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Design for filmmaking
‘The (Silent) Lubitsch Touch’ at the HFA

Ernst Lubitsch was such a filmmaker’s filmmaker, it’s startling to discover that he began on the stage, as a cabaret performer in Berlin. This was a life he kept concealed from his Jewish tailor father, who expected him to take over the business. One presumes the secrecy broke down when at age 19 he landed in the ensemble of Max Reinhardt’s celebrated Deutsches Theater, the place every young actor in Germany longed to be. When Lubitsch did make it into movies, it was as a comic, playing ethnic Jews in a series of shorts. He graduated to directing while he was still working on these music-hall-style novelties.

This background information seems relevant when you watch the four silent pictures the Harvard Film Archive has gathered for Thanksgiving weekend. (They’ll be screened with live piano accompaniment.) Two, Die Austernprinzessin/The Oyster Princess and Madame Du Barry (Passion) (November 29 at 7 p.m. on a double bill), were made in 1919, near the end of his fairly brief period in the German movie industry. In 1921, Mary Pickford brought him to Hollywood to direct her in a movie, and though they didn’t get along and she wasn’t pleased at the result (the 1923 Rosita), the critics fell in love with him and he stayed on. The other two silents in the HFA package are from his early days in America, The Marriage Circle (November 28 at 9 p.m.) and Lady Windermere’s Fan (November 28 and 30 at 7 p.m.), made in 1924 and 1925 respectively. Three of the four show the direct influence of Lubitsch’s theatrical experience; only Madame Du Barry, an extravagant costume melodrama, doesn’t — at least, not directly. Its muse seems to have been D.W. Griffith, another silent-film maker whose love of the stage is implicit in his work. For all its technological marvels — and for all the bias that held for so long against filmed plays — it’s fascinating to think of how close to the theater the early silent cinema often came.

At one point in Die Austernprinzessin, a crew of men, back from a night of carousing, tramp wearily through a snow-covered park, falling off one by one to sink onto discrete park benches. This choreographed scene, like much of the movie, suggests what an operetta by Oskar Strauss or Victor Herbert around the turn of the century might have looked like. A farce about a spoiled American heiress who insists on marrying authentic royalty, Die Austernprinzessin is pretty tiresome overall (a distinction it shares with other German Lubitsch comedies like Die Puppe/The Doll and Die Bergkatze/The Mountain Cat), but it does have marvelous moments like this one. Here’s another: at the wedding of the "oyster princess" (Ossi Oswaldo) — she’s the daughter of the "oyster king," royalty in Lubitsch’s America being defined strictly by acquired wealth — everyone dances, even the waiters with their trays loaded down with expensive food. These interludes look ahead to René Clair, another inventive screen technician whose sensibility was shaped by what he saw on the stage.

Both The Marriage Circle and Lady Windermere’s Fan are adaptations of plays, the first by Lothar Schmidt, the second, of course, by Oscar Wilde. Both are amorous roundelays and farces in structure, whereas in genre they combine comedy of manners with melodrama. Wilde loved that mix: except for The Importance of Being Earnest, which doesn’t have a serious moment, all of his so-called comedies shift tones in midstream. I’ve never cared much for them on stage (and the 1999 film of An Ideal Husband didn’t convert me), but Lubitsch’s exquisitely nuanced version of Lady Windermere’s Fan, updated to the 1920s, is close to sublime; perhaps he’s the only director who’s ever understood what Wilde was after. May McAvoy (she was "the merry widow" in Erich von Stroheim’s silent version of the Franz Lehár operetta) plays the title character, a married woman who’s fallen in love with the rakish Lord Darlington (Ronald Colman, amazingly suave in a moist little moustache and hair that looks shellacked). But she’s distracted by the sudden appearance of Mrs. Erlynne (the gorgeous, tragic-faced Irene Rich), an older woman with a scandalous reputation who seems to be advancing on Lady Windermere’s husband (Bert Lytell). In truth, Mrs. Erlynne is her mother, at first determined to squeeze money out of Lord Windermere in return for keeping silent about the illegitimacy of his wife’s birth but in the end dedicated to saving her daughter from making the same mistake she did and ruining her life. Lubitsch directs the sumptuously clothed actors expertly, and the movie has the same delicacy and fluidity associated with the effervescent comedies he made after sound came in, like Trouble in Paradise and Design for Living. But it isn’t really a comedy at all. He goes right for the melancholy and regret at the heart of the play. And he revels in its theatricality, framing the actors in long shots that point up the eloquence of the staging.

The Marriage Circle is perfectly watchable (with a very engrossing last act), but it pales in comparison to Lady Windermere’s Fan, for which it feels like a blueprint. The story has the same kind of romantic doubling and criss-crossing. Adolphe Menjou longs to divorce his wife (Marie Prevost), so he hires a detective (Harry Myers) to furnish enough material to blacken her name. The gumshoe doesn’t have to wait around very long: she tries to seduce the husband (Monte Blue) of an old friend (Florence Vidor), a doctor who specializes in nervous cases. Meanwhile, the doctor’s partner (Creighton Hale) pines secretly for the doctor’s wife. The dramatic material doesn’t give Lubitsch as much to go on as Wilde’s play; it’s rather superficial. But it tells you why he’d be drawn to filming Lady Windermere’s Fan the following year.

The Marriage Circle also seems minor next to Madame Du Barry, which is such a splendid piece of period drama that by itself it explains why Pickford invited Lubitsch to Hollywood two years later. Pola Negri, one of the famous vamps of the silent epoch, stars, and if you suspect (as I did from the stills I’d seen of her) that she was nothing but a pair of big, hungry, heavy-lidded eyes, you’ll be surprised at how terrific she is in the title role, especially in the earlier, lighthearted scenes. Madame Du Barry was Jeanne Marie Vaubernier, the milliner’s assistant who wound up in a marriage of convenience and shortly thereafter as the mistress of Louis XV (Emil Jannings). But in this version of the story, she’s faithful in her heart to her first lover, Armand de Foix (Harry Liedtke), even after he turns rebel and protests the injustices of the crown. The costume dramas of the silent years are almost always dreary, and here the purplish, faux literary intertitles, which run to phrases like "a flaunting, radiant Sunday" and "adventure, satin-fingered, beckoned Jeanne over the threshold," prepare you for the worst. But Madame Du Barry, like Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm, is an exception to the rule. The actors are as formal as they would be if they were playing Oliver Goldsmith or Richard Sheridan, but once again Lubitsch’s direction of them is highly skilled. You might think of Griffith, too, in Lubitsch’s creative manipulation of the frame, and in the melodramatic urgency of the best sequences. This movie, like Lady Windermere’s Fan, is a revelation. Small-scaled though it is, "The (Silent) Lubitsch Touch" is an excellent series that illuminates the two periods in the filmmaker’s career even his fans might not be conversant with.

Issue Date: November 28 - December 4, 2003
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