Ernst Lubitsch began his feature film career with this self-driven star vehicle designed to introduce his character, Sally Pinkus, to the German speaking cinematic world. It worked, and he made several more films with the character before abandoning him when Lubitsch moved to America. Whenever I see attempts at building silent film comic characters, I always, as I’m sure most do, refer back to Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp character. Chaplin understood the limits of silent comedy extraordinarily well, and here, in Lubitsch’s first feature film attempt, the young German-Jewish filmmaker can’t quite figure out how to actually fill the time. There are entertaining bits here and there, enough to entertain at some level at least, but without the ability to really create a strong central character or bring him into a series of gags that feed a clear central narrative, the film just mostly lurches from one event to the next.
Sally Pinkus (Lubitsch) is an errant youth who goes to school late all of the time, happy to sleep in, declaring that he’s still early enough to be late to his worrying mother and stern father. He’s much more concerned with attracting the attention of girls, so when he does manage to get his way to school, he delays to help a pretty girl get to her school first. His teacher (Hanns Kraly) doesn’t like the misbehaving and distracted youth, giving him lectures about his lateness and trying to keep him on task, but Sally will not be bothered to work hard at his studies. When he tries to cheat on a test by pinning some notes to the jacket of the boy in front of him, he quickly gets found out and expelled.
Now, this early section is notable for some witty intertitles (the aforementioned excuse for being late) and some amusing physical comedy like when Sally tries to climb over his fellow students to get to his seat, or crawling under a pommel horse while his teacher’s back is turned in order to act like he’d made it over. There are some sight gags like when Sally is at the top of the middle of three climbing poles, waving to the girls on the other side of the wall, when his teacher decides to climb the adjacent pole to try and bring him down, just for Sally to slide down just as the teacher reaches the top. It’s amusing stuff and it’s spaced out well enough so that we never go more than just a couple of minutes without a nice little laugh.
Then Sally leaves school, trying to find a job, and we get similar little amusements as he becomes the apprentice in one shoe shop, just to be fired because he won’t work with the smelly feet of male customers and spends more time with the shop owner’s daughter than at his job. His overinflated sense of self-worth is the main source of comedy here, and his personal ad in the newspaper looking for new work is a good chuckle.
He ends up working at a new shop where he gets into a small rivalry with the owner of the shop over the delivery of a pair of boots to a wealthy, pretty, female customer. It’s also where Sally gets a chance to spend a lot of time around women’s feet, and it makes me wonder if Lubitsch had something of a foot fetish. I mean, it’s Tarantino level stuff here.
The effort to get the proper boots to the customer is tame, and I was imagining the kind of manic comedy that could have arisen from two men with identical packages trying to race each other to the doorstep of their intended conquest, but it’s much tamer than that. There are some laughs, small, nice laughs for sure, but it’s nothing hilarious. It also shows the limits of Lubitsch’s narrative capabilities at this point because the movie just decides to jump ahead and have the customer, Melitta (Else Kentner), give Sally thirty thousand marks to start a new shoe shop because Sally was fast in delivering the shoes. I mean, okay. Sure, why not?
And it just raises the question of what Sally wanted through the whole thing. He never wanted a job, responsibility, or money. He just wanted the ladies, and suddenly he has the drive to open up a shop, market in a unique way at a dance, and put on a fashion show in his new space, all so that he can then proceed to propose to Melitta when the shop is suddenly a success? It’s something of a logical leap that strikes me as “and then” type storytelling without much consideration for how events flow into each other.
Still, the saving grace is the gentle humor that pervades through the whole thing, and it is rather consistently amusing. It’s not moving or hilarious, but it is gently delightful in small helpings. I’ve certainly seen worse openings from filmmakers before, but I’ve also seen better. It’s pretty watchable.
I also think it’s interesting to note that the film is the story of a young, poor, Jewish boy who makes good and enters high society. I wonder if there’s a certain autobiography, at least inspirational autobiography, on Lubitsch’s part there.
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