Ernst Lubitsch’s early career in Germany is still somewhat unexplored territory, though a recent Film Forum retrospective filled in a lot of gaps for many. When he started directing, Lubitsch himself played the leads in a series of short comedies, and he later developed a taste for epic historical pictures like Madame Dubarry and Anna Boleyn. Anyone searching for the “Lubitsch touch” in these heavy costume movies usually does so in vain, but he also made several manic, appealing comedies that presage his sophisticated Hollywood period. Among them are these two short features, The Oyster Princess and I Don’t Want to Be a Man, both of which star the irrepressible comedienne Ossi Oswalda.
In the first, which is billed as “a grotesque comedy in four acts,” Oswalda plays a spoiled heiress who insists on getting a husband. Lubitsch dissects the foibles of the rich while tickling the audience’s lust for luxury: the set design is filled with vast empty spaces and rococo decoration. The film is always on the move, never letting up for a second, and it reaches a crazed climax during a fox trot “epidemic” at Oswalda’s wedding reception (the delirium of this sequence anticipates the dance montage in So This Is Paris and the chillier waltz in The Merry Widow). The Oyster Princess is an exuberant young man’s film, and though it lacks the formal perfection of Lubitsch’s best early comedy, The Merry Jail, it’s still a tasty pastry of a movie.
I Don’t Want to Be a Man is more chaotic and unfocused, but Oswalda holds it all together with her bumptious high spirits, and the gender-bending of the plot still seems pretty worldly. What’s most remarkable about these early Lubitsch films is their visual elegance: the editing is graceful and fluid, especially for films of this period. His famed “touch” came through clearly in some of these first comedies, and it’s fun to see his talent burst out so freely before it hardened into the formalized rituals of his cryptic, lauded later work.