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#6: Die Austernprinzessin (1919) January 26, 2010

Posted by badblokebob in : Comedy, 4 stars, 1910s, world cinema, silent films, 2010 , add a comment

aka The Oyster Princess / My Lady Margarine

1919 | Ernst Lubitsch | 61 mins | DVD | PG

Die Austernprinzessin seems to be one of, if not the, most respected and/or beloved of Lubitsch’s early films. It makes They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?’s Doubling the Canon list, something no other film in this box set has managed (nor, I should clarify, are any on the main list); it’s the only one to make IMDb’s top films of the 1910s; and it has some Proper critical backing too (more on that later). But personally, it’s my least favourite Lubitsch so far.

Which isn’t to say it’s bad — far from it. Set in America, it’s packed with displays of ostentatious wealth: the titular ‘princess’ (played by Lubitsch muse Ossi Oswalda), actually the daughter of an oyster-selling businessman, lives in a huge palace of a home; the family has hundreds of servants to do everything, to a ridiculous degree; and there’s a pervasive “must have more” culture splashed across it. This isn’t praised though, as you might expect from a contemporaneous US film (or most US films, really), but is instead a satire/pisstake. It must have been particularly effective/galling in a Germany heading into severe post-war Depression.

To support his theme, Lubitsch stages numerous epic set pieces on gigantic sets: Ossi’s bath, where a stream of maids carry her to and fro, wash and dry her; a huge cast of choreographed waiters, kitchen staff and guests at the wedding dinner; a mad foxtrot sequence that follows it; or the ladies’ boxing match, where for the third time in as many films Lubitsch shows a gaggle of women fighting over a man. The foxtrot sequence seems the most praised of these, though I wasn’t sold — other sequences here are better staged with greater comic impact. The supple, enthusiastic band leader was quite entertaining though.

Occasionally, however, one feels the size of these sequences may have distracted the director from the task of making his film funny. Not that it isn’t or that these aren’t — Lubitsch still exploits almost every chance for a gag — but there’s sometimes the suspicion that the logistics of staging such big sequences, and so many of them, have derailed him from the primary goal. By extension, the story often feels like a series of sketches (even more so than the previous two films), with several — Ossi’s instruction in how to bathe a baby, for example — seeming wholly extraneous and not always hitting home as well as one might’ve liked.

Similarly (though, it may just be my imagination), Oswalda’s skill gets a little lost among all the hullabaloo. She rarely has a chance to display the comedic and romantic charm she showed so beautifully in Ich möchte kein Mann sein and Die Puppe, although a couple of scenes allow her to let loose. She’s part of the ensemble much of the time, little more than a prop at others (the bath sequence, for example). Obviously, the film doesn’t have to focus on her, and the rest of the cast entertain — in particular a heavily made-up Victor Janson as the consistently bored oyster entrepreneur — but having seen her abilities so well displayed in the preceding films they feel slightly underused here.

But, as I say, maybe I imagined it; and perhaps I’m holding Die Austernprinzessin to unfeasibly high standards, buoyed by the success of the previous films and the aforementioned critical standing? I haven’t even mentioned all the plus-points, like some excellent individual gags — a drive-in wedding! — and a great score on this edition (sadly uncredited, as far as I can see).

Speaking of this particular release, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky again pens the essay that accompanies the film, ending it with quite a nice analogy about food and restaurants and stuff — I won’t spoil it for those yet to read it. In fact, the main reason I even mention it is to cite that Sight & Sound review I mentioned, which asserts that Vishnevetsky’s essays “seem designed merely to show off his range — very pseud’s corner”. Not a point I’d necessarily disagree with, but it does feel a little rich coming from Sight & Sound, the magazine that (for one handy example culled from the same issue) can produce a list of the 30 “most significant” films of the last decade in which I’ve not even heard of half the selections.

And the reviewer also calls Die Austernprinzessin Lubitsch’s “earliest masterpiece”, which obviously I’m going to disagree with. I’ll stick to playing with dolls, thanks.

4 out of 5

Silent Week - #1: Lubitsch in Berlin January 24, 2010

Posted by badblokebob in : Editorials, Comedy, 1910s, world cinema, silent films, 2010, Specials , add a comment

The idea behind Silent Week is simple: the films are silent, the blog is anything but.

Oh, that sounds like a cheesy marketing line that ITV would use (not that ITV would ever go anywhere near a silent film). Sorry. But still, the idea runs more or less thusly: I watch a silent film one day, I post a review of it the next (well, that was the idea…) That doesn’t necessarily mean seven films, but enough to justify it being a Week rather than, I dunno, a Weekend. However, as it’s turned out (at least for this inaugural entry), I watched (almost) all the films last week and intend to post all the reviews this week.

Why silent films? Because I’ve noticed I own quite a few that I haven’t seen. I could probably do the same thing with anime, or film noir, or Asian action movies, or any number of other such genres/categories, but silents attracted my attention for now.

The initial idea (that again…) had been to start with a random selection of the silents I own, but then I got the new Masters of Cinema Lubitsch in Berlin set a week in advance of its release (which, incidentally, is tomorrow) — I always love it when that happens, especially as it inspires me to actually watch stuff right away. And this set has seven films — what could be more perfect for a Silent Week? (OK, one film immediately breaks the rules by not being silent, but as it’s a documentary about silents I rule it eligible.)

As if to cement this more themed approach, as I listed the silents I own they began to fall into categories — Hitchcock, Chaplin, Murnau & Lang, plus the Feuillade serials Fantômas and Les Vampires. I could muddle these up into more random weeks, or go chronologically across them all, but why bother? As I’ve got through Lubitsch in Berlin OK (well, almost) I’ll try again sometime soon with another of these themes, and continue that way… until I run out and have a grab bag of remaining titles (currently: 4½).

I hasten to point out (he says, in paragraph six) that I’m no expert on silent cinema — these are all first-views, as per the rest of the blog, and informed by little more than that (the exception being DVDs with booklets, where there may be a bit more info at my disposal). Despite the lack of any specialism, it’s thanks primarily to a series of era-spanning degree modules with a filmic bent that I’ve found myself with enough of an interest in the silent era to accumulate a variety of films over the past few years… I just haven’t watched most of them, clearly.

But let’s bring things back on point: six films directed by Ernst Lubitsch, and one documentary about them. I begin today with reviews of the first two featured in the set:

Ich möchte kein Mann sein
aka I Wouldn’t Like to Be a Man

1918 | Ernst Lubitsch | 45 mins | DVD | PG

“Ossi Oswalda is obviously a skilled comedic actress, convincing as both a petulant tomboy and a boyish gent, capable of both drunken stumbling and coy giggling, by turns delightfully rebellious, sweetly put-upon and succinctly joyous. She’s even believable as a man (albeit a boyish one).”

4 out of 5

Die Puppe
aka The Doll

1919 | Ernst Lubitsch | 64 mins | DVD | PG

“It’s a constant array of delights, and nothing outstays its welcome; every sequence is mined for its full comic potential, but Lubitsch wisely moves on before it can become repetitive or stale.”

5 out of 5

Coming up: Die Austernprinzessin (aka The Oyster Princess), Sumurun (aka One Arabian Night), Anna Boleyn (aka Deception), Die Bergkatze (aka The Wildcat), and Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin: From Schönhauser Allee to Hollywood.

#5: Die Puppe (1919)

Posted by badblokebob in : Comedy, Fantasy, Romance, 5 stars, adaptations, 1910s, world cinema, silent films, 2010 , add a comment

aka The Doll

1919 | Ernst Lubitsch | 64 mins | DVD | PG

From the very start, Die Puppe sets out its stall (literally) as being something a bit special. The first sequence sees director Ernst Lubitsch himself unpack and assemble a doll’s house set and two dolls, which then become life-size and the dolls — now humans — the first characters we meet. It’s a neat framing device, a joke in itself, and some kind of early commentary on the role of a director.

From this point on, Die Puppe is a riot. Yes, some of it is distinctly old fashioned — an early chase scene, for example, sees Lancelot pursued by 40 desperate women, his mother, his uncle and the latter’s servant, back and forth and round in circles in a cartoonish fashion — and yet, even leaving aside allowances for it being 91 years old, there’s something wholly amiable about even these now-familiar proceedings. And that’s just some of it, because Lubitsch doesn’t pass up any chance for a gag. Take the scene where Hilarius, the doll’s inventor, returns to his workshop to fetch the doll, who at that moment is actually his daughter in disguise. The point of the scene is conveyed — Hilarius accepts the deception. Except he also decides she needs more paint on her lips, which he dutifully applies. Or the pantomime horses that pull a carriage… but rather than ignore them, Lubitsch has the driver have to re-apply one’s tail. And so on. This constant expression of humour, working at every level from intellectual wit down to slapstick tomfoolery, means that even if one element has been done to death in the past near-century there’ll be several other moments or scenes to compensate.

Even more so than in Ich möchte kein Mann sein, one could easily fill a whole review listing the great bits. Like when Lancelot is initially presented with an array of dolls, like a bizarre early-20th-century brothel with Autons for whores. Or the vulturous relatives, dividing up items while the Baron lies on his deathbed, and having the gall to accuse him of bad planning when they can’t decide who should have a vase that’s promptly broken. Or the broadly satirical monks with their ‘meagre’ meals, unwillingness to share, and incessant greed. And, in the vein of things-you-might-not-expect-from-this-era, there’s a great gag about an instruction manual. It’s a constant array of delights, and, also as in Ich möchte…, nothing outstays its welcome; every sequence is mined for its full comic potential, but Lubitsch wisely moves on before it can become repetitive or stale.

Lubitsch’s playfulness extends to the medium itself. He uses camera masks and wipes to focus on specific areas, breaking free of the 4:3 box to create different compositions, revealing parts of the frame on a delay, illustrating dream sequences, and more. There are ’special effects’ that one could only achieve with a camera, like Hilarius’ hair changing colour, the balloon-flying sequence, a ghostly dream, and so on. And the irrepressibly cheeky young apprentice, played brilliantly by Gerhard Ritterband, routinely breaks the fourth wall to air his grievances to the audience.

And I haven’t even mentioned Ossi Oswalda, who gives another good comic turn as both the titular doll and her real-life inspiration. In his essay accompanying the Masters of Cinema edition, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky summarises her appeal (some of it, at any rate) so well that I may as well just quote it: “Her comedy isn’t just funny to watch — it’s inviting, like a friend who cracks a joke and then asks you to tell one too. She begs a like-minded idiocy from the audience.” It is, I think, a point that’s even more applicable to Ich möchte kein Mann sein, but it stands well enough here.

Talking of this specific edition, I understand that Bernard Wrigley’s new score has come under fire from some sources (namely, Sight & Sound, though I’ve yet to read that review myself). Maybe their reviewer has a genuine complaint, but I thought that Wrigley’s score was for the most part perfectly lovely. It’s only flaw is that it often falls silent for a few uncomfortable seconds, reminding the viewer that ’silent films’ should be anything but. Still, this is as minor a complaint as it sounds.

The Lubitsch in Berlin box set was a complete blind buy for me (as this series of reviews will attest), but these first two films alone easily justify it. Die Puppe, in particular, is simply outstanding.

5 out of 5

#4: Ich möchte kein Mann sein (1918)

Posted by badblokebob in : Comedy, Romance, 4 stars, 1910s, world cinema, silent films, 2010 , add a comment

aka I Wouldn’t Like to Be a Man

1918 | Ernst Lubitsch | 45 mins | DVD | PG

Ich möchte kein Mann sein is the kind of silent film that might surprise some among a wider film-viewing audience, both in terms of the attitudes prevalent in what is occasionally assumed to be a highly prim era, and, even accepting that it really wasn’t, the things people were prepared to put on film then — the latter due to, I think, the perception of older films as wilfully innocent (a view no doubt influenced by the effect the Hays Code would later have on American movies).

But it’s anything but innocent: young ladies drinking, gambling and smoking, thinly veiled sex references, and multiple passionate — albeit drunken — kisses between two chaps. OK, so one of them’s a women in disguise, but when the truth is revealed at the end and the boy and girl (or, rather, man and girl) get together, one wonders if it’s such a perfect match after all… That it’s all played for laughs may be the key to making it permissible, and it is relentlessly comic. In a brisk 45-minute running time, Lubitsch allows nothing to outstay its welcome. Each little sketch within the narrative moves by as fast as it might today — in all likelihood faster, as the modern penchant seems to be to drag sketches out as long as possible, or at least until it’s stopped being funny. Twice over. This brevity may also be surprising to the uninitiated, refuting the assumption that overacting and labouring the point for an audience less accustomed to the shorthand of film were the order of the day.

Many memorable moments are produced throughout: the hypocritical early criticisms by Ossi’s uncle and governess; the men outside her window, rubbing their stomachs with ‘hunger’ in a shot framed from the waist down, not to mention the way they wave their canes around; similarly, the tailors stretching their tape measures as long as possible to impress our heroine; being squished on the train; the marauding horde of single women; the ‘gay’ kisses… Rarer is the sequence that doesn’t impress or linger in the memory.

Much of this is thanks to the film’s star, Ossi Oswalda. She’s obviously a skilled comedic actress, convincing as both a petulant tomboy and a boyish gent, capable of both drunken stumbling and coy giggling, by turns delightfully rebellious, sweetly put-upon and succinctly joyous. She’s even believable as a man (albeit a boyish one). It’s the kind of performance that’s infectious and makes you want to seek out more of her films (luckily, Lubitsch in Berlin contains two further examples). The rest of the cast fare well around her, particularly Margarete Kupfer as Ossi’s alternately stern and swooning governess.

Unfortunately, I can’t even attempt to put this in the context of the rest of Lubitsch’s work — shamefully, I’d barely heard of him prior to Masters of Cinema’s new set, never mind seen any of his films. MoC’s brand-new essays prove invaluable for me in this respect — immediately, this film’s, provided by Criterion’s Anna Thorngate, provides context of what the perception of Lubitsch’s Berlin work (vs his Hollywood work) is, and how Ich möchte kein Mann sein (amongst others) show this perception to be false — there is, in fact, a direct stylistic line between this and his better-known American films. Maybe when I see them I’ll spot it.

But, really, such knowledge and comparisons are entirely ancillary to one’s enjoyment of Ich möchte kein Mann sein. It’s all round a lot of fun, as well as no doubt offering some points of satire/debate about the differences between the sexes for those interested. Perhaps more pertinently, I can also see it serving as a good introduction to silent film: short, fast and funny, it has the potential to create converts.

4 out of 5

#111: Fantômas: In the Shadow of the Guillotine (1913) November 12, 2007

Posted by badblokebob in : Thriller, Crime, adaptations, 4 stars, 1910s, world cinema, 2007, silent films , add a comment

aka Fantômas: À l’ombre de la guillotine

1913 | Louis Feuillade | 54 mins | DVD | PG

The first of the silent Fantômas films (I’ve already reviewed the second).

It’s interestingly structured: there’s no ‘origin story’ for Fantômas, he just is an infamous master criminal, who’s introduced in what would undoubtedly be a pre-titles sequence today, before the story switches to follow Inspector Juve and his quest to solve the disappearance of Lord Beltham… which of course leads back to Fantômas.

Its pulp fiction roots shine through in the entertaining plot that’s just far-fetched enough. As I said before, it’s not for everyone, but for those who enjoy this sort of thing it’s unmissable.

4 out of 5

#106: Traffic in Souls (1913) October 22, 2007

Posted by badblokebob in : Drama, 2 stars, 1910s, 2007, silent films , add a comment

1913 | George Loane Tucker | 74 mins | VHS

Silent movie (Universal’s first feature-length release) about white slavery in America. You don’t expect that from a 1913 film, eh?

Of course, the issue is handled in a suitable way for the period: why the women are kidnapped is never alluded to (in reality it was for prostitution) and all the Bad Men are brought to justice. It’s not all bad: in a surprising move for the time, the main villain is an apparently-respectable society gentleman who publicly campaigns against white slavery; by a similar token, the kidnappers are made up of women as well as men.

The first half zips along an intricate multi-stranded narrative covering several groups of unrelated characters, but as they come together it begins to slow: what seems to be the climax takes half the film to play out its immediately-obvious events. It sadly ruins something that was initially rather promising.

2 out of 5

#105: Fantômas: Juve Versus Fantômas (1913)

Posted by badblokebob in : Thriller, Crime, adaptations, 4 stars, 1910s, world cinema, 2007, silent films , add a comment

aka Juve contre Fantômas

1913 | Louis Feuillade | 62 mins | DVD | PG

Second instalment of the early French film serial, adapted from a long-running series of pulp novels.

Fantômas is a criminal adept at disguise and avoiding capture by police inspector Juve. It’s full of crazy schemes and action set pieces, which means it’s actually a great deal of fun, relatively fast-paced and densely plotted, exciting and deliberately amusing (though, as with anything this old, there are things to point and laugh at if you’re so inclined). It also looks stunning for its age, with a stable and crisp picture, which incidentally makes great use of colour tinting (for example, turning from blue to yellow when someone switches on a light).

It’s not for everyone, but if you’re interested in early cinema this is one of the most entertaining examples I’ve seen. As you may have guessed, we were shown this as part of my degree; off the back of it I’ve ordered the DVD of the full serial.

4 out of 5
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