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.