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June 13, 2023

Ernst Lubitsch: Two films from 1919

oyster princess.png
The Oyster Princess / Die Austernprinzessin

Meyer from Berlin / Meyer aus Berlin
Kino Classics BD Region A

The one time I had previously seen The Oyster Princess was in Berlin, November 2006. This was at the Arsenal, a truly underground theater beneath the Berlin FilmMuseum. As the film was presented with German intertitles, my ability to follow the story was limited to mostly observing the images. My ability to read German is still confined to a few familiar words.

This new blu-ray disc has two films directed by Ernst Lubitsch released in 1919. The Oyster Princess is the main attraction here, sourced from a 2012 digital restoration. The commentary track by film historian Joseph McBride helps in putting the film into context both of when the film was made and as part of Lubitsch's universe. The American Oyster King and his daughter, representative of a nouveau rich riche lifestyle, are no more realistic than the unnamed European city with its dissolute, down at the heels, aristocrats.

As in other Lubitsch films, everything is based on a misunderstanding. Prince Nucki sends his servant, Josef, to check out Ossi, the temperamental "princess", after receiving a note from a matchmaker. Ossi, in her haste to please her father, mistakes Josef for the Prince and impulsively marries him. The marriage celebration consists of Josef gorging himself on the celebratory feast, Ossi leading guests and staff in a frenetic fox trot, while Prince Nucki dines alone in his shabby apartment with a single herring before a night of drinking with his friends. The comedy is more broad than in Lubitsch's American films, even the pre-Codes.

Translation from one language to another always has a host of problems being sometimes more than finding the correct equivalent words. In the case of The Oyster Princess, an obvious bit of wordplay did get lost in translation. Attempting to consummate the marriage with Ossi, Josef tells her, in German, "Geh sag doch Schnucki zu mir". This is translated as, "Go on and call me your sweetie". I do not think the verbal gag in this case would have been lost in a more literal rendering.

Meyer from Berlin was Lubitsch's second to last appearance as an actor. A comic star at the time, Lubitsch plays the part of man who convinces his wife that he needs to go on vacation for his health. Dressed in lederhosen, wearing a cap with a yard long feather, the would-be Lothario goes to the a resort in the Bavarian Alps where he courts a woman who uses Meyer as a shield to put off her other suitors. Again, Joseph McBride provides the commentary track. While he repeats some points stated in The Oyster Princess, what is of most interest here is the discussion of Lubitsch's use of Jewish humor and his own Jewish identity. The character of Solly Meyer is also part of the tradition of clowns imagining themselves to be sophisticated lovers. The source print is a tinted Dutch version from the Eye FilmMuseum.

With some recent debate over how much a director's name means to the general public, the opening credits for The Oyster Princess provide a striking example. There is a series of filmed close-ups of each of the stars, most of them smiling towards the camera. But the very first of these portraits is of the man who is otherwise behind the camera, Ernst Lubitsch. What chutzpah!

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at June 13, 2023 05:55 AM