Ernst Lubitsch started his career in broad slapstick, and a gleam of rowdy humor never fully left his work. The kind of wildness that often peeks through the tuxedoed elegance of his more well-known films—as in Herman Bing’s apoplectic geysers in The Merry Widow or Eugene Palette’s truculence over newspaper funnies in Heaven Can Wait—flows freely and steadily all through The Wildcat. Proudly proclaiming itself “a grotesque in four acts,” the picture takes place in a snow-covered kingdom that could provide the setting for one of Erich von Stroheim’s scabrous fairytales, had Lubitsch already not made the territory his own early on by having the departure of uniformed lothario Lieutenant Alexis (Paul Heidemann) leave behind a crowd of weeping women to miss his “services.” On his way to marry the daughter of the commander of the local fortress, Alexis is held up by a gang of mountain thieves led by spirited tomboy Rischka (Pola Negri), who jumps into action and leaves Alexis in his underpants in the ice, promptly smitten. A film of merrily shifting angles and proportions, The Wildcat delights in raucous mock-opera and lyrical phantasmagoria: The palace, decked with corkscrewing staircases and what look like oversized, art deco question marks, is practically a knowing parody of Caligari expressionism, and in the midst of a mission to infiltrate the fortress, both the outlaws and the guards take time off to get caught up in the rhythms of the waltz emanating from inside. Lubitsch blithely explores sets and frame sizes as if playing with toy soldiers, yet, characteristically, the film is more than an effervescent confection: Beneath the froth is a sharp view of social conventions, as Rischka and Alexis are enchantingly united in dream (spirits rise out of their sleeping bodies for a twirl scored to a full orchestra of snowmen) only to be separated by the reality of class divide. It’s a tribute to Lubitsch’s comic genius that his frenetic gags here brim with as much sly subversion as his later visions of glittering worldliness. Marriage is skewered, hilariously and witheringly, with the couple outfitted in a pair of handcuffs before sitting down in the snow to chow on borscht.
A very pleasing video transfer, crisp enough to nicely capture the texture of the studio snow and the polished checkerboard marble floors of the fortress. The score is also a choice one, appropriately and delicately symphonic instead of the tinkling usually accompanying silents.
A Lubitsch filmography and nothing more.
An uproarious treat for fans of Lubitsch and silent comedy.