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.
I Don’t Want to be a Man/ Icht möchte kein Mann sein is a delightful sex comedy, a movie about teenage rebellion from a hundred years ago, funny and amiable but not without edge. Ossie (Ossie Oswalda) is a young woman who enjoys eating, drinking, smoking, playing poker and flirting with the boys. What’s not to like? Well, for one, her governess (Margarete Kupfer) doesn’t think it ‘proper’ for a young girl to do these things. She prevents her from smoking but then can’t stop herself from getting giddy on a few drags herself. Likewise, Ossie’s uncle, Counsellor Brockmüller (Ferry Sikla) is shocked to catch her drinking a thimbleful of wine from an itsy-bitsy wine glass but then gulps away on a huge goblet himself. The older generation has not only forgotten what it is to be young, they’ve become hypocrites in the process. The boys love Ossie and gangs of them gather on the street as she sits by her window. But when she flirts with them, the governess is appalled: ‘And you want to be a refined young girl!’ ‘I don’t want that at all!’ says Ossi.
It seems like all the adults are preventing Ossie from having fun, from doing what they do as a matter of course, from being a person, from being herself. All their urges to be ‘proper’ are experienced as restrictions on personal freedom and individual desires. When her uncle goes away on a trip she gets a new guardian, Dr. Kersten (Curt Götz), a handsome but stuffy disciplinarian who asks that she stand in his presence and bow to his wishes. ‘I’ll break you down yet!’ he tells her. ‘ Why didn’t I come into the world as a boy?’ she in turn moans at us in the final inter-title of the 1st act, soliciting our agreement as to the unfairness of gender roles and the injustice of their social enforcement. These early scenes, showing as they do social constraints on individual freedom and identity; and more specifically, patriarchal constraints on women’s desires and behaviour, are an eye-opener to anyone interested in the representation of women or the on-screen treatment of gender. I had never seen Ossie Oswalda before. She’s as alive, witty and transgressive a presence as I remember on-screen and I found her a revelation: irrepressible, joyous, transparent, energetic, social; a utopian flower in the worldly garden of weeds, a light that everyone’s out to extinguish. One would expect the Second Act to ‘correct’ some of Ossie’s transgressions, to claw back and reclaim for men some of the injustices towards women exposed in the first act. But this is Lubitsch. We do get to see some of the difficulties men have in dressing: those bow ties can be such a problem; and poor men have to give up their seats in the U-bahn when ladies are standing up; and they musn’t whine; and they’re so aggressive at the coat-check!; and the way women chase them is so ruthless! Boo-hoo. All of this ‘poor men’ malarkey is clearly undermined by Ossie being OUT, without a chaperone, on the street, in the U-bahn and in the hustle and bustle of a glamorous nightclub, doing what she wants and being free.
At the beginning of the second act, we see the sly pleasures Ossie takes in having all the taylors fight to take her measurements for her men’s suit. In the latter part, we see her being chased by women and not getting a lot of joy out of it: Ossie’s clearly heterosexual. We’ll find out her guardian’s sexuality is much more questionable. We already know that sex is the very air Lubitschland breathes. When Ossie sees her uncle at the nightclub flirting with a girl, she sets out to steal her away from him but before she can do so, the girl has already found someone else and Ossie, masquerading as a young roué, becomes friends with her guardian. On the evidence of this second act, Lubitsch is already a master of the medium. When we’re shown the nightclub (fig. 1), we get a wonderful composition with waiters entering from the left bottom corner of the frame on a diagonal and towards the band leader, set up as the frame’s horizon, to which waiter, after waiter, after waiter, is heading. The composition is brilliant, the staging sublime , and the rhythm of the scene, already that of the ‘Lubitsch’ we know.
Lubitsch handles compositions in depth with ease and they recur frequently here. For examples, see the scene where Ossie and her guardian are in opposite balconies whilst the dancing happens between them (Fig. 2), the frame split vertically into three areas of action, with Ossie in the upper, receding third. The upper two thirds of the vertical frame is also split three ways horizontally, with Ossie, out of focus in the middle of the top third; her guardian and the woman Ossie sets out to steal from him are in focus and occupying all of the bottom third of the frame. See also the marvelous use of the mirror, when Ossie momentarily forgets she’s a man and is laughed at for powdering her nose, and how this enables us to see space that would normally be off-screen, distinguish between foreground and background, and create a dynamism in the composition through Ossie looking down, the women laughing and looking directly at the mirror, and the men looking in the opposite direction, towards the coat-check. Note too how this composition is not only dynamic and aesthetically pleasing but also coheres narratively: Ossie is shown twice, herself and her reflection, at the moment that she forgets that she is a woman passing as a man. Terrific.
