Die Austernprinzessin (1919)

aka The Oyster Princess / My Lady Margarine

2010 #6
Ernst Lubitsch | 61 mins | DVD | PG

Die AusternprinzessinDie Austernprinzessin seems to be one of, if not the, most respected and/or beloved of Lubitsch’s early films. It makes They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?’s Doubling the Canon list, something no other film in this box set has managed (nor, I should clarify, are any on the main list); it’s the only one to make IMDb’s top films of the 1910s; and it has some Proper critical backing too (more on that later). But personally, it’s my least favourite Lubitsch so far.

Which isn’t to say it’s bad — far from it. Set in America, it’s packed with displays of ostentatious wealth: the titular ‘princess’ (played by Lubitsch muse Ossi Oswalda), actually the daughter of an oyster-selling businessman, lives in a huge palace of a home; the family has hundreds of servants to do everything, to a ridiculous degree; and there’s a pervasive “must have more” culture splashed across it. This isn’t praised though, as you might expect from a contemporaneous US film (or most US films, really), but is instead a satire/pisstake. It must have been particularly effective/galling in a Germany heading into severe post-war Depression.

To support his theme, Lubitsch stages numerous epic set pieces on gigantic sets: Ossi’s bath, where a stream of maids carry her to and fro, wash and dry her; a huge cast of choreographed waiters, kitchen staff and guests at the wedding dinner; a mad foxtrot sequence that follows it; or the ladies’ boxing match, where for the third time in as many films Lubitsch shows a gaggle of women fighting over a man. The foxtrot sequence seems the most praised of these, though I wasn’t sold — other sequences here are better staged with greater comic impact. The supple, enthusiastic band leader was quite entertaining though.

Occasionally, however, one feels the size of these sequences may have distracted the director from the task of making his film funny. Not that it isn’t or that these aren’t — Lubitsch still exploits almost every chance for a gag — but there’s sometimes the suspicion that the logistics of staging such big sequences, and so many of them, have derailed him from the primary goal. By extension, the story often feels like a series of sketches (even more so than the previous two films), with several — Ossi’s instruction in how to bathe a baby, for example — seeming wholly extraneous and not always hitting home as well as one might’ve liked.

Similarly (though, it may just be my imagination), Oswalda’s skill gets a little lost among all the hullabaloo. She rarely has a chance to display the comedic and romantic charm she showed so beautifully in Ich möchte kein Mann sein and Die Puppe, although a couple of scenes allow her to let loose. She’s part of the ensemble much of the time, little more than a prop at others (the bath sequence, for example). Obviously, the film doesn’t have to focus on her, and the rest of the cast entertain — in particular a heavily made-up Victor Janson as the consistently bored oyster entrepreneur — but having seen her abilities so well displayed in the preceding films, they feel slightly underused here.

But, as I say, maybe I imagined it; and perhaps I’m holding Die Austernprinzessin to unfeasibly high standards, buoyed by the success of the previous films and the aforementioned critical standing? I haven’t even mentioned all the plus-points, like some excellent individual gags — a drive-in wedding! — and a great score on this edition (sadly uncredited, as far as I can see).

Speaking of this particular release, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky again pens the essay that accompanies the film, ending it with quite a nice analogy about food and restaurants and stuff — I won’t spoil it for those yet to read it. In fact, the main reason I even mention it is to cite that Sight & Sound review I mentioned, which asserts that Vishnevetsky’s essays “seem designed merely to show off his range — very pseud’s corner”. Not a point I’d necessarily disagree with, but it does feel a little rich coming from Sight & Sound, the magazine that (for one handy example culled from the same issue) can produce a list of the 30 “most significant” films of the last decade in which I’ve not even heard of half the selections.

And the reviewer also calls Die Austernprinzessin Lubitsch’s “earliest masterpiece”, which obviously I’m going to disagree with. I’ll stick to playing with dolls, thanks.

4 out of 5

Read more reviews from Lubitsch in Berlin here.

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