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Oyster-king Quaker cannot be impressed anymore. He is so rich that he even has a special butler holding his cigar while he is smoking. The only thing Quaker would be impressed by is if his daughter Ossi were to marry a real prince. He makes an offer to the poor prince Nucki, who sends his friend Josef to get a clear idea of the woman. Written by
The old adage about jokes has it that "It's the way you tell 'em", and this applies to visual gags as well as verbal ones. Almost anything can be funny depending on how you present it. The German comedies of Ernst Lubitsch are like a master class in how to "tell" jokes on the silent screen.
What makes these pictures very different to their American counterparts, is that in Hollywood silent comedies revolved around a star. Germany had no Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd, but they had a lot of decent comedy supporting players, and they had the brain of Lubitsch. In Lubitsch's best comedies (and this is one of his two or three finest) the humour is all derived from arrangements and exaggeration. He was, in effect, a choreographer of comedy.
We all know about the necessity of comic timing. But comic space is equally important. Lubitsch often makes a joke out of suddenly changing the way we view something. For example, we see from the side-view Nucki and Josef hurriedly tidying their little apartment, and then when they finally allow the matchmaker to enter, we switch to the angle from the doorway, and are suddenly hit with the inventively effective makeshift throne room they have thrown together. But Lubitsch's greatest and most unique moments are the ensemble gags. You see, if Mister Quaker had one servant following him around wiping his nose and carrying his cup of tea, it might be kind of funny. But to have four identically dressed servants trotting after him, each one doing a different menial task, is hilarious. The jewel in the Oyster Princess's crown has to be the "foxtrot epidemic" which is absolutely beautiful in its precise comic construction.
Lubitsch has melded this thing from the most wonderful of components. Writer Hanns Kraly has given him a tight and fast moving plot, ideal for the lightning supply of gags (apparently in their many collaborations Lubitsch would get the basic idea for a story, and Kraly would shape it into something workable). The Oyster Princess is a particularly absurd spin on a well-known theme a marriage of convenience between nouveau riche and bankrupt aristocracy. There's also a dash of Cinderella thrown in, with Josef's impersonation of Prince Nucki making him the Dandini figure. These are familiar themes, and thus ones easy for Lubitsch to tweak into crazed but affectionate parody.
And the cast, while not quite the attention-holding clowns that formed the centre of Hollywood silent comedy, are all competent at their game and worthy of a chuckle. Harry Liedtke pratfalls nicely and does an amusing drunk act. He has a great face for a comedy lead man; handsome, but with his wide eyes looking perpetually a little sick or worried. Ossi Oswalda was one thing the US didn't have a young and pretty female comic lead who is actually comical in her own right. The possible exception to this would be Mabel Normand, but even she didn't get stuck into these roles the way Ossi does. Oswalda's spoilt brat act is absolutely priceless. Meanwhile Julius Falkenstein is delightfully playful, and Victor Janson's stone-faced pessimism is almost reminiscent of Keaton.
Pictures like the Oyster Princess may be a far cry from the "sophisticated" bedroom comedies of the 1930s for which Lubitsch is best known, but they have a "Lubitsch touch" of a very different kind, that of the bizarre, the over-the-top; the touch of a unique and inspired comic genius. And who says the Germans have no sense of humour?
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