It’s nothing short of scandalous how poorly treated Ernst Lubitsch’s American silent period has been. Fortunately that has begun to change with the Museum of Modern Art’s recent restorations of Rosita (1923) and Forbidden Paradise (1924), the fourth film he made in Hollywood. Lubitsch came to America in 1922, imported from Germany by Mary Pickford, with his exalted reputation earned largely through his historical spectacles. Those grandly opulent and racy films managed to rival Hollywood’s spectacles in scope while outdoing them with a wider range and depth and more truthful depiction of human behavior. But he was not all about spectacles, as Europe already knew and Hollywood soon learned. As Jean Renoir wrote of Lubitsch in 1967, “His films were loaded with a kind of wit which was specifically the essence of the intellectual Berlin in those days. This man was so strong that when he was asked by Hollywood to work there, he not only didn’t lose his Berlin style, but he converted the Hollywood industry to his own way of expression.” Lubitsch had developed his talents in Germany over a diverse display of cinematic material that provided a bounteous foundation for the new developments his style underwent in America, including more intimate comedy-dramas and a send-up of the spectacle genre with Forbidden Paradise.
A loose, loopy comedy set in a mythical kingdom straddling the modern day and what seems like the 18th century, Paramount’s Forbidden Paradise is an experimental film that plays daringly with genre expectations. It’s a playful riff on some of the legends about Russian Czarina Catherine the Great. Forbidden Paradise was adapted by Hans Kräly and Agnes Christine Johnston from the play The Czarina by Lajos Biró and Melchior Lengyel (Lengyel later provided the story material for Lubitsch’s Angel, Ninotchka, and To Be or Not to Be).
Pola Negri, who made several films in Germany with Lubitsch, including their landmark 1919 spectacle Madame DuBarry, had come to Hollywood a little before him. She reunites with the director as “Queen Catherine,” providing one of the film’s numerous points of connections with his German spectacles. But Forbidden Paradise seems positively surreal in its approach to “history.” The queen wears dazzling modern gowns and sports a bobbed 1920s hairdo, and her suave, cynical chamberlain (Adolphe Menjou) rides through the countryside in an open automobile to defeat a threatened rebellion by brandishing a checkbook as his very modern weapon of choice. Lubitsch is indulging his stylistic and narrative whims with abandon in this delightful film. Negri is much more relaxed and natural than in the German spectacles, bringing a sense of modernity and spontaneity to her sexually liberated character, and the film’s light tone and playful style make the mood infectious.
Before its restoration by MoMA, Forbidden Paradise could be seen only in poor dupe prints of a condensed version missing more than a fifth of its original length. This lavish Paramount production was neglected by the studio, as happened with most silent films. It survived in Czechoslovakian and Russian archives as well as at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York, and in the American Film Institute collection at the Library of Congress. Some scenes are still missing (about ten percent of the original), but the seventy-three-minute MoMA version is much fuller than the choppy, blurry versions available for viewing in recent years. The film’s most incisive Lubitsch Touch has the rebel general (Nick De Ruiz) clutching his sword when confronted by the chamberlain but relaxing his grip when Menjou’s cigar-holding hand, also in close-up, pulls his checkbook from a coat pocket. In some dupe copies, the scene went by so quickly that it was barely intelligible. But in this restoration, the rhythm of those intercut close-ups is graceful, and the Touch makes its point as wittily as one might expect from Lubitsch at his best.
The vaguely Russian (or Balkan) sets by Hans Dreier are at once impressive and bizarre—Catherine’s castle is decorated with elaborate conical set pieces that look like giant artichokes. Late in the film, Catherine dashes around desperately, a tiny figure in huge empty halls, as her rebellious army masses outside, joined by the mutinous palace guards. But the rebellion is quickly and humorously dispelled when Menjou returns from the rebel headquarters to report that he’s bought them off, and they all declare renewed fealty to the queen. Until that point, most of the action, so to speak, takes place in the queen’s intimate, relatively modest private quarters, mostly her boudoir, office, and antechamber.
Unlike in his German spectacles, which sometimes draw comedy from history but still are essentially dramas, the political level of Forbidden Paradise is a deliberate joke. The queen does not seem unduly despotic (at least we don’t see much of her effect on the common people), but her troops are whipped into rebellion by a male chauvinist soldier who objects to their being commanded by a woman, an attitude the film treats as absurd. Many of Catherine’s soldiers didn’t seem to object to her rule earlier, especially since she rewards her sexual conquests with the “Order of the Star,” pinning large medals in the shape of a starburst on their tunics. The doltish young leading man, Alexei (Rod La Rocque), a lieutenant promoted to head of the palace guard because the queen has the hots for him, is so proud of his star that his chest actually swells, bursting a button (Josef von Sternberg borrowed the medal gag for his kinky 1934 film about Catherine, The Scarlet Empress). There’s a charming comic Touch in Forbidden Paradise of the diminutive queen pulling a stool over with her foot so she can stand on it when she kisses Alexei. His mood is soon deflated when he attends a banquet filled entirely with officers wearing identical medals. The young officer already is wrestling with conflicted emotions over Catherine’s seductive tactics, since he is engaged to one of her ladies-in-waiting.
Lubitsch’s mischievous mixing of periods in Forbidden Paradise is his way of comically illustrating the saying plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Nevertheless, in Forbidden Paradise, he is dealing with a country that evokes elements of his father’s ancestral homeland, the site of the recent Bolshevik revolution. Lubitsch presented that land as ruled by barbaric methods of varying political ideologies not only in Ninotchka, his occasionally stinging 1939 satire of Stalinism, but also in The Patriot (1928), his last historical spectacle, whose storyline justifies the assassination of the mad Czar Paul I, Catherine’s son. The mockery of the political goings-on in Forbidden Paradise reflects some of Lubitsch’s skepticism about his ancestral land, whose anti-Semitism and despotism had caused his father to flee to Germany, but it conveys the director’s views in a more lightly satirical vein than The Patriot. Catherine may be a tyrant by profession, but an oddly sympathetic one, devoted primarily to her own pleasure and amusement in toying with men. When one (Alexei) finally denies her, she simply turns, with the encouragement of his pimpish chamberlain, to a new sex object, the Spanish ambassador (Fred Malatesta). The film ends with a Lubitsch door gag as the ambassador leaves her chambers wearing the ubiquitous star.
Lubitsch was scheduled to direct a 1945 remake of Forbidden Paradise, A Royal Scandal, but he proved too ill to do more than supervise (Otto Preminger took over directorial duties). Talk-heavy, ponderous in its humor, A Royal Scandal shines a spotlight on the contrasting virtues of the silent version and its romping, insouciant style. The world-weary Tallulah Bankhead gives a campy performance as Catherine the Great that pales in contrast to the genuinely sexy jollity of Pola Negri’s spirited characterization of Catherine’s hybrid reincarnation.
Adapted from How Did Lubitsch Do It? byJoseph McBride.Copyright © 2018 Joseph McBride. Used by arrangement with Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
Presented at A Day of Silents 2022 with live musical accompaniment by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra