OYSTER PRINCESS, THE (Ernst Lubitsch, 1919, Germany, 65m, BW)
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch
Produced by Paul Davidson
Music by Aljoscha Zimmermann
Cinematography Theodor Sparkuhl
26 June 1919 (Germany)
Country Weimar Republic
Language Silent film
The film is divided in four acts.
Quaker, the American Oyster King, is dictating to a roomful of secretaries. He is smoking a large cigar, surrounded by four black lackeys, one giving him coffee, one wiping his mouth, one holding his cigar and one combing his hair. A lackey comes running down the corridor to announce that his daughter Ossi is in a fit of raving madness. She is breaking everything in her room. Quaker goes to her room, followed by the four lackeys. When he opens her door he gets a bunch od newspaper in his face. When asked "Why is she throwing newspapers?", she answers that it's because all the vases are broken. She shows him a newspaper report announcing the wedding of the daughter of Blackpott, the Shoe-cream King to a count. He replies that he is not impressed and that he will buy her a Prince. He sends a request to Seligson, the Matchmaker who select in his collection Prince Nucki with tip-top appearance but with heavy debts and not inclined to marriage. Ossi is instructed in the ways of marriage, notably how to bath and powder a baby, but she is growing impatient when told that she should not powder its face, but "the other end". Prince Nucki lives in a garret and washes his clothes himself with his friend Josef. He receives the matchmaker on a makeshift throne and accepts to send his adjutant to have a look at the lady. He gives Josef his coat so that he is presentable.
Josef is welcomed at the Quaker's house by an impressive number of butlers and lackeys. When asked for his card, he gives one of Prince Nucki that he finds in the pocket of his coat. He is led to wait in the sitting room while Ossi's six maids and many more bath attendants are preparing her, and Quacker goes to sleep. Josef paces in the drawing room, playing with the patterns of the floor tiles. When he presses the bell button an army of lackeys answer the call only to tell him that he must wait as Miss is in her bath and Mister is asleep. When told that the Prince is getting impatient, Quaker only replies "I'm not impressed". Ossi finally arrives in great style. She finds that he looks stupid but does not care because he's a Prince. He wants to be introduced to her father but when she sees he's asleep she sys she doesn't want to wake him up for such a trifle. They go to the marriage ceremony in a small carriage drawn by an army of lackeys on horseback. She knocks at a window and a priester appears who marries them. On the way back, he has to sit behind, where the lackey was, as they are now married. When they are back home, they are welcomed by the army of butlers and lackeys.When, at his request, she introduces him as her husband, they all start laughing. He is told to go to her father's bedrooma and introduce himself.He is given a map to find the room and when he arrives Quaker asks him to wipe his nose and then asks him who he is.
On account of the hurry, the wedding celebration is limited to the closest family members. A huge table is set and an army of cooks and servants are preparing the wedding lunch. Three waiters are standing behind every guest. In the kitchen a little boy eats from one of the waiting dishes. Quaker introduces his son in law to the guests. His wife hits him for being too greedy. When asked to say a few words, he just says that he hasn't had such a good meal in a long time. A huge orchestra, including a man sawing a beam, one slapping another one and one shooting a gun, under the direction of a dancing and bouncing conductor, starts playing and everybody dances the foxtrot, including the servants, except Josef who continues eating and drinking. Meanwhile the Prince is alone at home, eating pickled herring. His friends call for him to go on a spree. The wedding comes to an end. Josef is completely drunk. When he tries to follow Ossi in her room, she asks a lackey to remove him and bring him to his room. She falls asleep with her Teddy Bear in her arms.
Nucki returns from the spree with his friends completely drunk. In a park he stops a cab and starts talking to the horse and kissing him. Ossi attends a breakfast of the multi-millionaires' daughters' association against dipsomania (a form of alcoholism). The all cheerfully drink to the end of dipsomania. Nucki is brought among the patients and the girls decide that a boxing match will designate which of them can take care of him. Ossi wins and brings him back home for a private treatment. When Josef finds him in his wife's room, he runs to tell his father-in-law. Rushing back to Ossi's room, he recognises Nucki and informs them that they are married to each other. They are overjoyed and the real wedding meal takes place, this time only with Nucki, Ossi and her father. They let him dine alone and hush back to her room. He comes to peep through the keyhole and finds them happily cuddling in bed. He turns towards the camera and concludes with a big smile "Now I'm impressed!".
The Oyster Princess (Die Austernprinzessin) introduces itself as “a grotesque comedy” which you might be forgiven for thinking is an oxymoron as it’s a movie originating from Germany — not a country generally associated with comedy. Lubitsch, however, went on to become one of Hollywood’s most assured directors of light comedies such as The Smiling Lieutenant and Trouble in Paradise, and while The Oyster Princess shows only limited evidence of the famed ‘Lubitsch Touch,’ there’s no doubt he and co-writer Hans Kraly were gripped by some kind of creative fever when they made it. The movie is a weird mix of semi-surreal humour and social satire which is just as likely to have its audience marvelling at its creativity as restlessly tapping its fingers in agitation.
What humour there is to be gleaned from The Oyster Princess is from the details coincidental to the farcical plot, which really serves merely as a device upon which Lubitsch can display his often wildly inventive — but not entirely successful — ideas. He exploits the idea of the co-dependence of the Nouveau Riche and impoverished Old World aristocracy, ridiculing both worlds with impeccable fairness. The newly rich are crass and spoiled and lazy, while the aristocracy is drunken, immature and lazy. The aristocracy wear elegant clothes but palm pilfered notes from their friends and live on smoked kippers, and yet they enjoy a status that the obscenely wealthy Americans covet.
Lubitsch seems to delight in the opportunities afforded to him by this slightly skewed version of reality. The action mostly takes place in Quaker’s palatial mansion in which bright Art Deco design highlights the empty spaces between its occupants. The sets are opulent, and put to good use; an endless stream of servants pass one another four-abreast on the stairs, party guests dance to a manic bandleader, chefs dance a foxtrot in the roomy kitchen. Later, a bevy of socialite women line up to duke it out in an impromptu boxing match to see who wins the privilege of redeeming the real drunken prince. It looks wonderful and is full of inventive touches, but the comedy is pretty thin and eventually grows tiresome.
The Oyster Princess is a film that takes great glee in skewering the nouveau riche of America and their ostentatious consumerism. Mr. Quaker and Ossi are surrounded by a literal army of servants who are always ready to scrub their backs, wipe their noses and feed them their dinners. Their sprawling mansion is a maze that requires a roadmap to navigate. This is a refreshing change from Hollywood films of the period, which tended to moralize. Movies were beginning to hit on the formula (later perfected by DeMille) of condemning sin after showing it in loving detail. Lubitsch may have been ready to have some fun at the expense of the Americans and Germans but there are no sermons in this film.
Ernst Lubitsch (1892-1947)
The son of a Jewish tailor, Lubitsch joined Max Reinhardt's Deutsches Theater in 1911 as
supporting actor, and had his first starring part in a film farce. Die Firma heiratet ( 1914).
The role, an absent-minded, accident prone, and over-relationshiped assistant in a clothing shop,
established him as a Jewish comedy character Between 1914 and 1918 he acted in about
twenty such comedies, the majority of which he also directed (among the ones to have
survived are Schuhpalast Pinkus, 1916; Der Blusenkonig, 1917; and Der Fall Rosentopf,
Lubitsch was the most significant (German film talent to emerge during the war, creating
a type of visual and physical comedy familiar from pre-war Pathe Films, but situated in a
precise ethnic milieu (the German-Jewish lower middle class) and mostly treating the
staple theme of much early German cinema: social rise. After 1918, Lubitsch specialized
in Burlesque spoofs of popular operettas ( Die Austernprinzessin, 1919), of
Hoffmannesque fantasy subjects ( Die Puppe, 1919), and of Shakespeare ( Romeo und
Julia im Schnee and Kohlhiesels Tochter, both 1920). Centred on mistaken identities
( Wenn vier dasselbe tun, 1917), doubles ( Die Puppe, Kohlhiesels Tochter), and female
cross-dressing ( Ich mochte kein Mann sein, 1918), his comedies feature foppish men and
headstrong women, among them Ossi Oswalda ( Ossis Tagebuch, 1917) and Pola Negri
( Madame Dubarry, 1919).
