What do you get when you mix a partying husband, a wily wife, a sassy maid and a night in jail? Well, when Ernst Lubitsch directs, you get a zany comedy of marriage and romance. Much wilder and broad than his later work, this early film has plenty to offer.
A Touch of Lubitsch
Ernst Lubitsch is famous for the sophisticated comedies that he made in Hollywood. Sophisticated. The word clings to Lubitsch the way “pathos” clings to Chaplin and for the same very good reason: It perfectly encapsulates what he has to offer as a director. Lubitsch’s world of comedy is witty, warm and winking. It was full of sparkling dialogue and a taste of the good life. (The good life being relative according the film’s setting.)
Before he ever set foot in America, though, Lubitsch made a series of popular comedies and epics in his native Germany. The epics were big and beautiful and earned the young director the title “The Griffith of Europe.” They secured his invitation to Hollywood. Once in America, Lubitsch quickly established himself as a master of both funny romance and light musicals.
His zany and sometimes surreal German comedies are not as well-known across the Atlantic but are now being reevaluated and finally are getting the attention that they deserve. There is much to see.
The Merry Jail is one of Lubitsch’s earliest surviving works. He was only twenty-five, a veteran comedian who had turned his hand to directing three years before. The first world war was raging on but Lubitsch ignored that in favor of a world of champagne, dancing and a very merry jail.
The film is based on the operetta Die Fledermaus (The Bat) by Johan Strauss II. The plot is one that should be familiar to fans of silent and pre-Code comedies. A man is out to have a fling and becomes involved with a mysterious woman– who is really his wife in disguise! That’ll learn him.
This plot places The Merry Jail tidily into a genre that was very popular in Hollywood during the silent and classic eras: The marital romantic comedy. I like these films because they pick up where most romantic comedies leave off. Sure, our romantic comedy pair will ride off into the sunset at the end but what comes next? That’s where our marital romantic comedies come in.
In this case, the married couple would be Herr und Frau von Reiffenstein played by Harry Liedtke and Kitty Dewall. (They are not really identified by name in the title cards so I will call them by the actor’s given names.) Harry likes to party hard and it looks like he has finally gone too far. A drunken bender has earned him a night in the slammer, he is to report there at once to serve his sentence. Kitty is annoyed by her husband’s wild ways but not so much that she cannot be bought off with a new hat.
Harry receives a note saying that there is going to be a huge ball at a Russian prince’s mansion. He immediately forgets about his sentence and sets off to have a good time.
Kitty is off hat shopping when she catches the eye of Erich Schönfelder, a masher of the first water. After a lively exchange (“If you don’t stop following me, I’ll teach you a lesson!” “But that’s what I want!”) Schönfelder follows her home.
The bailiffs arrive to arrest the jail-skipping Harry and find Kitty with a man in the house. In order to preserve her reputation, she asks Schönfelder to pretend that he is her husband and serve the sentence in place of Harry. Our masher agrees and makes sure to kiss his “wife” goodbye– several times! (Oh, Lubitsch, you rogue.)
While putting away her husband’s things, Kitty discovers the note and realizes where her husband really is. She decides to teach him a lesson and puts on her prettiest dress with a mask. Meanwhile, the von Reiffenstein’s saucy maid, Mizi (Agda Nielson), gets a letter from her sister saying that she can sneak her into the prince’s ball. Hot dog! She borrows one of her mistress’s dresses and is off to the party as well.
Once there, Harry begins to flirt with Kitty. As he declares himself a bachelor, Kitty takes the opportunity to steal his wedding ring out of his waistcoat pocket.
Meanwhile, Schönfelder finds that the jail is not so bad at all. He has fellow inmates to play cards with and an eccentric jailer (future Oscar winner Emil Jannings wearing a Keystone-esque walrus mustache) with a propensity to kiss his charges. Everything goes fine until the police bring in a new criminal. You guessed it. Harry got drunk after the ball and has been arrested.
Will the police discover which von Reiffenstein is which? What will Kitty do with her wayward husband’s engagement ring? Will Mizi the maid land a rich beau?
The film is raucous, more so that Lubitsch’s other early delights like The Doll and The Oyster Princess. It is meant to be a farce and is played as broadly as possible. Lubitsch would later be known for sly insinuation. In contrast, The Merry Jail can barely restrict itself to double entendre.
Without a doubt, the single greatest asset the film has is Agda Nielson’s Mizi. She is a mad, colorful creature who does the dishes with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth, dances on tabletops, kisses gentlemen’s hands (feminism!) and scarfs down foie gras and champagne like a pro. Her naughty antics are endearing, especially next to her rich but brainless employers. (In many ways, she prefigures the equally hungry Josef in Lubitsch’s 1919 delight The Oyster Princess.)
And what happens to Mizi at the end? Well, it seems that Herr Schönfelder turns his attentions from her mistress to the saucy Mizi. The two funniest characters pair off and I couldn’t be happier with the outcome.
Kitty Dewall and the ever-charming Harry Liedtke do well enough, though they both tend to mug at the camera. Of course, they are matched in this by pretty much every other member of the cast.
The Merry Jail clocks in at a spry 47 minutes. It moves along nicely and has some funny moments but it is not exactly an early masterpiece from Lubitsch. Later he would learn to play sophisticated scenarios for faintly wicked results. The Merry Jail should be taken for what it is: A fun bit of fluff that will entertain and delight you for three-quarters of an hour. It is a hint of things to come.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★★★
Where can I see it?
The Merry Jail was released as an extra feature on the Trouble in Paradise DVD. It boasts a sprightly piano score by Aljoscha Zimmerman, which adds greatly to the film’s appeal.