Ernst Lubitsch had a landmark year in 1919. In the years since he made his screen debut as a supporting player in 1912, he had become the star of his own series of slapstick shorts and developed into a respected filmmaker of clever comedies and lavish but earthy spectacles. In 1919 he released six features, including the hit satirical farce The Oyster Princess and historical epic Madame DuBarry, the first film to break the American blockade of German films after World War I. After becoming one of top directors in Germany, Lubitsch was now finding international attention.
Lubitsch and his producer, Paul Davidson, were able to mount lavish spectacles at a relatively modest cost (due to the cheap labor and depressed economy following the devastating war). In between those features, Lubitsch was mastering the romantic comedy, a genre that he would further refine and redefine with a mix of sophistication, subtlety, sex and satire when he left Germany for Hollywood in the early 1920s.
The Doll is small and whimsical next to the scope and grandeur of Madame DuBarry. It reunites Lubitsch with The Oyster Princess stars Ossi Oswalda and Victor Janson, again playing daughter and father, and disguises its satire of sex and misogyny in a fairytale fantasy. A childish young man (Hermann Thimig) who is terrified of women buys a life size doll (Oswalda) for a fake marriage in order to inherit a fortune. While there is indeed a maker of such clockwork dolls with windup keys and programmed actions, our child-man unknowingly ends up with a real woman playacting the part.
Subtitled "Four amusing acts from a toy box," The Doll embraces artificiality and self-awareness from the opening credits. Lubitsch himself opens the film, pulling pieces from a small chest to build a diorama in front of us, complete with a pair of dolls that he places inside a toy cottage. It is one of the greatest metaphors for moviemaking ever put on the screen. The film cuts to the now full-size set to observe his actor-dolls coming to life in the fantasy setting. The theme continues with cardboard clouds parting to reveal a smiling sun, pots and pans cartoonishly drawn on the walls of a kitchen, and a carriage drawn by actors in horse costumes. This is indeed a toybox of a movie.
It's loosely based on an operetta by A.E. Wilnner (which, in turn, was adapted from a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann). Lubitsch and cowriter Hanns Kräly invest it with broad satirical swipes at greed, gluttony, hypocrisy and misogyny and slip some of their slyest double entendres into the intertitles. They also transform the potentially passive title role into the most dynamic character in the film. It was the director's eleventh collaboration with Oswalda, described by Lubitsch scholar Joseph McBride as an actress who "radiates warmth, unrestrained enthusiasm, and innocent erotic vivacity." Lubitsch embraces that playful energy and girlish enthusiasm as she uses her disguise to mess with the men around her, invariably with an exuberant laugh.
Looking back on his career late in his too-short life, Lubitsch called The Doll "one of the three most outstanding comedies I made as a director in Germany." (The other two were The Oyster Princess, 1919 and Kohlhiesel's Daughters, 1920.) "It was pure fantasy; most of the sets were made of cardboard, some out of paper," he wrote in 1947. "Even to this day I still consider it one of the most imaginative pictures I ever made."
Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise, Scott Eyman. Simon & Schuster, 1993.
Ernst Lubitsch in Berlin, documentary directed by Robert Fischer. Transit Film GmbH, 2006.
How Did Lubitsch Do It?, Joseph McBride. Columbia University Press, 2018.
"The Doll," Farran Smith Nehme. SFSFF 2017 program.
The Lubitsch Touch: A Critical Study, Herman G. Weinberg. Dover, 1977.