1910s, 3/4, Comedy, Ernst Lubitsch, Review

The Doll

The opening shot of Ernst Lubitsch’s The Doll announces wordlessly that it’s going to be…different. A man, Lubitsch himself, comes out and sets up a house and yard with paper on a table, which we then zoom in on and two characters exit the house to start the story. What follows is an unrealistic tale of love and fantasy that delights and entertains while providing what seems to be the earliest form of the Lubitsch Touch. This isn’t the tale of high society and wit that Lubitsch became famous for, but it’s really close to it.

The Baron of Chanterelle (Max Kronert) is frustrated because he has only one heir, his nephew Lancelot (Hermann Thimig), and Lancelot has seemingly no interest in women or extending the family line. He dictates that Lancelot must marry, and he decrees it to the whole kingdom, sending all forty eligible maidens into a Benny Hill-esque chase for Lancelot around the storybook looking country as the Baron chases behind, taking spoonfuls of medicine from his assistant as he goes. It’s amusing and delightful, and it ends with Lancelot finding refuge in the local abbey, led by the abbot (Jakob Tiedtke), where the friars all sit around, bemoan their near ruinous state as they eat large portions of pork and bread. Lancelot begs them to grant him a safe space from his uncle’s grasp, and they let him in.

It’s when the Baron puts an ad in the kingdom’s newspaper begging Lancelot to come back with a promise of several hundred thousand kroner as a dowry that the abbot reads, giving him a great idea. He’ll connect Lancelot with the renowned dollmaker Hilarius (Victor Janson), and Lancelot can bring a female doll with him to the Baron to trick him into thinking that Lancelot has married. He’ll be able to take the dowry and give it to the abbey so they’ll never run out of pork knuckles! Nothing about this is terribly deep, and it’s sometimes a bit too thin (why does Lancelot agree to give all the money to the abbey? I dunno). However, the meat of the film is the titular doll.

Hilarius has created his newest doll and modeled it after his daughter Ossi (Ossi Oswalda, in a dual role). When Hilarius’ apprentice (Gerhard Ritterband) accidentally breaks the arm of the doll, Ossi decides to protect him (why? Unclear) by pretending to be the doll just as Lancelot shows up to pick a doll for his ruse. The film becomes an outright farce with Ossi pretending to be the doll with Lancelot dragging her around as she maintains the ruse. Why she does it is unclear, but the comic effect is sustained surprisingly well through the series of events. She keeps her arms up and maintains a static smile while obviously getting a kick out of the whole thing (her most likely motivation: it simply entertains her). She keeps it up through the wedding ball where she has to balance her need to maintain the fiction for Lancelot while happily dropping it here and there when Lancelot isn’t looking to grab some food or drink or just dance with the Baron. Lancelot’s innocent inability to grasp the situation (married to the storybook method of the film’s telling) is the source of a lot of the comedy in the story, and that Lubitsch leaned so heavily into the storybook visual motifs throughout shows that he knew there needed to be a level of artifice around the events to give it the kind of narrative space necessary to sell the events to the audience.

This farce of intentionally mistaken identities along with the high society, European setting is what makes it feel more in line with the later perception of Lubitsch and his work, but that outright storybook visual aesthetic and lack of wit in the dialogue (there’s not none, but it’s extremely limited by the silent film format, relegating the little wit it can display in dialogue to intertitles) makes it feel like a proto-form of what Lubitsch would later become known for.

The resolution of the plot threads lead the pair back to the abbey after the successful conning of the Baron (since Ossi is a real person and not a doll, was it really a conning?), and Ossi’s identity gets fully revealed, leading to the two falling in love. Why? It’s thin stuff, but it’s amusing. However, the depth of character required isn’t quite captured. And yet, this isn’t Carmen, this is The Doll. It’s a farce and a comedy, and there’s enough work done to make the comedy work and the narrative flow, just not enough to make the heart sing by the end.

I really appreciate the deep weirdness of the film, offset by the farcical aspects. Whenever I see a female doll like this in a film, I automatically think of the dehumanizing look at the titular character in Fellini‘s Casanova. It’s nice to see this detail played more lightly, though I imagine this was an influence on Fellini later.

This is something of a nice gem in Lubitsch’s early career. It’s light and frothy farce that could have benefited from a stronger approach to its characters to establish them and their motives. However, what drives the film is its light comic sensibilities which, when combined with the intentional storybook visual aesthetic, creates a delightful little trifle of a film that points to where Lubitsch was going to go later.

Rating: 3/4


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