The Wildcat (1921)
Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Cast: Pola Negri, Victor Janson, Paul Heidemann
Synopsis: A charismatic lieutenant newly assigned to a remote fort is captured by a group of mountain bandits, thus setting in motion a madcap farce that is Lubitsch at his most unrestrained.
Before he developed his own ‘touch’ for Paramount in the 1930s, German director Ernst Lubitsch was fashioning hyperactive comedies like I Don’t Want to Be a Man, The Oyster Princess and The Wildcat, a slapdash comedy that brands itself a ‘grotesque in four parts.’ The film stars Pola Negri, an early collaborator of Lubitsch, whom he seemed to consider interchangeable with Ossi Oswalda. Negri plays Rischka, the daughter of Claudius (Wilhelm Diegelmann — Anna Boleyn), who’s the leader of a group of mountain bandits in a fictional, fairy-tale kingdom. She falls for the dashing Lieutenant Alexis (Paul Heidemann), an office sent to a remote fort as punishment for his womanising ways, and prevents the bandits from killing him when they relieve him of his belongings. However, Alexis finds himself betrothed to Lilli (Edith Meller), the daughter of the fort’s cowardly Commandant (Victor Janson — Die Puppe, The Oyster Princess).
Lubitsch seems to devote as much attention to masking the frame of the shots as he did to the screenplay (which he co-wrote with Hans Kraly), using every shape imaginable to frame the action. Presumably, it was to add to the film’s air of zaniness, which is also apparent in the broad performances of the stars and the elaborate sets. The humour is broad and ferocious, but it quickly grows old so that we’re soon wishing Lubitsch would just get on with telling the story. Negri’s character becomes overwhelming after a while, and all the male characters are portrayed as drunks or buffoons. There are a few laughs to be found within the dizzying pace of the tale, but they’re sadly few and far between.
(Reviewed 18th October 2014)