Ernst Lubitsch directs this fractured fairy tale concerning a coddled young man who wants to avoid marriage at all costs– and he is willing to purchase an elaborate mechanical doll to pose as his wife. Petite charmer Ossi Oswalda co-stars as both the doll and the live girl it was modeled after. When the doll is accidentally broken, Ossi must take its place at the wedding. I can’t possibly imagine anything going wrong with this scenario.
A match made in the toy shop.
I’ve mentioned this before but I may as well say it again: German films are funny! I know that Caligari, Nosferatu and other dark classics get a lot of press but Germany also produced some top-notch comedies in the silent era. This flair for humor owed much to director Ernst Lubitsch, whose wit and sophistication would soon charm the whole world.
The Doll is a fairy tale for grown-ups. It revels in its own artificiality and pokes fun at cows so sacred that filmmakers still hesitate to touch them. Best of all, it is an utter blast to watch!
The film begins with Ernst Lubitsch unpacking a miniature set. He places some dolls in the painted forest, they come to life and the tale unfolds…
Lancelot (Hermann Thimig) does not live up to his heroic namesake’s reputation. He is afraid of everything and utterly dependent on his overbearing mother. How bad is the situation? He still blows his nose on her apron.
Lancelot’s wealthy uncle, Baron von Chanterelle (Max Kronert), wants his heir to settle down and marry. He issues a proclamation calling for all of the maidens of the land to try their hand at winning Lancelot’s heart. In a hilarious Cinderella reversal, however, Lancelot flees with forty women in hot pursuit.
Exhausted and terrified, Lancelot seeks refuge in a monastery. The monks who live there seem to have neglected taking a vow of poverty. They spend enormous sums on delicacies. When they hear of Lancelot’s enormous dowry, they offer him a deal: they will help him escape marriage if he gives the money to them. Lancelot readily agrees.
Their plan is simple: there is a dollmaker who can construct lifelike mechanical women. All Lancelot has to do is marry a doll, collect the money his uncle has promised and turn it over to the monks. Then he is free from the threat of matrimony forever!
What could possibly go wrong with this scheme?
Hilarius (Lubitsch regular Victor Janson) is putting the finishing touches on his proudest achievement: an exact replica of his madcap daughter Ossi (Ossi Oswalda).
Hilarius has a willful apprentice (Gerhard Ritterband), who flirts with Ossi, romances Mrs. Hilarius, breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience, makes bizarre suicide threats (drinking paint and jumping out of first floor windows) and gets into strange fights with Hilarius himself. The punchline? He’s fifteen.
The apprentice character is, well, hilarious because the part seems to have been written for a character actor of 30-50. By giving the role to a fifteen-year old boy (who looks about twelve, by the way) Lubitsch creates another wonderful layer of surrealism. The apprentice shouts out lines like “Hear the confession of a broken man!” Ritterband’s delivery is funny but just the fact that he is the one saying it makes it uproarious.
But back to the romance at hand. The apprentice accidentally breaks the Ossi doll and Ossi herself offers to take its place to save the wayward boy from punishment. Meanwhile, Lancelot is shocked at the behavior of the dolls Hilarius has offered him. (They were designed with bachelors in mind, if you take my meaning.) He wants a nice, well-behaved doll.
Before you can say Very Awkward Wedding, Ossi is sold to Lancelot and he packs her off to show to his uncle.
Ossi makes the best of her situation by playing practical jokes on Lancelot. Lancelot, meanwhile, is rejoicing in the success of his plan. Why, his doll-bride is so lifelike that no one could possibly guess that she is a machine!
But what will happen when the wedding is over? Will the monks get the money they desperately need to buy more pork knuckles? Will Ossi unveil herself as flesh and blood? Watch The Doll to find out!
What I love most about this film is that it is determined to have a good time and doesn’t give a plugged nickel how it accomplishes it. Anything goes! Ossi is particularly wonderful when she is playing her pranks on Lancelot. She goes “dead” at the most inopportune moments, elbows him if he gets frisky and manages to gobble down his entire wedding dinner without him being any the wiser.
Everyone plays their parts as broadly as possible but this fits with the film since everything is exaggerated, from the cardboard sun to the pantomime horses.
Further, no subject is off limits for skewering: religious corruption, family values, motherhood, death, marriage, love, fairy tales… each one gets made fun of in turn. The humor is good-natured and jolly but there is definite sting to it, particularly in the monk scenes.
Let me get back on the subject of Ossi Oswalda. The Hollywood actress she is most often compared to is Mary Pickford. It’s easy to see why. Both were petite blondes who could raise Cain with the best of ’em. However, Ossi had her own distinct screen persona. While Pickford’s hellions usually matured into relatively genteel young ladies, Ossi remained wild to the bitter end. The Doll is no exception. Ossi doesn’t become a lady to win Lancelot. Lancelot must let go of his fussiness in order to appreciate Ossi as a woman.
Hermann Thimig is cute as the neurotic Lancelot, though he does not have quite the charisma that Harry Liedtke displayed in The Oyster Princess (another Oswalda-Lubitsch collaboration of 1919). Thimig would later win the role as the only bandit brave enough to try to marry Pola Negri in The Wildcat. (Here are my reviews of The Oyster Princess and The Wildcat)
Victor Janson, another Lubitsch regular, has fun with his role as the bombastic (but ultimately ridiculous) Hilarius. He plays off of both Oswalda and Ritterband extremely well. In fact, the entire production has a smoothness and precision underneath the anarchy.
The Doll is a zany, fast-paced bit of fun should delight both silent film fans and newcomers alike. I highly recommend it.