The Oyster Princess (1919) A Silent Film Review

Ossi’s father is the Oyster King of America and she has decided that she deserves nothing less than a  European prince. Nucki is the penniless prince in question but a few cases of mistaken identity later, all plans are in shambles. Hidden amongst the the wacky hijinks is some pointed social commentary courtesy of director Ernst Lubitsch.

“I’ll buy you a prince!”

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD as a solo film or as part of a box set.

When most people think of silent German cinema, the phrase “romantic comedy” does not spring readily to mind. Classics like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari may get all the glory but German filmgoers of the silent era liked light films just as much as their American counterparts.

And the Germans had a secret weapon: Ernst Lubitsch.

While he was brought to Hollywood on the strength of his historical spectacles, Lubitsch’s great talent lay in sophisticated romantic comedy. Any fan of classic film will recognize the famous “Lubitsch touch” in films like The Shop Around the Corner, Ninotchka and To Be or Not to Be… even if no one can seem to agree on what the Lubitsch touch is!

All I can say about the Lubitsch touch is that I know it when I see it and I see it in The Oyster Princess (Die Austernprinzessin, if you want the original German title, though some American releases call it by the odd title of My Lady Margarine). It’s more rowdy than his later work but the sly little details are all in place.

Will Ossi get her prince?
Will Ossi get her prince?

This time around, I am going to be pretty quick about the synopsis. The plot itself is mainly a device used to string assorted comedic situations together. And I feel that giving a blow-by-blow of a comedy tends to kill some of the sparkle. So, I will try to describe the fun of this film without giving too much away.

Here are the basics:

Mr. Quaker (Victor Janson) is the “Oyster King” of America. He and his daughter, Ossi (Ossi Oswalda), have moved to Europe and live in lavish splendor. Ossi, being a rather, er,  healthy young lady, is given to fits of violent rage when she doesn’t get what she wants. And what she wants is a nobleman to marry. Her rival has married a count. Mr. Quaker vows to buy his daughter a prince.

Prince Nucki regards his herring dinner.
Prince Nucki regards his herring dinner.

The prince in question is the peculiarly-named Nucki (Harry Liedtke), who hasn’t a Pfennig to his name. He and his friend Josef (played by the wonderfully weird Julius Falkenstein) live a spartan life. They do their own laundry and subsist on pickled herring and (when they can borrow the cash) an unhealthy amount of booze.

The friendly local matchmaker (Max Kronert) comes by with word of Ossi’s marriage proposal. Nucki sends Josef to investigate. Unfortunately, Josef has borrowed Nucki’s suit and Ossi mistakes him for the real prince. Before Josef knows what has happened, he has married Ossi under Nucki’s name.

Ossi thinks Josef looks a bit stupid but he will have to do.
Ossi thinks Josef looks a bit stupid but he will have to do.

The rest of the film is taken up with a mad wedding, a marvelous extended foxtrot scene, Prince Nucki’s more humble evening bender and Mr. Quaker’s apathy toward his awkward new son-in-law.

The Oyster Princess is a film that takes great glee in skewering the nouveau riche of America and their ostentatious consumerism. Mr. Quaker and Ossi are surrounded by a literal army of servants who are always ready to scrub their backs, wipe their noses and feed them their dinners. Their sprawling mansion is a maze that requires a roadmap to navigate. And Ossi’s bathroom is one that even Cecil B. DeMille would declare over-the-top.

Ossi and her bathroom
Ossi and her bathroom

However, the skewering is really more of a good-natured tease and never malicious. Besides, Lubitsch has equal laughter in store for the impoverished German noblemen. Nucki and Josef live in abject poverty but Nucki still has his title and demands the respect that it affords.

However, Nucki is self-aware enough to understand the ridiculousness of his situation and this is what makes him an appealing character. He recognizes that he is poor and since he does not want to work, he must marry money. However, that doesn’t stop him from having a little fun.

The first glimpse the audience gets of Prince Nucki is a view of his royal highness washing his own socks. Later, Nucki sets up a moth-eaten armchair as his throne to receive a guest (is he keeping of appearances or mocking royal protocol?) and throughout the visit he can barely contain his laughter.

The royal court of Prince Nucki.
The royal court of Prince Nucki.

Ossi, on the other hand, is completely oblivious to the strangeness of her lifestyle. To her, it is perfectly normal to smash the parlor until her father promises to buy her a prince. I suppose I should dislike Ossi but she is just so cute!

In the end, both Ossi and Nucki remain the same useless people that they were at the beginning. Ossi’s tantrums, flirtations, threats of violence, actual violence and flirting all go unpunished. So, too, does Nucki’s greediness, drunkenness, and laziness. And Josef is a very bad boy indeed. After marrying Ossi under duress (she threatened to smash his head in if he refused) and in his friend’s name, Josef sees no reason why he should not get a little love from Ossi on the wedding night. Ossi rebuffs him but Josef keeps trying to the bitter end. Loyal friend you have there, Nucki.

There is nothing a good boxing match can’t settle.
There is nothing a good boxing match can’t settle.

All of the lovable rascals of The Oyster Princess get off scot-free, though, and I love them all the more for it.

This is a refreshing change from Hollywood films of the period, which tended to moralize. Movies were beginning to hit on the formula (later perfected by DeMille) of condemning sin after showing it in loving detail. Lubitsch may have been ready to have some fun at the expense of the Americans and Germans but there are no sermons in this film.

Ossi Oswalda, as mentioned before, is cute rather than beautiful. Her plucky charm is really impossible to capture in still photos. The viewer has to see her in action in order to fully appreciate her rowdy antics.

Nucki makes his pass.
Nucki makes his pass.

Harry Liedtke also deserves praise. Nucki is introduced late and is off the screen for a good chunk of middle act. The plot centers more around Ossi and her mistaken marriage to Josef. Normally this would be a handicap to a leading man. However, once Nucki returns to center stage he manages to dominate.

Ossi and Nucki’s eleventh hour meet-cute is as eccentric as the rest of the film. Nucki has borrowed money for a night on the town and is staggeringly drunk. Ossi, meanwhile, is meeting with her fellow millionairesses at their society to prevent binge drinking. Nucki wanders in as an exhibit for drunkenness and the young ladies immediately start to fight over who will “cure” him. It is all decided with a boxing match between the ladies (much to Nucki’s delight) and the violent Ossi emerges victorious.

The cure.
The cure.

Try to find that in another romantic comedy. I dare you.

Lubitsch himself said The Oyster Princess was his “first comedy which showed something of a definite style.” Fans of Lubitsch’s later work will be delighted to see the director’s early efforts. However, even non-fans will find a lot to enjoy. From the matchmaker’s office (set up like a bookshop), to the all-female boxing match, to the anarchic wedding foxtrot, Lubitsch’s eye for the absurd keeps entertaining images on the screen at all times.

Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★★

Where can I see it?

The Oyster Princess is widely available on DVD and via streaming. The restored Kino edition is beautiful and the score by Aljoscha Zimmerman is delightful.