Sunday, May 3, 2015

Ernst Lubitsch | Die Austernprinzessin (The Oyster Princess)

the spoiled brat’s stomp

by Douglas Messerli

Hanns Kräly and Ernst Lubitsch (writers), Ernst Lubitsch (director) Die Austernprinzessin (The Oyster Princess) / 1919

Ernst Lubitsch’s wonderful 1919 silent film comedy, The Oyster Princess, begins with the image of the comically overweight “Oyster King” (Victor Janson) puffing on a gargantuan cigar, attended by numerous costumed patsies who blow his nose, wipe his mouth, and whisk away the ashes of his smoking consumption while the “King” dictates to another army of secretaries and typists. Indeed everything about this wealthy American, his “palace” of a home, his appetites, and most notably, his disdain is preposterously enormous. 

We soon learn that perhaps the most outrageous outsized product of this man’s estate is his daughter, Ossi (the noted German movie star Ossi Oswalda), who, Mister Quaker is quietly told, is throwing a fit in her room, whereupon the camera shifts to a room littered with broken pottery, furniture and other objects she has apparently been tossing into the air in anger. Ossi, clearly a spoiled problem child, has just read of the marriage of the Shoe Polish King’s daughter to a count, and is furious that she has been outdone. Why hasn’t her father found her a husband of the same rank?
     Quaker, who obviously has never denied his daughter anything, calls upon the matchmaker, Seligson (Max Kronert) who, after failing to provide an appropriate companion for a tall and plain woman client, suggests a Prince, Nucki (Harry Liedtke), as Ossi’s husband. Off he goes to the Prince’s abode, where we quickly perceive that Nucki, despite his royal heritage, is suffering hard financial times, as he and his valet, Josef (Julius Falkenstein) wash and hang up  their meager clothing to dry. Seligson’s knock on the door results in a scramble to convert their rundown flat into a place appropriate for a prince. In high comic mockery, the two quickly hoist a chair atop a table to create a ridiculous throne into which Nucki climbs as Seligson enters (after much delay) to suggest the match.

     Nucki, it is quickly revealed—although faced with poverty—is nearly as spoiled as Ossi, and will not deign it worthy of his attention to check out the Oyster King’s proposition, but instead dresses up his valet in his own suit and sends him off to check the girl out in his stead.              
     At the Quaker mansion, Josef is also left waiting, the master having retired for his afternoon nap, and his daughter, attended by a legion of maids, determines to bathe and be given a massage before dressing and attending to the visitor. So begins what one might describe as the first major event of this terpsichorean-dominated picture, as the impatient replacement-suitor, quite insanely begins connects up the vast mosaic patterns of the floor in a series of movement that can only be described as a kind of formal dance. In fact, one might describe his situation as being the central problem facing nearly all the figures in this satire: faced with such vast emptiness of thought and activity, they seek out ways to engage with one another less with an intent to communicate than with patterned movement.
     Indeed, even before Josef can explain who he is and why he has come, Ossi—although clearly disappointed with his appearance and inability to express himself—has swept him up into her own hurry to get hitched. While her father continues in his self-induced coma, Ossi has trundled the Prince’s representative off to a minister who marries them, much like a Las Vegas marriage drive-in, before he can blink out a response.

    Instantaneously, Quaker arranges for a massive wedding wherein armies of servants prepare a banquet that might have been the envy of Petronius’ Trimalchio. At the dinner, the delighted Josef eats and drinks himself, perhaps for the first time in years, into a sated drunkenness, while everyone else suddenly is infected with, what the title boards describe as “a fix-trot epidemic.”

     In this beautifully conceived scene all guests, kitchen workers, servants, and even the orchestra conductor (Kurt Bois)—who busy with his hands dances by jutting out his behind—are suddenly caught up in a frenzy of of the music. This scene alone is worth watching Lubitsch’s film, for it realizes yet another series of images that we encounter in the post-war German art of the Weimar period in the works of George Grosz, Max Beckmann, and Otto Dix—along with a dash of Josephine Baker!
     After the party, Ossi sends the drunken Josef to bed in room separate from her own.

     Meanwhile, friends of Prince Nucki’s have arrived at his flat, and insist he join them in a night a revelry. And while Ossi sleeps, Nucki celebrates, arriving in a park in the early morning where, in another dance-like cinematic structure, each of his friends fall, one by one, into exhausted friezes on empty park benches. Only Nucki moves on in a drunken shuffle, arriving, by accident, near the Quaker mansion at the very moment when Ossi is engaged with her friends in a meeting of  the Multi-Millionaires’ Daughters Association Against Dipsomania. 
    At that very moment Nucki is picked up and thrown into their midst as a would-be candidate for their organization’s activities, which quickly appears to have little to do with curing the sufferers but involves the discovery of attractive young drunks.

     The charming Nucki immediately attracts all these desperate women, who rush forward to claim him. But Ossi will have none of that, insisting, despite the fact that she has another husband stored away in a nearby room to settle their differences in another kind of formal ritual, very close to dance, a boxing match.

     One by one, Ossi knocks out her opponents and wins Nucki as her lover, at the very same moment when Josef has awakened and, peeking through her keyhole, discovers her in bed with another man. Rushing off to find his father-in-law, he soon returns and enters the room to confront the stranger; but when he discovers her would-be lover is Nucki, proclaims the two already married, since he has married Ossi in the Prince’s name!
    The wedding party that follows, for the first time in this film, is a sensibly-sized affair, with only Ossi, Nucki, and Quaker pontificating at a small dinner table. In the middle of a conversation the lovers sneak off, and when Quaker discovers their disappearance, he follows, also peering into the keyhole while declaring, for the first time in this comic romp, that he is finally “impressed.”
     Love has found a way to bring an end, finally, to the infections romps of these clearly mad light-trippers.
     A satire about wealth and power mixed with a large dash of what would later be described as a screwball comedy, Lubitsch’s work very much looks forward to films such as It Happened One Night and My Man Godfrey.

Los Angeles, May 3, 2015

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