The Oyster Princess / Meyer from Berlin Blu-ray Review: A Pair of German Silents from Lubitsch

Ernst Lubitsch is widely considered one of the great directors of classic cinema. His comedies were sophisticated, elegant with a touch of the absurd that became known as “the Lubitsch Touch.” Truth be told, I have not seen a lot of his films. It is a pretty large hole in my cinematic knowledge. I’m always thrilled when a media company announces they are releasing one of his films – especially one of his early, silent films made in Germany. Silent films being released on Blu-ray is always cause for celebration as something like 70 percent of all silent films have been lost to time. On the audio commentary accompanying this set from Kino Lorber, author Joseph McBride notes that Lubitsch somehow managed to beat those odds with a large percentage of his silent films managing to survive. Still, many of those have not been available on the American market. Reasons to rejoice, indeed.

This Kino set includes two of Lubitsch’s films, both from 1919. The Oyster Princess is the A-lister here and it gets the star treatment with a nice-looking transfer and most of the coverage. It is easy to see why, it is a hilarious, wild, manic bit of satirical comedy.

The story begins with Ossi (Ossi Oswalda), daughter of a rich American, the self-proclaimed Oyster King (Victor Janson), now living in Germany. When she learns that a rival debutante has recently been married to royalty, she demands that her father find her an even better mate. He employs a matchmaker who finds Prince Nucki (Harry Liedtke), a destitute royal, who is also attractive, amiable, and willing to marry for money.

In one of the film’s many wonderfully funny scenes, when the matchmaker arrives at their doorstep, Nucki and his friend Josef (Julius Falkenstein) quickly try to clean up their run-down flat. They literally throw heaps of wine bottles and trash off-stage (they toss everything towards the camera, where in real life there would be a wall) and create a makeshift throne out of a table and chair, completing it with some run-down curtains.

Nucki sends Josef to meet Ossi and he immediately assumes the role of the Prince and quickly marries her himself. But worry not, my friends, for the real Prince accidentally meets Ossi when he drunkenly stumbles into her meeting with the Multi-Millionaires’s Daughters Association Against Dipsomania. She takes him under her care and they quickly fall in love. And since Josef married her under the pretense that he was Nucki, Ossi and the real Prince are actually married and all is well.

That’s really all there is to the plot. But the devil, as they say, is in the details, and Ernst Lubitsch loved the details. The film was made in 1919. World War I had just ended. Germany was in shambles. Its economy was broken. Its people (even its royalty) were broke. America, however, was ripe with money. Lots of folks had gotten very rich with oil, railroads, and industry. Many of them moved to Europe and dreamed of palaces and dalliances with royalty.

Lubitsch uses the Oyster King and Ossie to skewer this reality. When Ossie learns that her rival has married, she begins tearing up her room, smashing everything in sight. Her father not only doesn’t stop her but declares he is unimpressed with the damage she has caused and demands that she do more. They live in a huge, opulent mansion with hundreds of servants. When he lays down for a nap, half a dozen servants fluff his pillows. When she takes a bath, dozens of maids undress her, wash her, massage her, and dress her. At a dinner party, the servants literally fill the screen. A servant lines up behind each guest ready to serve them a spoon full of food, another servant lines up behind the first servant to dish out a different spoonful. The line of servants is multi-layered, with each one on hand to serve one simple serving of each dish. Clearly, these people have more money than they know what to do with.

At the wedding party, a “Foxtrot Epidemic” breaks out and we’re treated to a lengthy number where party guests and servants alike all break into the dance. Some have declared the film to be the very first musical. All of this is just delightful. Lubitsch moves everything along with grace and quickness so that you are never bored.

The b-picture in our double feature is Meyer From Berlin, in which Lubitsch plays the titular Merer, a rather dim-witted city dweller who travels to the Bavarian Alps looking to have an affair with a woman (any woman will do). The film begins with him pretending to be sick to keep his wife at bay and asking his doctor to prescribe him some health and relaxation in the mountains. He then takes off for the Austrian Alps but lands in Bavaria (dressed to the nines in traditional Austrian clothes – shorts, high socks, and a spangly vest – looking completely out of place). Once there, he checks into a hotel and meets Kitty (Trude Troll) whom he tries to seduce. He is unsuccessful at it but she finds him amusing and they spend most of the film together.

As you can see, the plot in this one is even more slight than in The Oyster Princess but it has none of that film’s manic energy. Jokes in Meyer From Berlin are much more subdued. For example, when he first exits the train in Bavaria he looks about for the mountains, finds a small pile of dirt, and decides that must be it. Or in another scene, while climbing a mount he drops he sandwich and then dryly says he’ll catch it on their way down. Most of the jokes fall under the mildly amusing category.

I have to admit I struggled a bit with this one. It moves fairly slowly and it has none of the energy of joy of The Oyster Princess. Luckily, Joseph McBride’s commentary is much more lively and informative, making the film more than worth your time. But really, consider Meyer From Berlin a bonus. The Oyster Princess is the reason to buy this set, and it’s just lovely.

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Mat Brewster

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