A charming three-reel comedy, in a lovely-to-look-at transfer, and very instructive on Lubitsch’s development as a filmmaker. Lubitsch was only twenty-five when he made this loose adaptation of Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. Germany was still fighting WWI but now beginning to lose it; Lubitsch was still performing on-stage for Reinhardt in supporting parts but was also already a top-billed film star.
Cinema offered brighter prospects in directing as well. Lubitsch’s delight in the medium and its possibilities is everywhere evident in The Merry Jail/ Das Fidele Gefängnis: he puts the camera on the floor (fig. A), on balconies (fig. B), on the street (fig. C1 and C2), outside doors (fig. D) and experiments by filming that already filmed to get a frame within a frame to seem a reflection on a mirror (see fig. E). Lubitsch’s goal is to please and who can but delight at all this imagination and inventiveness mobilized to fulfill that one overarching purpose?
The Merry Jail is a farce on marriage, desire and social and sexual role-play; one that presages the later, more sophisticated comedies of manners such as The Marriage Circle (1924) and Trouble in Paradise (1932). The film begins with Alice von Reizentein (Kitty Dewall) asking her maid Mizi (Agda Neilson) to call her husband Alex (Harry Liedtke) to breakfast. They search high and low but can’t find him. She goes to call the police but, as she’s about to do so, the postman interrupts with a warrant of arrest for her husband due to disorderly behavior: he is to present himself to the jail at 8:00. Alex is in fact at home, still in white tie from the night before and still so hung-over he falls face first on the warrant.
Alice and Alec each get an invitation to the same ball: the wife via a letter from her sister reminding her ‘if anyone tries to kiss you, don’t giggle: it’s not chic’; the husband via a telegram from a friend promising that the party will be ‘colossal’. Lubitsch stages one of the mini fashion shows in a shop that are common in his films of this period (see also Shoe Salon Pinkus), this time inciting audience desires for the various delectable hats Alice can’t choose amongst.
At the shop, Alice is noticed by a stranger, Egon (Erich Schönfelder), who finds her so attractive he proceeds to importune her all the way home and into her very living room. ‘If you don’t go away, I’ll teach you a lesson you won’t forget’, she tells him on the way. ‘That’s what I want’ he says. This might seem creepy to modern eyes were it not for the lack of real threat, the gentleness of the innuendo, the fact that she always seems to have the upper-hand, and that the whole thing is played in a heightened humorous tone.
When the Police representative arrives to pick up her husband for his night in jail and catches them together, Alice asks Egon to ‘play’ her husband so as not to ruin her reputation. He agrees but not before kissing her several times; after all, he remarks delightedly, he’s got a right to; she’s his ‘wife’. In the meantime, Alex, unaware of any of this, decides to chuck jail for the ball. ‘My wife has no idea. That shows how stupid women are’, he tells his friend as they head off. But actually, one of the delights of Lubitsch’s films is in showing how smart women are; it will be the wife who teaches the husband a lesson or two at the end.
In the first act, Lubitsch sets up the situation for the comedy, which he will exploit to the maximum. He also puts into play some of the elements of farce: the physical comedy, the asides to the audience (in this case, visually rendered, with the characters sometimes performing directly to us), the paralleling of situations and their effects on people of different social stations (the maid also goes to the ball), the role-playing and mistaken identity, as well as a humorous reflection on sex roles. This is traditional farce with elements not dissimilar from, say, Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors.
In The Merry Jail, the situation, the structuring of the basic story and its resolution are really no different than what one would expect on-stage. What is remarkable is how Lubitsch attempts to deploy all of these elements of farce into a visual medium so that editing, rhythm, camera set-ups and composition all contribute to the farce. For example, at the end of the first act when, the wife decides to go to the party, Mizi the maid jumps for joy saying ‘now the coast is clear’. She puts on one of her mistresses’ dresses and then what Lubitsch shows us is a shot of the husband going to the ball with friend in a car, then Egon, pretending to be the husband, going to jail in a carriage accompanied by the warden, then the wife alone in a car, and finally the maid, in evening dress, running after the streetcar and jumping onto it as a kind of visual punchline to the situation comedy and as a gag in itself. There’s a play on the rhyming of the shots in terms of content (two men, two men, one woman, one woman); a careful sequencing of forms of transport to maximize a gag; care taken with how type of shot and timing can incite laughter. The goal is first to delight; secondly, but just as important, to create a series of connections that will be pursued later, in this case that which happens at the ball and that which happens in the jail.
