The Oyster Princess (1919)
Another Ernst Lubitsch sex comedy starring Ossi Oswalda, this one is a bit less transgressive than “I Don’t Want to Be a Man,” but still racy by the standards of the time, especially compared to American comedies. Lubitsch again shows the talent he will be bringing to movies for some time to come.
Ossi this time plays Ossi Quaker, the daughter of an American magnate (Victor Janson) who has made his fortune selling oysters. She seems to delight in destroying things, throwing newspapers when she runs out of vases to break. When Victor asks what the matter is this time, he finds it’s because the daughter of the “Shoe Cream King” is marrying a count. Of course, she demands better, so Mr. Quaker agrees to find her a prince. He goes to a matchmaker (Max Kronert) who looks in his files and discovers a confirmed bachelor by the name of Prince Nucki (Harry Liedke) and sends him an invitation to meet the Quakers. The reticent Nucki, on receiving this note in his bachelor pad, sends his buddy Josef (Julius Falkenstein) to scope out the girl in question, setting him up to play his valet. Meanwhile, Ossi is “instructed” in married life by practicing with a baby doll.
When Josef arrives, he is taken to a waiting room with an elaborate floor decoration and he hands over the card of Prince Nucki. From here, a comedy of mistaken identity is taken to extremes as everyone assumes Josef is the prince, and he goes along with it, apparently eager to make the most out of an opportunity for a good meal. He also seems to be attracted to Ossi, who definitely does not return the sentiment (“well…at least he’s a prince!”). Before we get to that, however, Ossi spends an inordinate amount of time being bathed and perfumed and dressed for the meeting, while Josef finds ways to amuse himself by pacing out the elaborate geometrical pattern on the floor. Once they are introduced, Ossi drags him off to a preacher and gets them hitched, with nary a comment from Josef. She then sends him to introduce himself to the Oyster King, who assumes he is a servant, and is decidedly unimpressed by his new son in law.
The immediate family is invited for the marriage celebration, at which Josef makes a pig of himself with the food, wine, and champagne, and everyone else goes crazy with Foxtrot madness. The real Prince Nucki, unaware of all this, is taken out for a “spree” by some friends who are almost as broke as he is. At the end of the night, Ossi and Josef are shown to separate bedrooms, though Josef makes an attempt to get into Ossi’s, only to be turned back by a servant. The Oyster King is unimpressed by his lack of ardor. The next morning, Ossi joins a group of similarly spoiled young girls for a breakfast of the Association Against Dipsomania. Prince Nucki is brought in after his spree for having passed out trying to speak with the horse of a carriage. The girls all fight over who will “treat” him and Ossi wins by boxing the others unconscious.
She drags Nucki home with her and kisses him before he passes out again in her bed. Josef sees a man through the keyhole and runs around the mansion trying to find her father, but winds up running in circles. Nucki and Ossi fall for each other, but are despondent – she’s married and he believes he’s engaged to someone he hasn’t even seen yet. But, Josef winds up running back into the bedroom and tells them that since he got married under Nucki’s name, they are actually married to one another. They kiss once more, happily. They have a second celebratory dinner, but this time they run off together to the bedroom at the first opportunity. Mr. Quaker listens at the door, finally having found something that impresses him.
This movie was longer than “I Don’t Want to Be a Man,” but seemed to me to have less going on most of the time. Ossi’s character has the rebelliousness of the first movie, but without as clear of a cause for it (presumably she’s bored, and maybe horny?). It’s interesting that the man she falls for is girl-shy and apparently has a male roommate, but Lubitsch doesn’t push this to the point of sexual ambiguity. Instead, the racy parts are the question of what Ossi does or doesn’t do with Josef, and whether she sleeps with Nucki before “realizing” that they are married. Still pretty daring for 1919, I suppose, but not quite as interesting.
What is interesting about this movie is that Lubitsch made it about an American girl. “Ami” soldiers had occupied parts of Germany after the First World War, and of course American movies were flooding the peacetime market, giving Europeans some funny ideas about American culture. The name “Quaker” is probably not an accident. Quaker charitable organizations were sending large amounts of food and other supplies to Germany, mostly from the United States, and possibly were associated with affluence and even frivolity, rather than serious-minded religiosity and pacifism. Mr. Quaker has a large number of black servants (“African American” characters, though I assume the actors were not Americans), each of whom has a very specific function to perform: one might hold his cigar while another gives him a drink and a third wipes his mouth with a napkin. This probably speaks to German perceptions of American racial divisions, though of course it is also intentional comedic exaggeration. Perhaps the most important aspect of culture is the American nouveau riche desire to marry European nobility, while the noble themselves are broke and dissolute – some of this can be seen in American movies as early as “How a French Nobleman Got a Wife” and it’s come up again. This is obviously a stereotype that worked on both sides of the Atlantic.
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Camera: Theodor Sparkuhl
Starring: Ossi Oswalda, Victor Janson, Harry Liedke, Julius Falkenstein, Max Kronert
Run Time: 1 Hour
You can watch it for free: here.
Want another view? Read this review at “Movies Silently.”