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Negri starts to move Lubitsch toward character-driven comedy
One thing that strikes you as you watch the early Lubitsch comedies recently released on DVD in the US by Kino is-- how did Lubitsch come to have such an extravagant visual style, only to give it up a few years later? The later Lubitsch movies are certainly handsome, coming as they mostly do from Paramount and MGM, the chicest of the Hollywood studios. But for all the exotic places depicted in his films, it never occurs to him in later years to depict them with wild curlicues of plaster, fortresses that look like birthday cakes, staircases that descend a quarter-mile amid running water, as he does the European fantasy-land in The Wildcat.
The Wildcat is a sort of burlesque on a genre of military romances buried so deeply in the mists of memory that they still seem familiar even when it's hard to think of an actual example of what's being parodied (The Desert Song?). There's a fortress on the edge of mountainous wilds, and there's a handsome young officer who's been exiled there because of his love life. And then there's a tribe of wild mountain people including a tempestuous daughter, played by Pola Negri, with whom the officer will fall in love.
As with the mistaken identity plot in The Oyster Princess, you can imagine the 30s comedy this would be the setup for, but it's nothing like this-- which mainly consists of running around and clowning broadly. Only a few bits here and there-- a hilariously exaggerated depiction of the results of the officer's Casanova-like behavior, a delightful bit of comedy on the quarter-mile staircase that plays out with the purity and visual grace of Buster Keaton's single-take descent down six flights of stairs in The Cameraman-- are actually especially funny. (There's also a quite racy "Lubitsch Touch" moment involving his photo, a pair of pants, and where she happens to kiss.)
You wish in vain for Negri and her inamorato to sit down and actually share a scene, heat up the chemistry set, show us some real one-on-one Lubitsch Touch worthy of Billy Wilder's line that "Lubitsch could do more with a closed door than most directors could do with an open fly." But at least in Negri you have a recognizable comic human being, full of life and randiness-- and the ending, though still half-cartoon, has an emotional effect well beyond anything in The Oyster Princess just three years earlier.
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