I Don’t Want to be a Man/ Icht möchte kein Mann sein well illustrates one of the things Lubitsch learned from Reinhardt and that Lubitsch would be an acknowledged master of from this period until he departed for Hollywood in 1922 and beyond (see, for example 1929’s Eternal Love) : his handling of the crowd scenes. And this not only in the nightclub scenes with their dozens of extras but in other story-telling moments where an abundance of extras does not on the face of it seem absolutely necessary: our introduction of the guardian in the nightclub for example, where he’s framed by a bevy of people dynamically arranged in the staircase behind him; and the rhyming shot with Ossie in front of a similar grouping, before both of them coming together (see fig. 4)
Lubitsch likes actors so that he always gives each a bit of business. One can look at any part of the crowd and find something interesting going on, something thematically linked to the story. See for example the still from the coat-check scene below (fig. 5): Ossie is in the centre, the woman on the bottom right already checking ‘him’ out, the two women chatting on the right hand corner that will also soon be flirting with ‘him’, the man talking to the two women in the background in front of a curtain they will soon move through, thus creating a feeling of depth; see also the man at the coat-check looking towards the crowd of men who are all headed towards him jostling to get their hats checked-in. It’s not only beautiful to look at, but lively; one gets a sense of a whole world, a complex one, one in which Ossie’s story can take place. For if Lubitsch demonstrates he’s a master of the medium, it’s because of the stories he tells and how he tells them.
In the last act, Ossie and her guardian get tipsy. They smoke, drink champagne, and offer a toast to ‘brotherhood’; and then…. their lips lightly brush. ‘What’s your name,’ asks the guardian. ‘It’s better not to ask’, says Ossie. Then the lip-brushing becomes a more conscious, if still very light kiss. It’s not a deep French as they used to say in my home-town. They’ll then kiss some more and will continue to do so in the cab on the way home. The scenes are undeniably erotic, very subtly handled, with a frisson of the transgressive that is yet so light as to be mistaken for accidental whilst going slightly over the edge. In this way, even the more staid members of the audience can feel daring without having their hair stand on end.
Nicola Lubitsch, Lubitsch’s daughter, has called this film Victor/Victoria fifty years before Victor/Victoria but it is so much better than the Blake Edwards film (I’m aware of the 1930s German version but have not yet seen it). I Don’t Want to be a Man is less coy, more complex, more human than Blake’s film. For one, Ossie likes being kissed, is clearly heterosexual, but is enjoying her transgressions which to her simply amount to kissing and which give her a kind of power, in that she gets the upper hand over her guardian. Equally interestingly, the guardian knows he’s kissing a man and in the cab it becomes clear that he is not at all embarrassed by it, likes it, and does it again. One can so easily detect how this film was an influence on Dietrich and Von Sternberg in Morocco, not only sartorially, in that Dietrich is wearing a sleeker version of the top hat, white tie and tails that Ossie wears here, but in the labile view of sexuality, one with a ‘twist’ in that Ossie doesn’t like the girls as much as Dietrich does whereas the guardian likes the boys a lot more than Gary Cooper.
At the end, they wake up in each others’ beds, he with a feminine lace cap on. She has to trudge home through the streets of Berlin (and these are clearly shot on location). When he discovers that it was his guardian he had been kissing and asks her if this was so, Ossie retorts in the intertitle, ‘That’s right. The one and only!’ ‘And you let yourself be kissed by me’, ‘Well, didn’t you like how it tasted?’. The film ends with her turning the tables on him ‘I’ll bring you down yet…Down to here’, she says pointing to the floor just as he had done at the beginning. As the end, they kiss, and she tells us ‘I wouldn’t like to be a man’. But we’re left with the impression that she actually had a really good time impersonating one. She got to do the drinking, smoking and carousing that she’d been forbidden in the beginning of the film. She sure seemed to enjoy having a man’s freedom and his agency, even if it was exhausting stuff. Plus she got her man in the end and put him in his place whilst doing so. Extraordinary stuff.
Watching the last third, I wondered what audiences who saw it might have made of it; how exciting it must have been to women and to the lgtb members of the audience, however such identities might have been constructed then, lucky enough to see this; and what it might have meant to them. I’d like to learn more about that. What I do know now, almost a hundred years later, is that the film enchants and dazzles with its technique, its joy, its appreciation of freedom and its expansive notion of humanity and its foibles. And on top of that there’s the brilliant exuberance of Ossie. Alice A. Kuzniar, writing in The Queer German Cinema on I Don’t Want to be a Man and on Der Geiger von Florenz writes that ‘the “gender trouble” of these films does not reside solely in their depiction of independent, strong-willed women and their rejection of patriarchal authority. Both films deeply unsettle sexual as well as gender divisions in a way inconceivable for even independent gay cinema as well as mainstream straight cinema today’. i I’ve not yet seen Der Geiger von Florenz but that is definitely the case in relation to I Don’t Want to be a Man and but one of very many reasons to see it. i. Alice A. Kuzniar, The Queer German Cinema, Stanford: Standford University Press, 2000, p. 33.