Maurice Chevalier sings about Mitzi in One Hour With You
Lubtisch has the greatest respect for a laugh and he’s not above stooping low (Countess Titti Tutti). There are lovely visual bits such as Mizi smoking and hiding her cigarette from her mistress; or her dancing on the table at the ball; or the way she orders three extra helpings of goose livers. In fact, Lubitsch must have a fondness for the very name because a generation later and in another country he’d have Maurice Chevalier sing a paean to her in One Hour With You (Ernst Lubitsch, George Cukor, USA, 1932): ‘Oh that Mitzi!’ (see clip above).
There are visual jokes such as the custom of kissing in Prince Zbrschowsky’s country and how each of the main characters is given a gag at the entrance (the best is again Mizi’s, who ends up kissing the hand of her escort), or how Alex only recognizes Mizi as his own maid when he steals a kiss (‘It IS Mizi!) or how he disparages marriage to his own wife (Are you married? Do I look that dumb?). Lubitsch even makes a joke out of the numbers of footmen who rush to get people’s coats. Comedy directors who don’t already study Lubitsch should: there’s a lot to learn from even the Lubitsch who was only twenty-five
The scene at the ball is less accomplished than what he’d do later in The Oyster Princess but is nonetheless flowing, rhythmic, another musical sequence without music. The handling of the crowds in the sequence, overflowing with black and white Pierrots, the lounging around doorways and ogling: all are purposefully delightful. There’s even a guiding intelligence behind the editing so that Mizi’s final shot is continuously cut onto scenes at the jail.
In the jail we get an articulation of themes Lubitsch would go on to develop for the rest of his career: the man with the heart stuck to his arse; or when Egon arrives in the jail, one of the downtrodden prisoners says ‘He seems to be a big shot. He probably is a con artist.’ Things are not what they seem, people are not who they say, appearances are important and attention should be paid, pleasure can ethics, and sex can be morality. The viewer, always assumed to have a great intelligence and a good though weary heart in Lubitsch, is trusted to make sense of what is not explicitly rendered.
More is made explicit in The Merry Jail, however, than would be the case in Lubitsch’s American films. The innuendo is much more varied and covers a lot more of the spectrum of desire in these early German films than in the later American ones. There’s the carnivalesque scene of couples dancing in the Second Act where you see that the men are really women in costume so that it is women dancing with each other; and of course there is also the to me quite fantastic sight of Emil Jannings as the homosexual jail guard Quabbe, first making a pass at Egon, and then kissing the jail warden and expressing his love for him. It’s played for laughs but there is also real feeling and sympathy. I was quite shocked and delighted to see such a representation, so worked through, in such an early film, and particularly one of Lubitsch’s: we will not see this in his American films.
At the end, there’s a general unmasking, an expression of homosexual love, a formation of a couple cutting across class lines with Egon and Mizi, the re-affirmation of the marriage of Alex and Alice through the recovery of the wedding ring, and finally a kiss and a restoration of order – but not before the wife turns the table on her husband and puts him in his place: a delightful three-reeler.
The Merry Jail appears in the Criterion DVD of Trouble in Paradise with a score recorded exclusively for the Criterion Collection in 2002 by Aljoscha Zinmerman.
Watching The Eyes of the Mummy in the version distributed by Alpha Entertainment is itself a work of archeology. Each frame is like a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy of the original positive. We can see the contours, the outline, what the image might have been like. But we don’t know for sure. Clothes, décor, texture—all so important to Lubitsch’s work and the pleasures audiences get from it – are here barely discernible. The quality of the image requires an operation of decipherment at various levels, from the general — what were the images and sounds like originally and what might they have meant to audiences at the time? — to the particular: what does that inter-title so faded as to be unintelligible actually say?
