The Oyster Princess (1919)

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  • directed by Ernst Lubitsch
  • starring Ossi Oswalda, Victor Janson, Harry Liedtke, Julius Falkenstein
  • Determined to not let his princess down, Quaker finds a financially hard up royal and throws the couple a lavish ceremony.

“If I don’t get a husband within five minutes I’ll demolish the whole house!”

The Oyster Princess is the earliest indication I’ve seen of the look, tone, and type of stories that would eventually become a trademark of director Ernst Lubitsch. Perhaps this film is the very essence of Lubitsch then, taking the ingredients of extravagance, explosive style, and veiled social commentary that he’d go on to morph and modernize over time and reducing them down to the simplest, most visual depiction possible.

Without sound of course the film is missing the great dialogue–the crucial element—of his later films that either complements and fortifies the themes perfectly or offsets them completely to create independent layers to the work’s message. Instead, in The Oyster Princess, the predominant element that made it a great and recognizably Lubitsch film was its visual strength.

It was a rare type of film because the cinematography and the grand settings, along with incredible symmetrical compositions that could only come from a story in which our main characters, Quaker and Ossi, are waited on and attended to by at least a hundred servants, were my main takeaways from the film. You don’t watch The Oyster Princess and discuss the matters of the wallet and heart at the core of the story, but it’s the assembly line of employees, four to each Quaker, three rows deep around the kitchen table, and at least a dozen for a bath, that hold they key to what it was Lubitsch was trying to communicate. It’s easy to agree that the director is remarking on in purely visual terms American greed, gluttony, and consumerism. If it’s an indictment or a celebration of those things, though, is a little less clear.

The machine-like human formations of the servants and the beautifully choreographed work they are tasked with were presented as the relentless, unstoppable churning of the American system of manufacturing and consumption. I saw an additional angle, whereby the Quakers were the manufactured product and were living a life, like super-rich and status-conscious people everywhere, entirely dependent on meticulous maintenance and manicuring. But again, the film contained not one ounce of mean-spirited judgment.  There were great comedy bits and an effervescence in the air at all times. The impressive scale to the mise en scéne made me feel like we were an inch away from an epic Busby Berkeley-style dance number breaking out.

In my view it was a key decision to include the great foxtrot scene during the wedding. A very American innovation, the foxtrot being emphasized confirmed for me something I’d already known; there was a great admiration for American culture and style on the part of Lubitsch. Additionally, the ending of the film in which Veruca Salt on speed, Ossi, grows to love and accept the down-and-out Prince Nucki says something about the director’s operating levels of cynicism and optimism at the time.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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