Ernst Lubitsch’s marriage movies are sophisticated, witty, and timeless, and one of the best is his 1924 film, The Marriage Circle. It takes place in Vienna, “the city of laughter and light romance,” and it begins with an unexpected focus: a man has a hole in the toe of his sock. It’s a very eloquent hole, of course, because this is a Lubitsch movie. The hole is the definition of a marriage in which the husband has no socks, no shirt collars, and no satisfaction, but his wife has drawers crammed full of everything she needs. Furthermore, she’s not interested in his sock, throws his clothes carelessly onto the bed, grabs his shaving mirror out of his hands to put on her makeup, and generally ignores him while she primps for whatever interesting new man is going to come her way. It’s obvious from the very beginning that The Marriage Circle will be a modern comedy of manners as well as a comedy about modern manners. It will play out on a polite, well-behaved surface, but sex—to do or not to do—is boiling underneath and on everyone’s mind.
Circle’s plot is a mélange of marital missteps and misunderstandings, a merry-go-round for grown-ups. A happily married couple (Florence Vidor and Monte Blue) become entangled with the sockless sufferer (Adolphe Menjou) and his faithless wife (Marie Prevost) who happens to be Vidor’s “best friend.” Menjou’s socks and Prevost’s lust lead to Blue’s temptation and Vidor’s frustration … and then Menjou’s machinations cause Vidor’s despair and Blue’s prevarication until things sort out and Prevost becomes the victim of Menjou’s rejection. All four are observed by the interfering Creighton Hale, a bachelor who stands around hoping to cash in on Vidor’s disappointment.
All Circle’s characters are well played by actors who are more than a cast: they are an ensemble in perfect sync. Florence Vidor, the first wife of director King Vidor, was a major silent star who embodied a softly beautiful, feminine woman of intelligence and the strength to fight for herself if necessary. (She left movies to wed her second husband, violinist Jascha Heifitz.) Monte Blue was an Indiana boy, a big six-foot-three guy from a background of poverty who worked his way to Hollywood as ranch hand, firefighter, circus rider, lumberjack—and even managed to graduate from Purdue along the way. He brings to the Lubitsch universe a comic gift. He’s believable as both a husband dumb enough to get into hot water and shrewd enough to lie his way out of it. Marie Prevost is one of the silent era’s most iconic figures, having done all the things a colorful Hollywood life requires. She was a Sennett bathing beauty, had an affair with Howard Hughes, and died an alcoholic at the age of forty. Her death even has the necessary scandal: it was incorrectly reported that her little dog nibbled on her dead body to stay alive before her corpse was discovered. (Joan Crawford, a loyal friend, paid for Prevost’s funeral.) Lubitsch called Prevost “a master at underplaying.” In Circle, she’s perfect as a woman who knows what she wants (“I need love”) and who moves quickly from man to man if she doesn’t get it fast enough. (In one flamboyant scene, she tries to seduce Blue, ultimately threatening to shoot herself if he doesn’t deliver. After he escapes her clutches, she nonchalantly flops down on a couch and starts filing her nails.)
Adolphe Menjou is impeccable in the role of the coldly observant husband who knows how to handle a straying wife. (He hires a detective.) He may play a wronged husband in the plot, but he ruthlessly sets up his hapless wife for his own purposes. Menjou is known today for two things outside his film work. His fabulous wardrobe landed him a “Best Dressed American Male” award nine times, and his extreme right-wing politics made him a star witness in the notorious HUAC investigations into alleged Hollywood communism. Menjou had a long film career, appearing in a distinguished list of films, both silent and sound, from 1914 to 1960: Chaplin’s A Woman of Paris (1923), Valentino’s The Sheik (1921), Morocco (1931), Little Miss Marker (1934), State of the Union (1948), and Paths of Glory (1957). He acted alongside everyone from Fred Astaire to Kirk Douglas, Marlene Dietrich to Betty Grable, and was directed by von Sternberg, Capra, and Kubrick, among others. His dominant film image is that of the dapper sophisticate with a tart tongue (although he did do other things, such as a French trapper in the western set in the 1800s, Across the Wide Missouri). He anchors the Round Robin marital shenanigans with a casual, but cruel gravitas.
The fifth wheel of the movie is Creighton Hale, an Irish-born actor who came to America in the 1910s and appeared successfully in many important silent films: Orphans of the Storm, The Cat and the Canary, Way Down East, and others. Although his success declined when sound arrived, his clean-cut face, his professional demeanor, and his ability to play a variety of roles kept him employed. He was undistinctive, but reliable, the perfect fellow to be cast as a plot device.
Ernst Lubitsch is the real star of The Marriage Circle. It was only his second American movie, the first having been Rosita, starring Mary Pickford. With a long and successful career in Germany behind him, and with all of Hollywood’s money and toys to play with, Lubitsch advanced his reputation with Circle. He directs his actors well and uses a minimum of title cards, letting an audience “read” the “thoughts” of his players. (It’s the beginning of what we know as modern star acting.) He’s very precise with images, as when Vidor cuts a handful of roses for her husband to take to his office. The flowers advance the plot, define relationships (both true and false), suggest decisions made internally by each of the three, and clearly delineate misunderstandings. Lubitsch maneuvers a loving wife, an obtuse husband, and a hot-to-go bachelor into the stuff divorce is made of … without really telling the audience anything. He lets us see it for ourselves by following the roses as they are passed about, managing to complicate the lives of three characters without any of them realizing what’s happening.
Lubitsch’s marriage movies make an interesting comparison to those of his compatriot, Cecil B. DeMille, who could be called the Father of the American Movie Marriage. Lubitsch was champagne to DeMille’s hearty ale. There’s a kind of freedom from danger in Lubitsch’s marital woes. Everyone is essentially too well-mannered for any real disaster to occur. DeMille, his opposite, tells the marriage story as a cautionary tale (Don’t Change Your Husband or Why Change Your Wife?), but he also eroticized the union, ironically commandeering it for the purpose of showing a little sin that could be repudiated.
In The Marriage Circle, Lubitsch suggests that, if a marriage is to survive, it will need more than love and romance. In a world full of temptation, it will need a lot of luck … and the skill to tell adroit lies on the spur of the moment. It will have to maneuver through jealousy, infidelity, sexuality, dubious friendship, and just plain boredom. Manners are more important than morals, so a husband and a wife will have to know the rules of the game. (Advice is available: “There’s more danger in dancing than dining.”) In the end, Circle’s loving couple stay together, but they’ve become more aware of their own sexuality and that has made each more exciting to the other. Wised up as they are, they’re happier than ever. It seems that just thinking about sin can pay off! What a great Lubitschian lesson for us all.
Presented at A Day of Silents 2019 with live music by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra