Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Doll / Die Puppe (Ernst Lubitsch, 1919

A wry fairy tale reversing the usual polarities of the courtship saga, The Doll plays with the boundaries between puppetshow illusion and reality. It begins with Lubitsch himself on stage, unpacking a decorated box to assemble the opening set.
As soon as the set is complete, the painted door opens and two characters emerge: young Lancelot (Hermann Thinig) and his nanny.
Some slapstick ensues--Lancelot loses his balance and slides down the path directly into a pond, and flails about until his nanny fishes him out with her umbrella. He is comically immature, pouting and dripping, exaggeratedly unhappy until the sun comes out and dries him off, at which point he stands up, beaming, as steam billows from his drying clothes. Lancelot's uncle, the Baron von Chanterelle (Max Kronert) decrees that he must marry to ensure that the royal line continues, and poor Lancelot is stricken with terror by the news.
He leaps out the castle window and runs through the town, pursued by forty women who have come to present themselves as candidates. There ensues a long chase scene winding through different exits and entrances of the same set, much like stage farces.
But Lancelot eludes them and takes refuge in a monastery that happens to be populated by not very holy monks, much given to eating and drinking, with little evidence of prayer.

The monks, whose manner of living is threatened by dwindling funds, concoct a clever plan. The Baron has offered a dowry of 30,000 marks if Lancelot returns with a wife. Lancelot refuses to marry a real woman, but one of the monks discovers a newspaper advertisement for special dolls:
"You don't need to marry a real woman," they tell him, and convince him to obtain a doll from the great doll-maker Hilarius (Victor Janson), pretend to marry her, and return to the safety of the monastery with plentiful funds for the good life. Lancelot agrees and proceeds to the shop of the puppet-master Hilarius  just as he and his apprentice (Gerhard Ritterband) are putting the finishing touches on a doll modeled after his beautiful daughter Ossi (Ossi Oswalda).
While Hilarius welcomes his new customer, the apprentice--a merry young fellow with most of the good lines in the movie--dances with the doll and accidentally breaks her. Ossi, a young woman of considerable spirit, volunteers to pretend to be the doll until the apprentice can repair it. And, inevitably, Lancelot purchases her and drives off with her in his carriage, drawn by two stage horses (i.e., four men in two horse costumes).
Meanwhile at the castle, the poor Baron has fallen ill. Greedy courtiers surround his sickbed squabbling about who will inherit what precious bits and pieces. Lubitsch brilliantly parodies greed with extreme close-ups of their venal, grimacing, chattering mouths,
But everything changes with the arrival of the bride and groom. Much hilarity ensues as the supposedly mechanical doll--the real Ossi--lapses into humanity with flashing eyes, laughter, surreptitious consumption of wedding cake and wine, and dancing.
Though Lancelot is repeatedly startled, executing classic double-takes and eye-widenings, he doesn't quite comprehend. Meanwhile, Hilarius discovers the substitution; the apprentice delivers "the confession of a broken man." Hilarius boxes his ears, and not for the first time.
 After the ball is over, Lancelot takes Ossi with him to the monastery, where, after a brief interlude in which Ossi, still pretending to be a mechanical doll, lures the monks into a jolly dance, she is supposed to be stowed in the junk room. She escapes and hides in Lancelot's room; he playfully hangs his hat and coat on her; she indignantly throws them back at him. And when he sleeps, he dreams of Ossi. She wakes him with a kiss, and he struggles to comprehend that she's a real girl, not a doll. At last he gives up and falls into her arms, smiling.
The same night, in despair over Ossi's vanishing, poor Hilarius, whose wonderful triply-pointed hair has turned white, is sleepwalking. The apprentice considers whether he should have his revenge by waking his master so he would fall, but relents because he is a family man. And the next day the apprentice saves his master a second time when the balloons Hilarius has taken to help him move quickly across the city carry him too high. The boy shoots the balloons with a sentry's rifle, and Hilarius lands on a park bench between Lancelot and Ossi, they show him their wedding license, and her father's hair turns black again with joy.

In many ways, The Doll is a classic farce, complete with exaggerated characters, crossed plot-lines, silly visual tricks, and a romantic happily-ever-after ending. Three things elevate it above the common farce: first, the slippery shifting from puppet-show unreality--the men in horse costume, the painted sets, the two-dimensional kitchen implements painted on the wall--to real action. Second, the story is greatly enlivened by the presence of the apprentice, with his grandiose language, his mimicry of his master, and his affection for Ossi and her simulacrum. And third, the reversal of gender roles--the timid man afraid of life accidentally meeting the bold and life-loving woman who teaches him how to find happiness, even with a real woman.