In a tight black room, a svelt young man gently removes the lid from a chest. Placing it upside-down on the table, a verdant field sprinkled with flowers and split by a wandering road is revealed. Reaching into the chest, the young man pulls out a number of figurines and models which he assembles on the lid: a dollhouse, paper trees, a sky, and finally two dolls. With a cut, we are transported inside a life-size reconstruction of the tableau. From the dollhouse door the two dolls emerge as humans: a stringy youth who tumbles down the curved road into a pond and his plump caretaker who pulls him out with an umbrella. From this opening begins Ernst Lubitsch’s The Doll, a fantastical romantic comedy that seems more at home in the realm of postwar German Expressionism than with his later genial American productions. Never has Lubitsch’s artifice been so pronounced. And never has he been more joyfully delightful.
The Doll follows Lancelot, the effete youth from the opening sequence, who schemes to marry a life-like doll in order to placate his uncle, the Baron of Chanterelle, who is desperate for an heir. The local doll-maker Hilarius constructs him a mechanical replica of his high-spirited daughter Ossi that is capable of actions as complex as autonomous dancing. But Hilarius’ careless young assistant accidentally breaks it. To spare the boy her father’s wrath, the real Ossi takes the doll’s place. And so begins her strange and wonderful journey through villages, castles, and monasteries; to parties, suppers, and even a wedding. She dutifully keeps up the illusion (breaking now and then to flirt and dance with others while Lancelot’s attention is diverted) until one night the sight of a mouse causes her to scream. Ossi’s secret is revealed to Lancelot. But another revelation is due for the young man: she has fallen in love with him.
Here is a story that can only inhabit the realm of fairy tales. To tell it, Lubitsch creates a diegetic world of playful artificiality: sets of hyperbolic caricature (the sun has a face and carriages are drawn by men in horse costumes), serendipitous coincidences (Hilarius literally drops from the sky at the end to give his blessing to the newly married couple), and just a touch of white magic (Hilarius’ hair literally stands on end and turns white when he learns of his daughter’s deception).
But one of the key elements of The Doll’s success was the casting of Ossi Oswalda as Hilarius’ daughter, the eponymous doll. Trained as a ballet dancer, Ossi made her screen debut in Lubitsch’s Shoe Palace Pinkus in 1916. From there she would go on to become one of Germany’s great silent film stars, appearing in numerous comedies (many of which were also helmed by Lubitsch). Film historians Hans-Michael Bock and Tim Bergfelder described her as having a “cinematic alter ego of a hyperactive, coquettish, spoilt Lolita whose anarchic antics caused havoc amid the films’ sedate and ordered Prussian surroundings, but who invariably got tamed in time for the happy end.” In some of her earlier films, Ossi’s persona bordered on the childishly petulant and infantile.
But she hit the right balance in The Doll: playful without being irresponsible, flirtatious without seeming puerile, and just kind enough that we can believe that she is a woman who would actually volunteer to act like a doll. The genius in Ossi’s performance is that we never get the sense that she isn’t in control of her situation. She could easily escape her predicament, but she chooses not to. At first it’s because it’s an adventure and she’s just having too much fun playing along. But then, unexpectedly, her feelings evolve into love.
The Doll was made during a period of explosive creativity for Lubitsch. In just a few years he would direct, in addition to a number of straight dramas, a group of excellent romantic comedies that pushed the boundaries of gender norms and sexual ethics. Three of the best were also collaborations with Ossi. I Don’t Want to Be a Man (1918) featured her as a woman who cross-dresses to escape the boring life and societal expectations of a young lady. The Oyster Princess (1919) saw her as a bratty American heiress whose father “buys” her a prince to marry. And finally, The Wild Cat (1921) saw her at her most anarchic as the leader of a group of mountain bandits who falls in love with a lothario lieutenant assigned to a nearby border fortress.
Along with The Doll, these films were stylistically audacious and featured tightly knit endings where Ossi was neatly paired off with the character she was most meant to be with (don’t let her affections for the lieutenant in The Wild Cat fool you). But the romantic intrigue in The Doll is the most convincing by merit of the film’s deliberate evocation of the fairy tale.
A closing word, then, about the Lubitsch Touch. The elusive Touch is a much discussed je ne sais quoi that permeates Lubitsch’s work. Nobody can seem to agree just what the Touch is. But it exists.
And I see it displayed in a marvelous scene near the end of The Doll. When Lancelot takes Ossi to the monastery where he has been staying, he leaves her in the dining room with a group of gluttonous monks. They peer over at her and she begins to dance. The monks gleefully join her until their abbot comes in and chases them away. Close-up on the abbot’s face. Cut to a close-up on Ossi’s bare ankles. We fear the worst. But then he positions himself next to her and begins to mimic her movements. It wasn’t sex he wanted, but to join in the dance.