Archive for The Marriage Circle

The Sunday Intertitle: Catherine Was Great

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on April 7, 2019 by dcairns

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.

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The Sunday Intertitle: I See France

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on February 26, 2012 by dcairns

SO THIS IS PARIS — Ernst Lubitsch, who famously said, “There is Paramount Paris and Metro Paris, and of course the real Paris. Paramount’s is the most Parisian of all.” Well, here he’s got Warner Paris, which isn’t as celebrated as the other three, but really it’s Lubitsch Paris.

He’s also having some good-natured fun with the Valentino cult, not in the way of outright spoofing (MUD AND SAND comes to mind, with Stan Laurel as “Rhubarb Vaselino”), but Patsy Ruth Miller (Lon Chaney’s Esmeralda) plays a respectable bourgeois obsessed with “Arab novels” and George Beranger is a kind of exotic dancer who attires himself in minimalist exotic garb.

There’s also more fanciful stuff, such as a dream sequence in which Monte Blue swallows his own cane, and a moment when, belittled by his wife, he literally diminishes to Grant Williams size.

All this and the celebrated Charleston sequence at the Artist’s Ball, a kind of follow-up to the Foxtrot Epidemic in Lubitsch’s earlier THE OYSTER PRINCESS.

Male lead Monte Blue seems a little charmless — this is a kind of variant on THE MARRIAGE CIRCLE, where Adolphe Menjou was more effective. But I can see why Lubitsch might like Blue, a slightly less grotesque, less bulbous version of Lubitsch himself. But he has a smarmy, El Brendel quality, and his clown-white foundation and dark lipstick suggests the Joker gone to seed.