- The Doll (1919) movie overview: Starring the hugely popular Ossi Oswalda, and having elements in common with movies as disparate as Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances and Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, Ernst Lubitsch’s amusing comedy fantasy boasts some creative production design.
The Doll movie overview: Amusing production design in fast-paced Ernst Lubitsch comedy starring Ossi Oswalda, ‘the German Mary Pickford’
Directed and co-written by Ernst Lubitsch a few years before his move to Hollywood, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival presentation The Doll / Die Puppe (1919) features one of the most amusing mise-en-scènes ever filmed.
The set – art direction by Kurt Richter – is made up of cut-out figures that gradually come to life. Then even more cleverly, they commence the fast-paced action.
Money madness & gluttonous monks
It all begins when shy, confirmed bachelor Lancelot (Hermann Thimig) is ordered by his rich uncle, the Baron von Chanterelle (Max Kronert), to get married.
As to be expected, mayhem ensues. In a sequence predating the 1925 Buster Keaton comedy Seven Chances, Lancelot is forced to flee from hordes of eligible maidens, eventually hiding inside a monastery.
Addicted to rich food and exceptional comforts, the monks take a liking to the young man after he reveals his uncle’s financial generosity. They make the unorthodox suggestion that he escape his fate by marrying a doll and passing on the fortune to them.
An easy solution?
Lancelot reluctantly agrees to visit the dollmaker, Hilarius (Victor Janson), who has just the right fix: A life-sized doll he creates from the likeness of his daughter, Ossi (German silent era superstar Ossi Oswalda).
Trouble begins when Hilarius’ much abused assistant (Gerhard Ritterband) accidentally breaks the creation. The real Ossi takes pity on him, pretends to be the doll, and goes off with an unsuspecting Lancelot.
The wedding quickly takes place and Lancelot is welcomed back by the clergymen, who are happy to relieve him of his dowry. However, the wedding night provides more mishaps, with a surprise in store for both Lancelot and his bride.
Church officials likely displeased
The Doll must not have pleased Church officials. After all, Ernst Lubitsch and frequent collaborator Hanns Kräly (Madame DuBarry, The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg) depict the priests as immoral gluttons whose only concern is money.
But there you have satire. The Doll, in fact, plays as a satirical fantasy set in a land where nothing is real, not even the horses.
Unfortunately, the movie seems a bit rushed at the end. Clever and creative as it is, The Doll doesn’t exploit its full potential for comic situations already built into the plot, itself based on a story by early 19th century author E.T.A. Hoffman (of The Tales of Hoffman fame).
In other words, Lubitsch could have stretched things out just a bit.
At this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Günter Buchwald and Frank Bockius provided The Doll’s live musical accompaniment, coming up with just the right blend of percussion and melody to complement the story.
The Doll / Die Puppe (1919)
Director: Ernst Lubitsch.
Screenplay: Ernst Lubitsch & Hanns Kräly.
From Edmond Audran and Maurice Ordonneau’s 1896 operetta La poupée, itself based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s 1816 short story “The Sandman.”
Cast: Ossi Oswalda. Hermann Thimig. Max Kronert. Victor Janson. Gerhard Ritterband. Jakob Tiedtke. Josefine Dora. Paul Morgan.
“The Doll Movie (1919) Review” endnotes
The Doll reviewed at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (website).
Elements from E.T.A. Hoffman’s story were also used in composer Léo Delibes, librettist Charles-Louis-Étienne Nuitter, and choreographer Arthur Saint-Léon’s 1870 ballet Coppélia.
Hermann Thimig and Ossi Oswalda The Doll movie image: San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
“The Doll Movie: Fast-Paced Lubitsch Comedy Has Marvelous Sets” last updated in September 2021.