Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (Ernst Lubitsch) ****

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

Cast: Ramon Novarro, Norma Shearer, Jean Hersholt, Gustav von Seyffertitz

Background: Ernst Lubitsch is mostly known for his delightful sound pictures, such as The Shop Around Corner, Trouble in Paradise, and To Be or Not to Be. However, he had already made 47 films before 1927. Some of these silents received strong critical acclaim, including Lady Windemere's Fan and The Marriage Circle. Unfortunately, his films weren't financially successful and Warner Brothers terminated his contract. MGM/Paramount picked up the remainder of his contract, and his first film for them was an adaptation of a Wilhelm Meyer-Förster novel, The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg.

Story: Prince Karl (Novarro) lived a mostly sheltered childhood, unable to take part in games with normal children. He was being groomed to be King and that wouldn't be appropriate. Things change a bit when he is assigned an understanding tutor (Jean Hersholt) and goes off to college in Heidelberg. It is here where he is treated like a normal person for the first time. It is also where he will meet and fall in love with beautiful barmaid Kathi (Shearer), but class distinctions and family loyalty threaten their romance.

Thoughts: They don't make them the way Lubitsch did anymore. What seems to be a fairly standard romantic story (rich boy/poor girl) is energized by Lubitsch's wit and creativity. Lubitsch was always pretty advanced in the ways he dealt with sex (see Trouble in Paradise) and this one is no exception. There's a great scene where the Prince sees Kathi serving drinks to the gang, and he watches as they lift her up in celebration (she's just one of the guys) and she downs a full glass of beer in one shot. Karl is at first disgusted, but his expression quickly turns to one of lust. Lubitsch is also great at coaxing wonderful performances from his cast. Jean Hersholt has a memorable turn as the Prince's tutor, bringing so much life to his character that by the end of the movie, you feel like you've known him for years. Novarro and Shearer make a compelling romantic pair, although Shearer overplays her dramatic scenes a bit too much. By the end, Lubitsch has us fully invested in these character, and the delicately handled final few scenes of this wonderful film pack an emotional wallop.

Postscript: The film had a decent critical reception, but it lost money at the box office. Today, it is widely considered Lubitsch's best silent film. He would go on to great success in the 30s and 40s, with notable classics like Trouble in Paradise and The Shop Around the Corner. He was also a major inspiration for another great Americna director, Billy Wilder. Novarro kept working steadily for a few decades, but most of his success was as a supporting player. Norma Shearer would go on to play some major roles, including the lead in 1938's Marie Antoinette and Juliet in 1936's Romeo and Juliet. She was also part of the stellar cast that appeared in 1939's The Women. Jean Hersholt would continue his remarkable career as a supporting player and become President of the Academy of Motion Piicture Arts and Sciences in 1945.

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