groucho’s, he deals with opponents by refusing to recognize the basis they’re operating from. Challenged to a duel, he replies “If I’m not there on time, start without me,”a very Marxian attitude. Of course with intertitles you lose the pace which is a major weapon in Groucho’s arsenal. But it’s still liberating to see a man blithely trample the social niceties beneath his clompy hiking shoes.

This verbal humour — which would dominate later Lubitsch, in a more nuanced form — is definitely preferable to Ernst sitting on the sharp bit of his alpenstock and making an anal intrusion grimace, which he also does. Late in the game, he claims to have once worked as a shoe salesman, a callback to SHOE PALACE PINKUS, suggesting that the two Sallies are indeed one.

Anticipating William Holden in THE BRIDGES OF TOKO-RI, Lubitsch actually beds down with his romantic interest — but, having spent the whole film intimating how much he’d like to screw her, inexplicably makes zero advances. It’s like all his flirtation is an empty front — he’s all mouth and short trousers. Although his wife, speeding to the scene, doesn’t see it that way.