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The Ernst Lubitsch "touch" as it would later be known, was altogether little-known back in 1919 and for the curious looking back into the director's repertoire, Madame DuBarry is often seen a historical curiosity rather than a signpost to later greatness. It is my opinion however that this widely-regarded stance on Lubitsch's first major motion picture has just as much to do with the quality of prints available as it does with the feature's tendency to lean on drama more than comedy. Having recently viewed Eureka's newly- released blu-ray featuring a crisp new print backed up by a dynamic score by William Axt, it's clear that although "the touch" is notably lighter (or darker) than Lubitsch would employ in his films later on in his long career, there remain many scenes during the film's first hour where the director plays with his characters and plot in a manner which explicitly seek to extract laughs rather than varying degrees of pathos.
Writers Norbert Falk and Hanns Kraly tell the infamous story of Jeanne Becu, her rise to power's easily-swayed side, and in the end her ultimate fate at the hands of the Reign of Terror. Although they play loose and casually with the real events that the film is based upon, the writers do well in keeping key points together whilst telling a compelling character drama. Historians may well cry humbug, but the story is gripping, amusing and enlightening in spite of its inaccuracies. Lubitsch himself directs the script's calling for epic moments of drama well, though instils just enough humour and light-heartedness to break it up so as to not become overbearing. Lead star Pola Negri establishes herself in a seminal role here, and often makes a lot out of very little. Also of note is Emil Jannings as King Louis XV, Harry Liedtke as Armand De Foix and Reinhold Schünzel as Minister Choiseul who make scenes devoid of Negri as compelling as possible, even though the ham can get a little chewy at times.
This was my first time viewing Madame DuBarry so have no real reference point to other prints of the film other than having history with other silent-era movies with some terrible public- domain versions which never really do the films any justice and at times render them incomprehensible. It's for this reason that I thoroughly recommend viewing the film on Eureka's blu-ray if you have a means to do so. Not just because the image quality is outstanding, but also largely in part for Axt's score which complements the on-screen action superbly. It might not be as light and airy as Lubitsch fans would hope for going this far back, but there's still plenty here to enjoy and strikes a nice balance between lush historical-costume drama and darkly- amusing character piece.
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