Monday, July 30, 2018

Tonight's Movies: The Oyster Princess (1919), I Don't Want to Be a Man (1918), and Forbidden Paradise (1924) at UCLA

It was quite a weekend at the UCLA Film & Television Archive's Billy Wilder Theater, with a nitrate screening of William Wyler's COUNSELLOR AT LAW (1933) on Friday evening, followed Saturday by the opening night of the Archive's Bob Fosse retrospective, with a showing of ALL THAT JAZZ (1979).

It was back to UCLA one more time on Sunday evening for screenings in the Archive's ongoing Ernst Lubitsch retrospective.

Sunday night featured a trio of short silent films: the 58-minute THE OYSTER PRINCESS (1919), the 41-minute I DON'T WANT TO BE A MAN (1918), and the 76-minute FORBIDDEN PARADISE (1924).

All three films were enjoyable; none of them particularly wowed me -- FORBIDDEN PARADISE came closest -- but it was a pleasant evening enjoying the rare opportunity to see these films on a big screen with live music and an appreciative audience. Amazing to think that one of the films is now a century old, with another of the films soon to reach that point.

THE OYSTER PRINCESS was a digital restoration with a prerecorded soundtrack; the other two films were 35mm prints from the George Eastman Museum, with live musical accompaniment by Cliff Retallick.

Mr. Retallick also accompanied last weekend's screenings of LADY WINDERMERE'S FAN (1925) and SUMURUN (1920). I'm glad I had the opportunity to personally thank him last night for helping to make these evenings of silent films special. The prospect of live music definitely helped push me to make a third trek to Los Angeles this weekend!

THE OYSTER PRINCESS is about a pair of rich Americans in Europe, Mister Quaker (Victor Janson), the "Oyster King," and his headstrong daughter Ossi (Ossi Oswalda). When the young lady hears a friend has married a count, she throws a tantrum so her father pledges to do better than a mere count and buy her a prince for a husband.

A matchmaker (Max Kronert) finds Ossi an impoverished prince (Harry Liedtke of SUMURUN), but she accidentally marries his friend (Julius Falkenstein) when he arrives to check her out. The prince later meets Ossi and they fall for each other immediately, not realizing their true identities. Fortunately Ossi's "husband" had married her using the prince's name, "in name only," so Ossi and the Prince are free to follow their hearts.

THE OYSTER PRINCESS was for the most part a fun watch although there was a bit of an "ick" factor at times, with moments like Ossi's father peering through a keyhole to see if either of her marriages are being consummated. Otherwise it was a good time, especially when Ossi prepares for marriage by learning infant care with a toy doll, and I liked the way the story wrapped up.

THE OYSTER PRINCESS, along with the second film, I DON'T WANT TO BE A MAN, is available in the Lubitsch in Berlin set from Kino Lorber. The set also includes one of the films I saw last weekend, SUMURUN (1920).

I DON'T WANT TO BE A MAN (1918) only had German narrative cards, so UCLA Archive head Jan-Christopher Horak sat in the back of the theater with a microphone and translated as we went. That was a unique way to see a silent film and added to the evening's spirit of fun; fortunately for him the movie was relatively short! I was also pleasantly surprised how much of the simple wording on the cards came back to me from high school German a lot of years ago.

Oswalda turns up again here as another temperamental young woman, also named Ossi, who yearns to have what she perceives as the greater freedom men enjoy. When her uncle must sail to America on business, Ossi is left with her governess (Margarete Kupfer); Ossi's uncle appoints a guardian, Dr. Kersten (Kurt Gotz), to keep an eye on her, and when Dr. Kersten visits he puts his foot down on her behavior.

Ossi decides to dress up as a man and meets Dr. Kersten at a party. The doctor is quite taken with the young "man," but Ossi ultimately realizes she'd rather be a woman after all.

This was an oddball film; putting aside the gender bending aspects, the doctor was at least twice Ossi's age, if not more! That said, there were funny moments and it was all handled with a fairly light touch. There wasn't much time to dwell on any one aspect as it was over so quickly!

