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Lubitsch in Berlin: The Wildcat
The Wildcat was the last time that Pola Negri and Ernst Lubitsch collaborated before they both went off to Hollywood and, like the previous movies they made together, it was a very successful pairing. During this period of his career, Lubitsch alternated between comedies and costume dramas and this one is definitely the former, but with a twist. It's a humorous bergfilme, or mountain film. This usually serious movie genre that involves mountain climbing was very popular in Germany in the 20's never took off in America. (There are many examples available on DVD however including White Hell of Pitz Palu, Storm Over Mont Blanc, and The Blue Light.) For this film Lubitsch takes Pola and his crew up the side of a mountain for a comic spoof of the military and military life.
Lieutenant Alex (Paul Heidemann) is popular with the ladies... a little too popular. He's had an affair with just about every eligible woman in the town (and several that aren't eligible), so his commander sends him off to a remote post as a punishment.
He's supposed to report to Kommandant der Festung Tossenstein (Victor Janson) but on the way to his new assignment Alex gets captured by a group of bandits. They want to kill him for his nice undergarments, but the bandit chief's daughter, Rischka (Pola Negri), falls in love with him and lets him escape.
Finally arriving at the remote outpost, the Kommandant has Alex lead a raid on the bandits. The young officer gets together everything he'll need for a successful attack, mainly a good band to play inspiring music, and sets off to a horrible, if comic, defeat.
When the Lieutenant returns, he embellishes what happened just slightly and turns the rout into a terrific victory. Tossenstein is so pleased, that he offers, nay insists, that the attractive officer takes the hand of his only daughter in marriage. Needless to say, this isn't the reward that Alex was hoping to receive. When Rischka hears that the object of her affections is about to be wed, she gathers the bandits and launches an attack on the fort, with humorous consequences.
This is a broad farce, with lots of prat falls and wild slapstick. It holds up well and is still funny after all these years. The scene where Alex leaves his original post is hilarious. He climbs into a waiting car as a sea of women break through the police cordon in order to wish him farewell. The crowd is only dispersed by releasing a bag full of mice. Just before leaving Alex waves to a large group of children shouting "Bye Daddy."
Pola Negri is wonderful in this film, even if it is a bit different from the vamp roles she's usually associated with. In this film she's a spitfire, but a comic one. Negri is able to fall in the snow just as often as the other cast members and gets some of the bigger laughs. This is because she really throws herself into the role, overacting just slightly for comic effect.
Lubitsch must have been very confident of his ability to direct this type of movie because he uses this film to experiment a bit. He plays with the shape of the frame a lot. The shots that are composed in a 4:3 rectangle are actually in the minority. He has doesn't just use circles for close-ups, but all types of shapes; ovals, parabolas and odd curving closed figures define the frame for much of the film. Sometimes this works well; a diagonal slash of a frame has women running from the top of the screen to the bottom and gives the illusion of a large crowd and also makes the action more urgent. Unfortunately this doesn't as well as the director was hoping. More often than not it distracts from the movie itself. Viewers spend more time looking at the shape on the screen than the action that is taking place inside of it.
The score by Marco Daphane was played by the Playground Ensemble, was scene specific and generally fit the mood of the film. An average silent film score, it was definitely adequate. Being a recent recording there were no audio defects worth noting. The intertitles are in English.
This movie has been restored by the F.W. Murnau Foundation and they've done a very fine job. The original negative was used for the restoration, but unfortunately the intertitles no longer exists. These were recreated from censor notes. It's a shame that the original script hasn't turned up since there were noticeably fewer jokes in the intertitles.
The image is very clear and the level of detail is fine. The contrast is generally good. There is some blooming of the highlights and black objects have very little texture and details disappear in shadows, but this is not major. The 35mm print that was used was not totally free from dirt and scratches but these were minor.
This DVD was created from a PAL master, and consequently has the problems associated with PAL to NTSC conversion: the film plays 4% faster and there is some ghosting.
Like the other DVDs in this series, there weren't too many extras. This disc includes a Lubitsh filmography, but that's it.
This is a funny film. Not Chaplin or Lloyd funny, but still entertaining. Negri does an excellent job as the willful daughter of the bandit leader and shows that she has good comic timing. This, along with The Oyster Princess, is one of the more accessible films in this series of Germany Lubitsch movies that Kino has put out. If you're not sure which title to get, this would be a good start. Recommended.