Classic Review: The Oyster Princess

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* * * *

Dir. Ernst Lubitsch, 1919

I saw this film at the Buster Keaton celebration in Iola, Kansas. It has no relation to Keaton, but I think it was selected because of the original score provided by the live orchestra that was performing there. I’m glad it was screened  because I’m not sure I would have otherwise seen this Lubitsch gem.

An absurd comedy about the lives of the absurdly wealthy, the film tells about the daughter of an American tycoon living in Berlin. She becomes violently upset after reading that the Shoe Cream’s daughter is set to marry a count. So, she pesters her father, The Oyster King, into finding her a royal to marry. The arranged marriage doesn’t go as planned, and as a serious of farcical events unfolds we see the lives and personalities of its rather detestable cast of characters exposed in, often grotesque, comedic episodes.

Despite it’s unlikable characters (though Lubitsch is mocking and taking them to task for their ridiculous lifestyle, to his credit he doesn’t treat his characters with complete disdain) this is an immensely like-able film that’s fast-paced, full of all kinds of visually interesting scenes and gags, and contains a freewheeling impulse that recalls some of the contemporary modernist movements of the time. Most of all, and perhaps most importantly, it’s really funny. While the film may be tied to a particular historical and socio-political moment, the humor holds up well in large part because of the way Lubtisch engineers the relationships of the characters, but also because at its core humor is about power relationships, it’s democratizing, and the unfathomable excesses of the super rich, compared to the realities of everyone else, are still with us today.

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