Both THE OYSTER PRINCESS and I DON'T WANT TO BE A MAN were filmed by Theodor Sparkuhl, who like director Lubitsch would later move to the United States and work in Hollywood.

I think I enjoyed FORBIDDEN PARADISE the most, thanks to the lively performance of Pola Negri as Czarina Caterina; her character was loosely based on Catherine the Great, but set in the 20th century, with automobiles!

While the first two films of the evening were comedies, FORBIDDEN PARADISE was a costume drama; that said, all three films address varied angles regarding sexual relationships and were interesting to see in light of the later sound comedies for which Lubitsch is renowned. I feel Lubitsch's later sound comedies have a lighter, classier touch, while these early silents are more heavy-handed, with brief crass moments here and there. It's interesting to look at the list of Lubitsch's films and see how his style evolved over time.

As UCLA's program notes aptly described, in FORBIDDEN PARADISE Caterina "eats men for breakfast." Adolphe Menjou plays Caterina's sympathetic Chancellor, although "procurer" might be a more correct description, as he supplies her with a steady stream of men, who are each rewarded for their "duty" to the empress with a special medal.

Caterina thinks she truly loves Captain Alexei (Rod La Rocque), but although he gives in to her briefly, he is in love with her lady in waiting Anna (Pauline Starke), and he ultimately refuses to continue as the Czarina's lover, at the risk of death. Fortunately the Chancellor has the Spanish ambassador waiting in the wings to replace Alexei!

Negri was quite entertaining as the vain, imperious, man-hungry Czarina, conveying a great deal with her facial expressions. I didn't find her that interesting as the dancer in last week's SUMURUN but her performance made FORBIDDEN PARADISE quite worth seeing.

I also admired the film's sumptuous sets, which were filmed by Charles Van Enger.

Apparently Clark Gable was one of the guards, but I didn't notice him!

FORBIDDEN PARADISE, a Paramount film, doesn't seem to have an authorized release, although Amazon does have one DVD listed.

I hope to return to the Lubitsch series on August 4th; I just saw that evening's first film, TROUBLE IN PARADISE (1932), at UCLA last year but I don't think that's one which can be seen too often, and it's followed by ANGEL (1937), which I've never seen. ANGEL stars TROUBLE IN PARADISE's Herbert Marshall, along with Marlene Dietrich and Melvyn Douglas.


Blogger barrylane said...

If Clark Gable is in it, I'm good, just for the fun of finding him.

8:10 AM  
Blogger Stefano said...

Laura, for those of us who prize Lubitsch for his subtlety and sophistication, "The Oyster Princess" was a big surprise. If Erich von Stroheim had directed a full comedy, it might have been like "Oyster"; in fact much of it was reminiscent of the hilariously gross wedding reception in von Stroheim's "Greed". That was the most garish black and white art direction I've seen; "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" is soothing in comparison.

"I Don't Want to Be a Man" seemed to lay the groundwork for all the drag comedies to come, up to "Some Like It Hot" and "Tootsie", though Chaplin was really there first with the 1915 short "A Woman".

Just a few years later Lubitsch got restrained and suggestive performances from the three leads in "Forbidden Paradise", so maybe he got the coarseness out of his system. Did you notice the print was "flopped", to its mirror image? I was wondering at all the characters shaking hands with the left one, saluting likewise, and Negri pinning her medals of merit to the men's right chest side, before I figured it out. The film's stills, including the one you show here, show the medal on La Rocques's left side.

8:54 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Barrylane, I would take another look at this sometime for the fun of hunting for Gable! I'm definitely a fan as well.

Stefano, thanks much for sharing your thoughts on Sunday's movies. I laughed at the description of OYSTER PRINCESS as a von Stroheim comedy! It sounds as though we saw these films fairly similarly, compared to Lubitsch's later work.

Wow, I was thinking it was really weird they were doing things left-handed in FORBIDDEN PARADISE but the reason for it didn't register with me. I don't know why it didn't occur to me the entire print was flipped! Fascinating. Glad you mentioned that!!

Best wishes,

9:45 AM  

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