#15 in my ranking of Ernst Lubitsch’s filmography.
Much more in line with the urbane farce that was The Doll than the attempts at vaudeville that were the Sally Pinkus/Meyer films, The Oyster Princess is another delightful little entry in Ernst Lubitsch’s early career that might not quite make the most sense but keeps its focus on the light comedic antics that drive the narrative. Demonstrating the early form of the Lubitsch Touch as well, piling punchline on top of punchlines, this is Lubitsch more firmly finding his feet as he moved from one financial success to the next.
The Oyster King, Mister Quaker (Victor Janson), sits atop his little modern fiefdom of oysters with a single daughter, Ossi (Ossi Oswalda) who is a spoiled brat and is angry that another magnate’s daughter married a count. After tossing everything in her room, Quaker agrees to arrange a great match for Ossi, and he employs the services of the best matchmaker that money can buy, who quickly arranges a meeting with Prince Nucki (Harry Liedtke), a penniless prince (I would presume a deposed Russian prince considering the time of the film’s making) with a manservant Josef (Julius Falkenstein).
The entire back half of the film is based on a case of mistaken identity. Prince Nucki gets called to the house of the Oyster King in order to arrange the match, but Josef gets sent in Nucki’s place. After a protracted waiting period where Ossi gets made up by her army of female servants, she rushes downstairs to find Josef waiting. She sizes him up instantly, thinking he’s Nucki, decides to marry him, and runs off with him to get married, the ceremony happening outside the justice of the peace’s window as he uses Nucki’s name. Happily married, Ossi gets her father to throw a small party in her honor, and Josef is simply happy to go along with the fiction, eating better than he has in years and getting thoroughly drunk.
There’s an interesting thematic undertone to a lot of this in the contradiction of the royalty being penniless and the common being massively wealthy. It’s a reflection of the growing reality of the death of the old aristocracy and the rise of the new one. There’s little direct commentary on the idea with no more than Ossi’s desire to marry into a title being the extent of the film’s explicit statement on the matter, but I think there’s an implicit statement that’s interesting to grab onto. That statement is about the changing order of the world, and the inherent silliness of the underclass suddenly taking the reigns of society. The Oyster King is a bloated creature who barely moves and needs extended naps. The Oyster Princess is a spoiled brat who destroys things when she doesn’t get her way. However, the contrast is Prince Nucki who is a drunk himself, can’t make a living, and can barely put up the façade that his title would imply. The only one who seems to make the best of the situation is Josef, who happily grasps onto the little bit of wealth he can when it’s presented to him. There’s a gentle ribbing of everyone involved that never descends into maliciousness but keeps a light air of satire that, while never the point of the whole affair, maintains a slight edge to the subtext of it all.
The actual farce extends from the fact that everyone thinks that Josef is Prince Nucki, and it leads to an extended scene where Josef happily never corrects anyone as he stuffs his face. The resolution of the whole thing relies on a coincidence of Prince Nucki falling down drunk in public after an extended night with his friends (all nearly as penniless as he is despite their tuxedos) and he ends up at a tolerance meeting that Ossi leads. She gets eyes on the handsome prince and decides to take him home for a private session to help him battle his drunkenness leading to Josef discovering his friend across the hall and him announcing that he got married in Prince Nucki’s name, so Ossi and Nucki are already married (I mean…okay).
The technicals don’t seem to make the most amount of sense, and the ending relies entirely on a coincidence to get everyone together, but the comedy is consistent and pretty funny throughout. The heart of Lubitsch’s comedic sensibilities in the farce, and he does it very well as the situation around Josef escalates throughout the evening, culminating in a foxtrot epidemic where everyone in the whole house, including servants, ends up dancing along.
This is a small delight again from Lubitsch early in his career. He still had a little way to go in terms of plotting things out to rely less on coincidence, but he’s helping the audience have fun nonetheless.
3 thoughts on “The Oyster Princess”