According to Sabine Hake in Passions and Deceiptions: The Early Films of Ernst Lubitsch, ‘The Eyes of the Mummy announces Lubitsch’s decision in its promotional campaign: “He (Lubitsch) succeeds in persuading his boss and discoverer, Paul Davidson of Union Film, that he must now realise his artistic dreams in the creation of great film drama . Davidson decides to risk a lot of money…”The rest, as the credits try to suggest, is history. (p.38)’
The film is Orientalist tosh that features all the elements, historical and fictional, archeological digs in Egypt had made fashionable: pyramids, sand dunes, high priests, exotic dances, otherworldly trances, sexual enslavement. These would become even more popular with the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb in 1923. Thus the film is riding a wave of Orientalism in Western Culture, a wide-ranging one encompassing the Russian Costumes popularised by Dhiagelev and the Ballets Russes, but also Chinese porcelain, Turkish rugs and the Japanese Screens so adored by Coco Chanel. Its Egyptian variant would manifest itself throughout popular culture in the twenties and beyond via Sheiks, sand dunes, glittery sequins, hair that was bobbed and fringed, mummies and more.
The world of The Eyes of the Mummy is not too far removed from that of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, ever with us in endless adaptations, as well as the relatively recent Stephen Sommers franchise of Mummy films (1999-2008), which in itself encompasses a broad and unapologetic Orientalism. All find an origin in the fashion for Egyptology and all are in evidence here. We could say that Lubitsch was on the avant-garde of a fashion that is still with us, a hegemonic discourse that still places and displaces, fetishizes, fixes, and inevitably puts into play dynamics of empire and subjugation.
The plot is simple to the point of simplistic but also sexy and sensational: Albert Wendland (Harry Liedtke), a young painter, goes on a sojourn to Egypt and sees a beautiful girl gathering water by a well. The next day at the Palace Hotel, Prince Hohenfels (Max Laurence) plans to go on an outing to see the forbidden burial chamber but is advised that anyone who has visited has come upon terrible misfortune. Albert overhears and asks one of the victims what happened. ‘The eyes are a live’ screams the victim in delirium.
When Albert does eventually venture there, Radu (Emil Jannings) the keeper of the tomb takes him to the see the ‘Eyes of the Mummy’ and he, thinking that there’s something familiar and fishy, goes into the antechamber to see what’s behind. Radu tries to stop him, they fight, and Albert accidentally shoots Ragu. When he finally gets to the antechamber, he finds Ma (Pola Negri) who turns out be the reason the eyes of the Mummy were alive: they’re hers.
Ma tells Albert of her sad fate: years ago she’d been gathering water by a well when Radu kidnapped her, made her the eyes of the Mummy and a slave to his ‘every’ wish. Albert promises to free her and does. He takes her home to Europe, paints her portrait and introduces her to all his friends. Bernardhi, a famous showbiz impresario, is impressed by her dancing at a party, puts her on the stage and she becomes a big star. Unfortunately for her, Radu lives. He was rescued by Prince Hohenfels and is now also in Europe. When he finds her, his mere glance is enough to once more put her under his spell. When she resists, he kills her, kisses her and kills himself. It’s almost as much trashy fun to recount as it is to watch.
The film is worth seeing, even in this degraded print, for further proof of how great Lubitsch is with crowds, for the expressive movement of people within space rendered interesting, new and fresh through inventive compositions. The market scenes, embroidered with little vignettes such as the boys stealing, the magicians doing their act and merchants hawking their wares, demonstrate a vivid and textured rendering of atmosphere. We begin to see how Lubitsch creates memorable compositions that are also places for movement and action such as the initial introduction of the sand dunes; and also how these are edited so that time, setting and action all find a rhythm, one which maximizes the spectacular elements of what we’ve been shown; see for example the shot of Prince Hohenfels returning from his outing, the horses on top of the sand dunes and how we continue seeing the movement of the caravan of people until the very last horse goes out of the frame, evoking a sense of exotic, contemplative and magnificent spectacle.
The scenes at the Art Gallery, the Alhambra Theatre, and the Hotel all function as set-pieces where Lubitsch sets out to dazzle with crowds of people, costumes, dances or even acrobats. This is a film that adores that which can add a shine or or a shiver and this includes playing with film form; see for example, the super-imposition of images to convey the link between Radu and Ma’s minds but also to render Radu’s presence immaterial, otherworldly and spectral. This of course would become a standard way of showing ghosts in cinema in the classic period but, though not new, it was rare enough and must have seemed thrilling then.
One can also appreciate, albeit in a more muted way, Lubitsch’s use of the mirror at the Prince’s salon. It’s a wonderful composition that not only allows us to view off-screen space but also works narratively to create distinctions between what the characters know and what the audience can see, thus creating suspense. In this instance of course what we see before Ma is the appearance of Radu in the mirror and a threat not only to the lifestyle we see her so enjoying but to her very life.
Last but not least one of the great pleasure of the film is to see Pola Negri in her prime and on display. She’s as alive as anything in the movie and gets to exhibit a range of characteristics: the virginal water girl by the well, the slave of Radu, the eyes of the mummy, the dis-orientated foreigner in the West, the exotic dancer, the stage star, and finally, the ‘last girl’. She’s vivid and vivrant as all of them.
Her dances are something to see. She wears a very skimpy, harem type outfit with the midriff on display and a a see-through shrug. She does a dance that begins with mix of Turkish belly dancing and ballet that eventually becomes a pastiche of Egyptiana. The men are entranced by the sashay of her hips, the women annoyed. Pola’s a dancer and moves her body sinuously; whoever choreographed those dances was clearly influenced by hieroglyphics. The effect is that of making Pola’s body the focal point of all that was dreamy, scary and sexy about the Orient. As if all of the markets, pyramids, sand dunes, sex and tombs were somehow condensed in the figure of Pola dancing. Two different types of spectacle rendered simultaneously interchangeable and other, enticing and threatening.
A film to see even in this degraded copy with that jarring and intrusive score by Rachel Gutches, whom I note has bagged the copyright for the whole thing. According to Hake, there are opening titles to the German version that are illuminating about Lubitsch’s self-critical attitude at this point. According to her, they tell us, ‘This film had a big budget, that is, two pal trees and was shot on location in Egypt, that is, in the Rudersdorf limestone mountains (near Berlin)’ (p.44). Had I known that, I might not have been as self-conscious about laughing at some sections.
Released in the USA on the 25th of June 1922.
Sabine Hake in Passions and Deception: The Early Films of Ernst Lubitsch, calls The Oyster Princess, ‘the first Lubitsch comedy that shows a distinct filmic style’ (p. 40), and cites Béla Bálazs as writing ‘Here the comic mode already emanates from a directorial style that is founded on self mockery. Film fashions and film manners, even filmic effects are unmasked , and all that only through a slight touch of exxageration’ (pp.40-41).
In The Oyster Princess, a rich American oyster heiress (Ossie Oswalda) living in a palace German Aristocrats can no longer afford wants to get married. Her friend has nabbed a count so her father, Mister Quaker (Victor Janson), promises a prince. They go through the list of candidates and find a tip-top but poor one, Prince Nucki (Harry Liedtke). Before he commits, however, he sends his valet, Josef (Julius Falkenstein) to check her out first and, after a series of incidents, it is Josef who ends up married to Ossie. However, the real prince and the oyster princess eventually meet accidentally, fancy each other rotten, and everything ends happily ever after.
Ossie Oswalda throws things around with delightful exuberance. Lubitsch uses rhythmic repetition again, servants and servants and servants, or money being borrowed from person to person to person to person, diminishing at each stage for comic effect. There are apprentices: Gerhard Ritterband, the same one that got slapped around in Die Puppe, gets slapped around again, and again to comic effect. There’s a bandleader (Curt Bois) who boosts the orchestra into a frenzied fox-trot and accentuates each change in rhythm with a sharp jut of his butt.
There is a fantastic fox-trot sequence which is like a musical number with all the energetic and utopian thrust such numbers would later convey in Classic Hollywood . It’s very long, with dancing all over the house, including through the kitchens, the stairways and so on and is a cinematic tour-de-force .
The film exudes a love of all things American, particularly its assertion of democracy. The Oyster King is obviously a grotesque parody of an American millionaire but he’s as good as anybody, can buy princes who in this film are not expected to be either bright or useful, and is not impressed by anything except love. The sets are still papier-maché-y but opulent; the clothes delightful. Americans are satirised but fondly and with admiration; and the coming together of German Aristocracy and American Democracy are seen as an ideal, one better enjoyed in bed and best seen through a key-hole.
Hake beleives that ‘with The Oyster Princess Lubitsch had come into his own (p. 41). One can but agree.
Ernst Lubitsch plays Sally Pinkus, a middle-class schoolboy, fun-loving, mischievous, disrespectful of his teachers, smoking behind his father’s back and already ogling the opposite sex — even if it means climbing a slippery pole in the schoolyard to do it. His father berates him for flirting with the maid but then does exactly the same once Sally’s out of sight. Sally is expelled from school, buys a treat for a girl he fancies and as a result has all her girlfriends chasing him for ice-cream too, all of which he very much likes but can’t afford. Very Lubitsch. Indeed according to Karsten Witte, ‘Sally Pinkus: that’s Lubitsch in the years 1915, 16, 17’.[i]
Sally fails High School and doesn’t receive a diploma. That his only good grade was for singing is narrated into a lovely punch-line in the film. Luckily for him and to the relief of his family, there are some jobs where qualifications are poo-poohed: he finds a work in a down-market shoe-shop. But he can’t bring himself to put shoes on customers with holes in their socks. On the bright side, he does fancy the boss’s daughter. The combination of weariness towards work and over-eagerness to flirt gets Sally fired. Again, he doesn’t remain unemployed long; he’s got the smarts to get another job, this time at an even posher shoe shop.
Sally doesn’t know where to draw the line, always slightly exceeding the limits of the appropriate. He loses his job when he can’t stop himself from tickling the foot of a pretty woman in spite of her obvious annoyance, thus losing the wage and getting nowhere with the girl. However, he wins it back by having the smarts to sell a woman shoes when no one else can: he simply changes the larger size the woman’s feet require to the smaller one her vanity desires. Again very Lubitsch.
If the milieu of the story had been set a little lower in the social scale, the story might have seemed archetypally picaresque. Except that Sally not only has wit and smarts, he also has drive. It’s perhaps this that leads Scott Eyman to compare him to Sammy Glick, after the heartless, ruthless and cruel hero of Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? and call Sally Pinkus a German Duddy Kravitz[ii], after the eponymous hero of Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.
The first comparison is simply inappropriate as, aside from a drive to succeed, Sally and Sammy share few traits: Sally is fundamentally kind and good. Moreover, though Sally does undergo an apprenticeship –and Lubitsch played many types of apprentices at this point of his career; apprenticeship was almost a characteristic of his star persona during this period — for Sally, power and money are not ends in themselves like they are for Duddy. What makes Sally run is a desire for the opposite sex, a desire that women exploit. There are a lovely couple of scenes where Sally’s shown making all the female employees laugh at his jokes. He clearly loves being surrounded by women and they in turn like him, at lest up to a point. Then, one of the girls who he’s been courting and who he sees holding hands with another man, is shown mocking his desire for her to the rest of the girls as he looks on, distraught. Sally has a vulnerability lacking in Sammy Glick and one that Duddy only acquires near the end of his story, after he’s served his own moral apprenticeship. For Sally money’s just a means. He wants a girl; and he wants more than sex from her.
One of the pleasures of watching this film, now almost a hundred years old, is that it offers an insight into a way of life and conditions of living now no longer ours. Who can now imagine a shoe shop with all those employees, each with their own gigantic locker in the basement? I suppose all old films tell us something about the time in which they were set, in a way, to a degree, up to a point; all of which require a set of knowledges and a method of decipherment. In Shoe Salon Pinkus we seem to see and understand with a greater degree of transparency and with an enormous amount of enjoyment.
The film also has elements that seem current and continue to resonate. For example, when Sally is loaned 30,000 marks to start his own shoe shop by the dancer he fancies, he goes to his boss and blows smoke in his face, just like in If I Had a Million when Charles Laughton wins the lottery, and after crossing door, after door, after door to get to the puffed up person at the top of the heap, he blows his boss a raspberry. Sally models his shoe shop on what were then the most fashionable and palatial temples of consumption, the Department Store, and calls it a ‘Shoe Palace’. He then gets the dancer to wear his shoes onstage so he can publicise where they can be bought. This mix of advertising, show business and consumption seem very contemporary. It’s the beginnings of an age of consumption in the society of the spectacle that we see in this film. Its energy is the propulsion of modernity itself.
The film ends with a long fashion show where Sally can show off his shoes and the audience can admire them. The clothes the various models wear down the runaway are also displayed as spectacle. When Sally’s shoes are singled out for praise in a review of the fashion show, the success of his shop is assured, just as if it had been the opening of a play. Shoe Salon Pinkus was probably shown in a movie palace. Both are settings for dreams and aspirations. This one is funny, sexy, infused with Jewish humour but driven by all that was then considered to be modern.
According to Kristin Thompson, ‘Jan-Christopher Horak has argued that from Schupalast Pinkus on, Lubitsch’s films move from slapstick to satire’.[iii] I’m not in a position to argue with him not having seen his earlier films. However, it is fair to say that there’s not a lot of slapstick in this film. The humour comes from situation and point-of-view. Certainly, Lubitsch himself, in what Scott Eyman has called ‘the archetypal Lubitsch performance’ performs[iv] broadly, excessively so to contemporary tastes. But there are no slaps, no sticks, no pratfalls. And there is certainly some satire, at least of what Lubitsch imagines women find attractive.
In Sabine Hake’s marvellous book on Lubitsch, Passions and Deceptions: The Early Films of Ernst Lubitsch[v], she suggests that movie spectators, cinema’s ‘customers’, are positioned to respond like the women in Lubitsch’s fashion show in this film: ‘Both address themselves especially to women: as the quintessential modern consumers, the foremost experts in question of style, and as that group in society that is most open to, and most in need of, the play with other identities.’ I think that’s right. But I also think Sally Pinkus’ desire is worth noting. In the film, Sally’s desires are the subject of the film, women are what he desires, his desires might be those of most in the audience, the consumption of clothes and shoes is perhaps most directly addressed at women. However, when Lubitsch closes in on the shoes, he also gets the models to lift their dresses and show their ankles. Both men and women have a lot to look at, appreciate and desire in this film.
Note: Shoe Salon Pinkus is an extra in the Criterion blu-ray of To Be Or Not to Be and it would be worth getting just to be able to see it in a wonderful clear transfer, unlike the image grabs from an inferior version that illustrate this review.
[i] ‘Sally Pinkus: c’est là Lubitsch dans les années 1915-1916-1917.’ Translation my own. Cited in Hans Helmut Prinzler in ‘Eléments pour une biographie’ ‘Erns Lubtisch’ Cahiers du cinema/ Cinémathèque Française, ed. By Bernard Eisenschitz and Jean Narboni, 1985.
[ii] Scott Eyman, Laughter in Paradise, Baltimore; John Hopkins Paperback Editions, 2000, p. 46.
[iii] Kristin Thompson, Herr Lubitsch Goes to Hollywood: German and American Film After World War 1 Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005, p. 21.
[iv] Eyman, op cit., p. 45.
[v] Sabine Hake’s, Passions and Deceptions: The Early Films of Ernst Lubitsch, Princeton: Princeton University Press 1992, p. 35.