Working almost exclusively for the Projections-AG Union, Lubitsch became the preferred
director of Paul Davidson, who from 1918 onwards produced a series of exotic costume
dramas ( Carmen, 1918; Das Weib des Pharao, 1922), filmed plays ( Die Flamme, 1923),
and historical spectacles ( Anna Boleyn, 1920) which brought both producer and director
world success. The 'Lubitsch touch' lay in the way the films combined erotic comedy with
the staging of historical show-pieces (the French Revolution in Madame Dubarry), the
mise-en-scene of crowds (the court of Henry VIII in Ann Boleyn), and the dramatic use of
monumental architecture (as in his Egyptian and oriental films). But one could also say
that Lubitsch successfully cross-dressed the Jewish schlemihl and let him loose in the
grand-scale stage sets of Max Reinhardt.
Lubitsch's stylistic trademark was a form of visual understatement, flattering the
spectators by letting them into the know, ahead of the characters. Already in his earliest
films, he seduced by surmise and inference, even as he built on the slapstick tradition of
escalating a situation to the point of leading its logic ad absurdum. Far from working out
this logic merely as a formal principle, Lubitsch, in comedies like Die Austernprinzessin
(1919) or Die Bergkatze ( 1921), based it on a sharply topical experience: the escalating
hyperinflation of the immediate post-war years, nourishing starvation fantasies about the
American way of life, addressed to a defeated nation wanting to feast on exotic locations,
erotic sophistication, and conspicuous waste. What made it a typical Lubitsch theme was
the mise-en-scene of elegant self-cancellation, in contrast to other directors of exotic
escapism, who dressed up bombastic studio sets as if to signify a solid world. Lubitsch, a
Berliner through and through, was also Germany's first, and some would say only,
'American' director He left for the United States in 1921, remaking himself several times
in Hollywood's image, while, miraculously, becoming evermore himself
If his first catalog card was Rosita ( 1923), an underrated vehicle for Mary Pickford's
ambitions to become a femme mistaken identities. The Marriage Circle ( 1923),
Forbidden Paradise ( 1924), Lady Windermere's Fan ( 1925), and So This is Paris ( 1926)
are graceful melancholy meditations on adultery, deceit, and self-deception, tying
aristocratic couples and decadent socialites together to each other, in search of love, but
settling for lust, wit, and a touch of malice. After some Teutonic exercises in
sentimentality ( The Student Prince, 1927; The Patriot, 1928), the coming of sound
brought Lubitsch new opportunities to reinvent his comic style. Prominent through his
producer director position at Paramount Studios, and aided by the script- writing talents of
Ernest Vajda and Samson Raphaelson, Lubitsch returned to one of his first inspirations;
operetta plots and boulevard theatre intrigues, fashioning from them a typical 1930s
Hollywood genre, the 'Ruritanian' and 'Riviera' musical comedies, starring mostly
Maurice Chevalier, with Jeanette MacDonald, or Claudette Colbert ( The Love Parade,
1929; The Unsmiling Lieutenant, 1931; The Merry Widow, 1934). Seeing the songs deftly
into the plot lines, and brimming with innuendos, the films are bravura pieces of
montage cinema. But Lubitsch's reputation deserves to rest on the apparently just as
Frivolous, but poignantly balanced, comedies Trouble in Paradise ( 1932), Design for
Living ( 1933), Angel ( 1937), and Ninotchka ( 1939). Invariably love triangles, these
dramas of futility and vanitas between drawing room and boudoir featured, next to
Melvyn Douglas and Herbert Marshall, the screen goddesses Marlene Dietrich and Greta
Garbo, whom Lubitsch showed human and vulnerable, while intensifying their
allure. During the 1940s, Lubitsch's central European Weltschmerz found a suitably
comic-defiant mask in films like The Shop around the Comer (1940) and To Be or Not to
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