Known for his skilful adaptations of pre-existing novellas and plays (Trouble in Paradise (1932), Ninotchka (1933), The Shop Around the Corner (1940)), Ernst Lubitsch has always been celebrated more for his inventive comic sensibility and artfully-constructed direction, than for his originality of story. The release of his second American picture, The Marriage Circle, however, saw these questions of uniqueness escalate to new heights. Sparked by the rumour that the 1924 film was merely a “facsimile” of his good friend Charlie Chaplin’s production from less than a year earlier, The Marriage Circle has spent much of its existence in the shadow of Chaplin’s romantic-drama, A Woman of Paris: A Drama of Fate.1 Director Henry Blanke, who was assistant to Lubitsch at the time of filming, would, in retrospect, say that viewing the film would “influence Lubitsch’s entire life from then on … from being very spectacular [with] big crowds … he became very simple, and discovered wonderful American actors that he picked himself.”2
While A Woman of Paris was most likely a great influence on the German director, it is perhaps a gross overstatement to suggest that it is solely responsible for his new Hollywood style. Layered textuality and innate playfulness had been present in Lubitsch’s films for years, and there were many other American filmmakers who had also greatly influenced the German-born director’s earliest American comedies. For instance, Cecil B. DeMille and the series of marital comedies he made beginning in 1918 are “playfully sardonic about the implicit boredom of marriage.”3 Humour and a sense of life’s innate absurdity, lightens each and every character in films such as For Better, For Worse (1919) and Why Change Your Wife? (1920). DeMille, created the jumping off point for the film canon of the “comedies of remarriage”4 before he adventured towards films of “grandiloquent spectacles,”5 passing the early rom-com torch to Lubitsch.
Opening on Vienna – “the city of laughter and light romance” (a description equally akin for the European city as it is for Lubitsch’s collective works) – The Marriage Circle tells the story of Dr. Franz Braun (Monte Blue) and his wife, Charlotte (Florence Vidor) – newlyweds with a wonderful marriage – and Professor Josef Stock (Adolphe Menjou) and his wife, Mizzi (Marie Prevost), whose marriage has succumbed to the frustrations each one has for the other. As the story progresses, the complications begin: Professor Stock hires a detective to follow his wandering wife, who has taken in interest in Dr. Braun; Charlotte too is suspect that her husband is having an affair, and encourages her friend Mizzi’s attentions to Braun not realizing she is, in fact, ‘the other woman’; all the while, Dr Braun’s medical partner, Dr. Gustav Mueller (Creighton Hale), is secretly in love with Charlotte. A marriage circle indeed. As the confusions pile up, Lubitsch is able to convey how in an atmosphere of hushed whispers and discretion, a simple kiss can carry as much erotic charge as anything more.
From The Marriage Circle on, subtlety and carefully constructed undercurrents were unquestionably at the centre of Lubitsch’s sophisticated brand of comedy. Centred upon knowing glances and meaningful gestures, the ‘Lubitsch touch’ aspired to conveying information visually rather than through numerous intertitles. There are famous examples in this film alone, such as the opening scene where Stock’s point-of-view glances into two dresser drawers – his own nearly empty, his wife’s stuffed with stockings – quickly summing up the state of their marriage. Or, several scenes later when Mizzi visits Charlotte for the first time, she finds her at the piano playing a piece entitled “I Love Thee.” When Dr. Braun arrives, Mizzi playfully flirts with him, taking the music from the piano and holding it in front of her so he can see the title clearly, revelling in his discomfort.
The performances in The Marriage Circle – particularly Blue and Menjou’s – suggest that Lubitsch was experimenting in how beneficial the use of gestures and miniscule facial expressions to express a whole variety of a character’s thoughts with a minimum of intertitles. Along with this, the film marked a noticeable change in Lubitsch’s approach to story pacing. While before, he had encouraged the actors to amplify a narrative’s farcical elements, his American pictures were considerably slowed down in pace in order to accentuate an actor’s reaction, no matter how underplayed. The most exaggerated example comes in the scene when Professor Stock comes home to find his wife upset from the rejection of her new lover after her threats of (an albeit fake) suicide. With the empty gun discarded on the floor, Mizzi attempts to prevent Stock from discovering her actions by crossing the floor to where he is standing, embracing him, and insisting she needs his love. Given he believes Mizzi to be having an affair with Braun, Stock reacts initially with surprise. He debates the conflicting position for some moments, and deciding Mizzi is sincere, he comforts her. The shot on Braun standing in front of an unembellished door with nothing else drawing focus lasts forty seconds, unusual filmmaking in an era in which the average shot length was five seconds.6
Unlike his previous pictures with their large sets and hundreds of extras, Lubitsch was now presenting films that were derived from the basic essentials: a few sets (a garden, a staircase, a dining room), even fewer actors, and thematics concerning the everyday. In 1927, the trade paper Film Daily asked Lubitsch, among other popular directors of the year to choose their favourite of their own films. Lubitsch chose The Marriage Circle because, as he explained, “In this production I was experimenting … My desire was to create a story that would reflect life as it is lived by thousands of married couples – just everyday people that we meet all around us… I call it my picture of no regrets.”7
The Marriage Circle (1924, USA, 85 minutes)
Prod Co: Warner Bros. Prod: Ernst Lubitsch Dir: Ernst Lubitsch Scr: Paul Bern Phot: Charles Van Engrer Art Dir: Victor Vance
Cast: Florence Vidor, Monte Blue, Maris Prevost, Creighton Hale, Adolphe Menjou, Harry Myers
- Richard Brody, “Movie of the Week: ‘The Marriage Circle’,” The New Yorker, 11 November 2015, www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/movie-of-the-week-the-marriage-circle/. ↩
- Scott Eyman, Ernst Lubitsch: Laugher in Paradise (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993) p. 104. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Describing the early romantic comedies of the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, philosopher Stanley Cavell dubbed the term for this canon of cinema “the comedies of remarriage.” Despite the Production Code being enforced, these early romantic-comedies were able to evade the code as the protagonists would divorce, flirt with strangers without risking the wrath of censorship, and then return to their original partners. ↩
- Eyman, op. cit., p. 105. ↩
- Kristin Thompson, “Lubitsch Acting and the Silent Romantic Comedy,” Film History 13.4 (2001): p. 400. ↩
- ibid. ↩