Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 02 April 2007
Source Kino Video DVD
Reviews: I Don’t Want to be a Man
For better or worse, neither Germans nor German cinema are exactly renowned for any kind of fine comedic touch. No doubt it is an unfortunate if not unfair stereotype, but it is true that we simply don’t associate either the New German Cinema of the seventies and early eighties or Germany’s golden age of silent cinema with comedy. It’s all the more interesting then to have the opportunity with The Oyster Princess of viewing a genuine – and genuinely successful – German silent comedy, and one that is an early example of the work of a master of film comedy, Ernst Lubitsch.
In Hollywood the director was famed for the so-called Lubitsch Touch, an amalgam of grace, wit, and sexual innuendo. The Oyster Princess doesn’t share the gracefulness, subtlety, and lightness of touch of Lubitsch’s best Hollywood work (is there a more perfect romantic comedy than Trouble In Paradise?), but then it’s a different kind of comedy – it explicitly characterises itself as “grotesque” – yet one that works superbly well in its own right.
The setting is a strange never-never-land where some kind of German stereotypical fantasy of rich Americans is plonked down into a recognisable German world. The “oyster princess” of the title is Ossi, the daughter of the fantastically wealthy oyster magnate (whatever that may be) Mister Quaker. Ossi (who of course bears a very Germanic name) is the namesake of the actress playing her, Ossi Oswalda, a dynamic and immensely popular personality of the day who starred in many of Lubitsch’s early comedies, one of which – Ossi’s Diary – even bore her name. She was also incidentally an actress who never survived the crossover to sound film, dying in utter poverty in Prague in 1947 at the age of 50.
The Ossi of The Oyster Princess is a wild, rumbunctious, tumultuous creature—“I could smash the whole house for joy!” she cries early on. But she’s egocentric and petulant to the point of violence, too, and the film’s story is set in motion by her learning that a friend has married into the nobility. “If I don’t get a husband within five minutes, I’ll demolish the whole house,” she threatens, and her father (after cracking a joke: “Please” he says, handing her a vase) capitulates, and finds through a matchmaker the impoverished Prince Nucki. Nucki sends over his friend Josef to check out the situation, and in a case of mistaken identity Josef is immediately dragooned into marriage by the irresistible force that is Ossi.
Lubitsch indulges in the audience’s fascination with their fantasy of the super-rich of 1919, giving full play to the wide architectural spaces of Mister Quaker’s mansion. There’s a very formalist, symmetrical, balanced patterning to the visual style of the film. This can operate at the level of the set, in the empty expanses of the huge drawing room in which Josef is left, or the repeated setting of the corridor between Ossi’s (on the left) and Josef’s (on the right) bedrooms with the flight of stairs perfectly balanced at the rear of the shot.
Alternatively, this symmetrical balancing is played off around the gradual (to comic effect) revelation of the mass of servants in attendance on either Ossi or her father. So, a close-up of Mister Quaker puffing on a giant cigar is followed by a pull-back reveal showing four black servants holding his cigar to his mouth, holding his cup to his lips as he drinks, wiping his mouth, and so forth. Or, in the scene where six maids help Ossi undress, the doors at the back open to reveal a host of maids lined up, attending on her bath.
This symmetry is the basis for a lot of the comic gags of the film. There’s the tight group of servants surrounding Mr Quaker that accompany him around his mansion at a trot; the comic business with long lines of servants carrying plates into the wedding banquet, where the guests sit hemmed in by three rows of attendant servants; the guests’ crazed foxtrot, which is then replicated in a high-angle shot of the servants doing the same in the kitchen; Nucki’s drunk friends staggering down the park path towards us, each of them dropping one at a time on to a bench until Nucki is left standing alone in the foreground; the line of female boxers sparring with one another (they’re actually Ossi’s friends, all fighting for the glory of “saving” an alcoholic in a Lubitschian parody of upper-class female social work), followed by another line of them staggering off nursing their injuries.
In each case Lubitsch has finely calibrated the comic effect through the symmetrical patterning of movement and positioning within the frame. There’s a nice occasion where a gag is structured around a left-to-right camera movement which is then reversed: Prince Nucki is asking for a loan from one of his friends and Lubitsch’s camera tracks the request from one friend to the next across their faces. Then, when the last in the line offers the loan, the camera tracks the passage of money from hand to hand, each friend peeling off a bill as he passes it on, until Nucki receives the pittance at the end.
A variation on this occurs at the end of the film, when the mistaken identities have been resolved and Ossi is united with her true Prince Nucki. Here, a pan follows Nicki’s foot stretching out under the table to touch Ossi’s, and then a subsequent pan repeats this movement, but this time above the table from Nucki’s face to Ossi’s. The sexual connotations are obvious, especially as they soon retire to the bedroom, into which we’re offered a look through the keyhole—not for the first time.
Earlier, Ossi and the Josef she had assumed to be Nucki had retired to separate bedrooms facing each other across the corridor, a sign that Ossi’s interest in marriage was social and not sexual. Here, there are two glimpses through the keyhole. First, Josef, after promising her father (nudge nudge, wink wink) “We shall do what we can”, gets a sight of Ossi peeling a stocking off her leg: “What a pity. Just as I was in the mood.” Then, her father comes along, peeking in for a view of his infantilised daughter asleep with a giant teddy bear in her arms.
At the end of the film, the father again peeks into his daughter’s bedroom, this time to see her and her husband in bed together. The light goes out, and Mr Quaker cries “Now I am impressed!” It’s an echo and a reversal of his very opposite feelings towards the Josef he thought was Nucki, but, given that we inevitably look at The Oyster Princess from the perspective of Lubtisch’s more familiar Hollywood films, we can be surprised by the coarseness of the sexual humour. It’s not out of place with the delightfully frenzied, manic quality of the film as a whole, but we can’t help feeling that these sexual elements are ones awaiting a greater refinement.