A review of the silent film Madame DuBarry (1919) starring Pola Negri.
Director Ernst Lubitsch. PAGU/Ufa
Cast & credits
Producer: Paul Davidson.
Writers: Fred Orbing, Hanns Kraly.
Camera: Theodor Sparkuhl, Kurt Waschneck.
Music: William Axt, David Mendoza. (1976 reissue: Hans Jonsson).
Sets: Karl Machus, Karl Richter.
Pola Negri, Emil Jannings, Harry Liedtke, Eduard von Winterstein, Reinhold Schunzel, Else Berna, Fred Immler, Gustav Czimeg, Karl Platen.
A young woman from humble origins (Negri) rises through the strata of society in pre-Revolutionary France. After marrying Comte DuBarry (Platen), a minor noble, and spurning her true love Armand (Liedtke) she is noticed by King Louis XV (Jannings), eventually becoming his maîtresse-en-titre. Then, political upheaval envelops them all.
I like to do it hardcore.
I mean, watching silent film that is. As anyone reading this blog or my twitter feed will know, even watching one where the guy showing it turned the score off because he didn’t like the music.
So thank God for having some preparation when watching the print of this film, one that came with dual titles, in French and German. Expert film-making and a smattering of knowledge about French social upheaval, combined with that previous screening, made understanding this classic that little bit easier. (The less said about my schoolboy French, the better).
This was the big one. After an embargo was placed on German films by American distributors following WWI, the huge European success of Madame DuBarry broke this and led to German products and artists quickly becoming favourites of US audiences.
Aping the breathtaking scale and expense of the biggest films that had been made by the likes of Thomas Harper Ince, D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille, but shorn of mawkish sentiment or patronising morality, Lubitsch takes the period epic to its next incarnation – the titillating bedroom farce. (We’ll leave von Stroheim as he was just getting started, but would follow suit but in a more perverse and kinky vein).
Even outside of the proportions of epic cinema, Lubitsch would become the master of such films for more than twenty years, overseeing many more delectable saucy comedies in the silent and sound eras when he was based at Paramount studios, eventually becoming Production Manager in the mid-1930’s. Effectively running the studio, the phrase ‘The Lubitsch Touch’ was coined, which essentially referred to an elegant, witty and urbane sexual comedy (click here for a few definitions from famous people and writers about what this means to them).
He was finding his form with films such as this. Like a fine red, he was getting better with age and the hallmarks of his later work are richly evident.
There are coy monarchal sexual to-ings and fro-ings. Negri toys with a number of suitors in the early scenes. Despite the crucifix clearly above her bed, she decides between two of them by playing ‘eeny, meeny, miny mo’ on the flowers on the breast of her dress, re-playing when she isn’t happy with the initial outcome.
Later, Jannings stuffs a pardon note for one of them down that same area, making her giggle heartily. He puts a shoe on her foot, which she kicks off until the king has kissed it all over. When she undresses, her peers over the screen, eyes wide open with delight. The mighty King abased to adoration at floor level.
This is classy cinematic slap and tickle, a more refined precursor of the Carry Ons if you will, but with less of the leering glances and plummy punning and more highbrow suggestiveness.
It’s a shame then that he finds time to ponder for too long on the serious political storm erupting around the protagonists. This could not be ignored in such a famous, real-life tale, but it’s a shame Lubitsch didn’t prune a few of the minor characters associated with this and pay mere lip service to the important stuff, concentrating on the fun and frivolity.
Technically without fault, with clear photography and surprisingly effective colour tinting to heighten the emotion and mood of key scenes, adding much depth to the drama rather than reducing it to hazy and imperceptible figures fumbling about the screen.
The costuming and sets look like they cost a pretty penny, an awesome recreation of 18th century France, but then this was a premier production engineered to compete with the colossal American products flowering in the post-WWI era.
The big bucks also allows Lubitsch to display his flare with big crowd scenes. The theatre sequence is a debauchery of dangling legs and man (and women) handling; there is a riot as the Bastille is stormed and the finale eschews the usual building of momentum that Griffith would work into the mad-cap dash to save the heroine. We know DuBarry’s outcome and she is dispatched efficiently as the crowd quickly swirls around her, her head lobbed unceremoniously into them.
Of Negri, much would later be written. One of the shining stars of this period, it is surprising and a guilty delight to see her as a rather pudgy-faced, pre-Hollywood makeover, cute 26-year old. She essays a fun-loving, high-spirited role, as boisterous and without care in the world as the history texts would paint DuBarry.
She pulls comic faces, coquettishly jumps at various admirers and smiles and laughs broadly, before the final scenes in which true terror at the thought of facing Madame Guillotine falls over her.
Her Hollywood success was already being prepared.