It took a Mexican filmmaker at the Oscars to remind Americans that one of the most essential creators of its national cinema is an immigrant named Ernst Lubitsch. Parent to both the American movie musical and the rom-com, the brilliant twins that sustained the Hollywood film industry in its lean years and made it shine in its golden ones, Lubitsch plied his dual gifts for comedy and elegance into a subtle art that rightly bore his name—the “Lubitsch touch.” But long before there was any Trouble in Paradise or a Design for Living, before Garbo laughed or Jeannette MacDonald sang, Lubitsch was in his home country forging a remarkable first career.
A Russian Jew by heritage Lubitsch was born in Berlin and by age nineteen seems to have been a contender for hardest working actor in showbiz, playing supporting roles at Max Reinhardt’s groundbreaking theater in the evenings and then mugging it up on the city’s bawdy nighttime stages into the wee hours. He started appearing in movies in 1913, “daylighting” at the studio, playing typical young male characters borrowed from Yiddish theater, like the perennially titillated ladies’ footwear salesman in 1914’s Shoe Palace Pinkus, which he also directed. Once he had taken the helm, as he did earlier that year for a lost film with the promising title Miss Soapsuds, he’d found his true calling, gave up the theater—and began to work even harder. A visitor to the set of his 1921 ancient-Egypt spectacle The Loves of Pharaoh, perhaps overcome by the atmosphere, likened him to a dervish, because “[h]e can whirl through more work in a day than most directors can get past in a week.”
Of all his years in movies, German or American, 1919 might have seen Lubitsch at his most productively frenetic, whirling around about eleven films, seven released that year and three more in the works for 1920. While most of his 1919 releases were shorter comedies (running about forty minutes to just over an hour), two Lubitsch features also premiered, including the anomalous Rausch, an adaptation of a Strindberg drama starring Asta Nielsen. Three of the comedies featured his discovery, the mop-headed cherub with the mischievous center Ossi Oswaldi who had made her film debut in a supporting role in Lubitsch’s Shoe Palace Pinkus. In 1919’s films she takes the lead—My Wife, the Movie Star (presumed lost and, by the title, unbearably so), The Doll, and, of course, The Oyster Princess (Die Austernprinzessin). Loosely based on the Leo Fall farcical operetta The Dollar Princess, it is the one Lubitsch regarded as his first to spin satire from slapstick.
As Oyster Princess’s ripe American brat, Oswalda seems to channel a pubescent Veruca Salt just learning how to weaponize her estrogen. We first meet her smashing vases in her palatial quarters already in ruins from a tantrum brought on after reading that the Shoe-Polish heiress has become betrothed to a count. No trinket or stick of furniture is safe until her indulgent bulk of a father, the Oyster King (Victor Janson), promises to deliver a prince. Meanwhile, Prince Nucki (the sweetly handsome Harry Liedtke) is living the opposite of large in a one-room garret reduced to washing his own underthings.
Continental noblemen might be a bargain but even an impoverished royal has standards, so, after a visit from the matchmaker with an Old World proposal from the nouveau riche, Nucki sends his longtime valet Josef (Julius Falkenstein) to vet the prospective bride in his stead. Once inside the Oyster Princess’s kingdom, Josef is mistaken for the potential groom and the plot is set into kinetic motion. It’s improbable in the extreme but serves the ongoing joke about Europeans’ skeptical view of American can-do-ness. Besides, it’s hard to fuss over improbabilities as we’re giddily led along from one hilarious set piece to the next.
Armies of maids fitted with uniforms coded to their task (velvet bustiers for the bathers; satin bloomers for driers) tend to Ossi’s toilette where she doesn’t lift a finger. Meanwhile the valet is made to wait endlessly for an audience and he begins tracing the geometrical pattern in the parquet with his feet, until he’s practically doing a dance in the king-sized parlor all alone—a neat parallel with the infectious foxtrot of legions to come. When he summons servants to find out what’s taking so long, they instantly materialize in an obliging V-shape queue. The lavish wedding seems to also instantly materialize, with the ersatz couple off to take their vows in a carriage pulled by eight unnecessary horses and eight equally superfluous riders. An elaborate dinner follows, served by three hundred straight-backed waiters arranged in rows of absurdly redundant ranks.
There’s meaning behind all the metronomic madness, with Lubitsch mocking the martial nature of aristocracy (recently downgraded with the collapse of the German and Hapsburg empires) as well as overfed Americans and deprived Germans, freshly minted stereotypes from the new postwar reality. He even takes a gentle swipe at American racism in the form of four poker-faced body-men of African descent who attend to the Oyster King’s every single need, including the lighting of his preposterously rotund cigars and the administering of infinitesimal sips of coffee. Overindulging at the wedding feast is Josef, standing in for the poor deprived German finally getting a decent meal. His debauchery—he hasn’t had the upper-class’s practice—also serves to delay wedding night consummation (as does Ossi’s strong will), a plot necessity that forever absolves any complicity in the ridiculously prolonged case of mistaken identity. Throughout the film, whenever plot machinations threaten to snatch our suspended disbelief down from its airy heights, delight buoys it right back up into the clouds.
To Germans, it must have seemed a balm. The film did so well that extra prints had to be struck to meet exhibitor demand—no small thing as competition was fierce among scores of films hitting the theaters that year to take advantage of a gap in the country’s censorship laws and in hopes of being the “one” to break German productions back into the international market. Critics complained a bit about the comedy’s “American elements” and cast-of-hundreds silliness. But most quickly conceded, like Lichtbild-Bühne’s reviewer, that “the direction of Ernst Lubitsch here is at such a fabulous height, one idea chases the next so brilliantly that one actually forgets the qui pro quo of the so-called plot.” Film-Kurier’s critic believed it matched the worthiness of any super-production hoping to appeal abroad and wrote: “Whether an idea is strong or weak does not matter in a Lubitsch comedy. Here it is the ‘how’ not the ‘what,’” concluding quite correctly, “It will fill the seats of many cinemas for many weeks. Satis est.”
By now Lubitsch had a cast of regulars that included Hanson, Liedtke, Falkenstein, and, of course, Oswalda, rightly beloved as the German Mary Pickford, but with an appeal more raunchy than sweet. Lubitsch’s behind-the-camera collaborators, also fundamental no doubt to his impressive output that year, included production designer Kurt Richter, who had repurposed German Expressionism’s horror-house aesthetics for playhouse whimsy in Lubitsch’s The Doll earlier in the year; his regular cameraman Theodor Sparkühl, who later helped put the noir in American film noir; and longtime colleague and friend Hanns Kräly, with writing credits through Lubitsch’s last American silent.
The final film of Lubitsch’s to get a 1919 release, Madame Dubarry, was the movie that opened America’s door to German films postwar. A major undertaking, Madame Dubarry is set on the eve of the French Revolution and features Lubitsch’s dark-haired muse Pola Negri as Louis XV’s doomed coquette. It required another century’s castles and ball gowns and furniture, as well as throngs of extras, this time writhing for bread and justice, not merriment. A smash at home, Dubarry also got the attention of the actual American Sweetheart, Mary Pickford, who summoned Lubitsch to Hollywood to help her shed her girlish image. The industrious Lubitsch made several other comedies and historical spectacles before he left Germany for good to write a new chapter in film history—the seeds for his groundbreaking musicals and sophisticated comedies that earned him the immortality recalled by Alfonso Cuarón one hundred years later already sown in the playfully fertile ground of The Oyster Princess.
Based on ideas from the author’s “Ernst Lubitsch’s First Career” previously published by Fandor’s now defunct Keyframe blog.
Presented at SFSFF 2019 with live music by Wayne Barker