Ernst Lubitsch didn't set out to become a director. From an early age, his dream was to act, and he overcame his father's resistance (he wanted his son to follow his footsteps into the family clothing business) to apprentice with Max Reinhardt's celebrated theater company. Though relegated to small roles on stage, he soaked in everything from the experience, and he brought that with him as he supplemented his theater work by acting in movies. Lubitsch made his screen debut in 1914 and graduated from supporting player to star in a series of shorts, most of them broad comedies that leaned on ethnic humor and slapstick gags. Movies didn't get the respect that theater did, but they offered Lubitsch greater opportunities. Before long he stepped behind the camera of the comedies he starred in. After a few years of both acting and directing, he stopped performing to focus on filmmaking with increasingly ambitious projects.
A pair of historical spectacles in 1918 – The Eyes of the Mummy and Carmen, both starring Polish actress Pola Negri – elevated Lubitsch to "serious" filmmaker in the eyes of the public, but it was comedy that proved to be his métier. He swiftly evolved beyond the stereotypes and caricatures of those early shorts with increasingly inventive, ambitious and insightful features.
Lubitsch subtitles The Oyster Princess "a grotesque comedy in 4 acts." Loosely based on the comic operetta "The Dollar Princess," it's the story of a spoiled young American heiress who demands her father find her a European prince to marry. An impoverished Prussian prince is drafted by a matchmaker to share his title in return for a share of the heiress’ fortune, but when he sends a friend to scope out the situation, a case of mistaken identity spirals hilariously out of control.
The film arrived at a time when Germans needed something to distract them from their woes. Germany had just lost the war and was facing a damaged economy and crippling reparations. The United States, meanwhile, emerged as a new world power, a country of newly minted millionaires and untold wealth. Lubitsch and screenwriting partner Hanns Kräly mix fantasy and reality for a satirical farce that ridicules the decadent wealth and vulgar excess of the American tycoons and the manners and mores of the impoverished European aristocracy.
Lubitsch discovered his young star Ossi Oswalda, who plays the spoiled American heiress (also named Ossi) and directed her in his comedy short Shoe Palace Pinkus (1916). Bigger roles followed, and she became famous as "the Mary Pickford of Germany," though her spunky, vivacious energy has a much earthier edge than America's sweetheart ever showed. The Oyster Princess was their tenth collaboration, and it amplifies her playful screen persona, making her quick-tempered, manically impulsive and more than a little sexually precocious.
The "foxtrot epidemic" that breaks out in the midst of the wedding gives the film a classic movie musical sequence before the musical film was born. Though shot silently, Lubitsch creates a visual rhythm with his dancers, which he intercuts with a driving band led by a wildly gesticulating conductor seemingly lost in his own frenzied dance solo. Of course, silent movies were never actually silent. The Oyster Princess debuted with a 20-piece orchestra playing a score composed for the film, giving the sequence the musical drive to match its visual "music."
Another stand-out sequence features a bored servant who, forced to wait on the frivolous Ossi, traces the lines of the parquet floor pattern with a childlike pacing that turns into a kind of dance in its own right. Lubitsch was proud of the sequence, a flourish that both reveals character and delights in its own invention. "It is very difficult to describe the nuance, and I don't know if I succeeded, but it was the first time I turned from comedy to satire."
Filmmaker Tom Tykwer (Run, Lola, Run, 1998; Cloud Atlas, 2012) cites The Oyster Princess as "the first film to express what Lubitsch was about." Film historian and Lubitsch scholar Herman G. Weinberg argues that it was the first film to exhibit what would come to be called "the Lubitsch Touch," that indefinable gift the filmmaker had for capturing the essence of a theme or a satirical point in an image or a gesture. Lubitsch himself called it "my first film comedy which showed something of a definite style."
Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise, Scott Eyman. Simon & Schuster, 1993.
Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin, documentary directed by Robert Fischer. Transit Film GmbH, 2006.
"The Oyster Princess," Shari Kazirian. SFSFF 2019 program.
How Did Lubitsch Do It?, Joseph McBride. Columbia University Press, 2018.
The Lubitsch Touch: A Critical Study, Herman G. Weinberg. Dover, 1977.