‘The Doll’: San Francisco Silent Film Festival presented fast-paced Ernst Lubitsch comedy starring the German Mary Pickford – Ossi Oswalda
Directed by Ernst Lubitsch (So This Is Paris, The Wedding March), the 2017 San Francisco Silent Film Festival presentation The Doll / Die Puppe (1919) has one of the most amusing mise-en-scènes ever recorded. The set is created by cut-out figures that gradually come to life; then even more cleverly, they commence the fast-paced action.
It all begins when a shy, confirmed bachelor, Lancelot (Hermann Thimig), is ordered by his rich uncle (Max Kronert), the Baron von Chanterelle, to marry for a large sum of money. As to be expected, mayhem ensues.
Lancelot is forced to flee from the hordes of eligible maidens, eventually hiding inside a monastery. The monks, addicted to rich food and exceptional comforts, 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? Not really.
Lancelot reluctantly agrees to visit the dollmaker Hilarius (Victor Janson), who has just the right fix: he creates a life-sized doll 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 the dowry. However, the wedding night provides more confusion, with a surprise in store for both Lancelot and his bride.
The Church likely not pleased: Greedy & gluttonous priests
The Doll must not have pleased Church officials. After all, Ernst Lubitsch depicts them as gluttonous, immoral priests 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 – screenplay by Lubitsch and his frequent collaborator Hanns Kräly† – doesn’t exploit its full potential for more 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 the 2017 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.
Buster Keaton inspiration
* In case The Doll‘s basic premise sounds familiar, perhaps that’s because Buster Keaton would use a nearly identical one in his 1925 comedy Seven Chances – officially remade as The Bachelor in 1999, with Chris O’Donnell and Renée Zellweger as the leads, and Gary Sinyor at the helm.
Besides, E.T.A. Hoffman’s story was the basis for Edmond Audran and Maurice Ordonneau’s 1896 operetta La poupée and, along with Hoffman’s The Sandman, for the ballet Coppélia.
Ernst Lubitsch collaborator Hanns Kräly
† In addition to The Doll, among the German-made Ernst Lubitsch-Hanns Kräly collaborations are Madame DuBarry (1919), The Oyster Princess (1919), and Sumurun (1920).
In Hollywood, they worked together on, among others, Rosita (1923), Three Women (1924), Forbidden Paradise (1924), The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927), and The Patriot (1928).
Away from Lubitsch, Hanns Kräly’s movie credits include the Greta Garbo melodrama Wild Orchids (1928), the Ramon Novarro musical Devil-May-Care (1929), and the adaptation of Noël Coward’s stage comedy Private Lives (1931), starring Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery.
The Doll / Die Puppe (1919)
Director: Ernst Lubitsch.
Screenplay: Ernst Lubitsch. Hanns Kräly.
From a story by E.T.A. Hoffman.
Cast: Ossi Oswalda. Hermann Thimig. Max Kronert. Victor Janson. Gerhard Ritterband. Jakob Tiedtke. Josefine Dora. Paul Morgan.
San Francisco Silent Film Festival gets better and better
Now a few words about the 2017 San Francisco Silent Film Festival (SFSFF), which ran June 1–4.
SFSFF is improving every year. The shows start on time, the crowds are contained, and the guest speakers are remarkably knowledgable.
The music is always a special treat, with only the best players in the business.
Besides Ernst Lubitsch and Ossi Oswalda’s The Doll, SFSFF 2017’s presentations included the following:
- Filibus (1915).
Director: Mario Roncoroni.
Cast: Cristina Ruspoli. Giovanni Spano. Mario Mariani. Filippo Vallino.
- The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916).
Director: Lois Weber.
Cast: Anna Pavlova. Rupert Julian. Douglas Gerrard.
- A Man There Was / Terje Vigen (1917).
Director: Victor Sjöström.
Cast: Victor Sjöström. August Falck. Edith Erastoff. Bergliot Husberg.
- Outside the Law (1920).
Director: Tod Browning.
Cast: Priscilla Dean. Wheeler Oakman. Lon Chaney. Ralph Lewis.
- The Three Musketeers (1921).
Director: Fred Niblo.
Cast: Douglas Fairbanks. Marguerite De La Motte. Barbara La Marr. Mary MacLaren. Adolphe Menjou.
- The Lost World (1925).
Director: Harry O. Hoyt.
Cast: Bessie Love. Wallace Beery. Lloyd Hughes. Lewis Stone. Arthur Hoyt. Alma Bennett. Bull Montana.
- Body and Soul (1925).
Director: Oscar Micheaux.
Cast: Paul Robeson. Lawrence Chenault.
- Battleship Potemkin / Bronenosets Potemkin (1925).
Director: Sergei Eisenstein.
Cast: Aleksandr Antonov. Vladimir Barskiy. Grigoriy Aleksandrov.
- The Freshman (1925).
Director: Sam Taylor. Fred Newmeyer.
Cast: Harold Lloyd. Jobyna Ralston.
- A Page of Madness (1926).
Director: Teinosuke Kinugasa.
Cast: Masao Inoue. Yoshie Nakagawa.
- Silence (1926).
Director: Rupert Julian.
Cast: H.B. Warner. Vera Reynolds. Jack Mulhall. Rockliffe Fellowes. Virginia Pearson. Raymond Hatton.
- Get Your Man (1927).
Director: Dorothy Arzner.
Cast: Clara Bow. Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers. Josephine Dunn.
- Two Days / Dva dnya (1927).
Director: Grigori Stobovoi.
Cast: Ivan Zamychkovsky. Sergei Minin. Valeriy Gakkebush. O. Nazarova. Mili Taut-Korso.
- The Informer (1929).
Director: Arthur Robison.
Cast: Lars Hanson. Lya De Putti. Warwick Ward.
- A Strong Man / Mocny czlowiek (1929).
Director: Henryk Szaro.
Cast: Grigori Chmara. Agnes Kuck. Maria Majdrowicz.
The Doll movie cast info via the IMDb.
Images of Hermann Thimig and Ossi Oswalda in Ernst Lubitsch’s The Doll, and Clara Bow and Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers in Dorothy Arzner’s Get Your Man: San Francisco Silent Film Festival.
San Francisco Silent Film Festival website.