You wouldn't think there was a war on, with pictures like this being produced. But in spite of, or perhaps because of the ongoing conflict in Europe, the mid-to-late teens saw a veritable revolution in screen comedy. Notably there was Charlie Chaplin in Hollywood, but outside the states the most important figure was surely director Ernst Lubitsch. What is astonishing is that due to the war the German film industry was isolated for foreign imports, and Lubitsch's approach flourished independently without influence from abroad.
This picture comes from a transitional point in Lubitsch's development, moving from his earliest character-based farces, which were not particularly special, to spectacular comedies where the gags were in the staging and arrangements. Essentially, Lubitsch realised that simple things can appear very funny if they are done simultaneously by lots of people. There are a couple of early examples of this here the mass of serenading suitors, or the gaggle of love-struck tailors. These little moments are comic highpoints, but Lubitsch does not yet appear to have the confidence to spin them into a consistent style. Other than this, we have a series of gags based around Ossi Oswalda's dragged-up escapades. It's interesting to see this frank flirtation with cross-dressing and homosexuality (although not very surprising remember this was the era of Magnus Hirschfield), but as comedy it soon gets a little tedious.
But leaving the comedy aside for the moment, there is evidence here for Lubitsch's emergence as a real craftsman of the cinema. The young director seems to have been really fascinated by the field of depth (an aspect of cinema often forgotten in an age of widescreen), panning shots and rapid editing. Most of the movement in I Don't Want to Be a Man is either towards or away from the camera, rather than across the frame. He often has a corridor leading off somewhere at the back of the shot, giving the space more definition (an honourable mention here goes to set designer Kurt Richter, whose slightly oddball creations were perfect for Lubitsch's world), and there are some very cunning uses of these. One example is when the governess meets the disguised Ossi at the bottom of the staircase. When Ossi exits, the camera pans a little to the right, suddenly framing the governess with the depth of the room behind her and subtly realigning our focus onto her reaction.
There is another factor that makes Lubitsch's German comedies distinctively different, and that is the presence of Ossi Oswalda herself. Although she was dubbed "the German Mary Pickford", Hollywood didn't really have anyone quite like her; a female star who could carry a comedy, and be the originator of the humour rather than just an element within a humorous film. Unfortunately for her, Lubitsch's pictures would get ever more elaborate in style, and would be less and less about the individual performances. If nothing else, I Don't Want to Be a Man shows Oswalda at her best.
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