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The Doll

Posted by martinteller on April 4, 2013

The Baron von Chanterelle (Max Kronert) wants his manchild nephew Lancelot (Hermann Thimig) to find a bride.  He rounds up all the available maidens and they chase poor Lancelot through the streets of the village.  He escapes to a monastery, where the greedy, gluttonous monks concoct a plan: they’ll hook him up with the dollmaker Hilarius (Victor Janson) to make him an articifical wife, and the monks will pocket the sizable dowry.  Lancelot goes to visit Hilarius, who has a brand new doll modeled after his lovely daughter Ossi (Ossi Oswalda).  But there’s been a mixup: Hilarius’s young apprentice (Gerhard Ritterband) has broken the doll, and the real Ossi is standing in until he can fix it.  And so now Lancelot has a doll he’s trying to pass off as a real girl, but it’s actually a real girl passing herself off as a doll.

This was an absolute delight.  From the beginning, we’re set up for an artificial flight of fancy: Lubitsch himself appears assembling a dollhouse.  From the dollhouse, Lancelot and his mother emerge, and we’re off into a fairytale land (the movie is based on a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann).  Sets with props painted on to the walls, “horses” that are clearly men in a suit, camera tricks like Hilarius’s hair turning white before our eyes.  We’re invited to share in the giddy joy of a world of magic and imagination.

And besides that, it’s wonderfully comic.  Funniest movie I’ve seen in a long time.  The potentially troubling gender politics are undercut by a flyer for Hilarius’s creations, advertising them as suitable for “bachelors, widowers and misogynists.”  Lancelot is consistently made the butt of the joke as Ossi subverts and capitalizes on his fear of women.  There are terrific gags all over the place, and I laughed out loud many, many times.  I don’t want to spoil any of the jokes, but the film is “Hilarius” indeed.

Performances all around are endearing and funny and spot-on.  These guys all know how to play up the comedy.  But it’s Oswalda who leaves the biggest impression.  Marvelous physical and facial performance, her expressions of disgust and mischief are priceless.  It looks like she was a particular favorite of Lubitsch’s, starring in many of his German silents.  I’ll be checking out The Oyster Princess at the very least, possibly more.  She’s fantastic.

It’s odd that for a filmmaker best known for his work in screwball comedy — a very verbal, dialogue-oriented medium — my two favorites by him are a musical (One Hour With You) and a silent.  Perhaps I should go back and revisit some of those screwballs that didn’t quite work for me the first time.  In the meantime, however, I’m comfortable saying this is one of his best films… and one of his funniest.  Rating: Great (90)

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