23 June 2003 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Ossi Oswalda is a beautiful doll (sexy, too!)
'The Doll', directed by Ernst Lubitsch, is a charming fantasy, a splendidly original film inspired by one of the Tales of Hoffmann ... and a movie which also captures the mood of English holiday pantomimes and Hans Christian Andersen. As a bonus, this film features an extremely kinky performance (very funny and sexy at the same go) by the delightful actress Ossi Oswalda.
In the opening shot we see the great Lubitsch himself, setting up a doll's house against a stylised backdrop. A close-up of this model then dissolves into a full-sized version of the same stylised setting, from which emerge actors dressed as dolls. From this point onward, the entire film is staged on highly stylised sets ... much like 'The Cabinet of Dr Caligari', except that these sets are bright and airy.
Old Baron Chanterelle has no family except for his gormless nephew Lancelot. To continue the line, the Baron offers his nephew a dowry of 300,000 francs to get married. But Lancelot is afraid of women. The local prior shows him an advertisement from the dollmaker Hilarius, who offers a special service 'for bachelors, widowers and misogynists': a life-size clockwork girl! Lancelot decides to marry the mechanical bride, collect the dowry, then stash the doll in the attic.
Hilarius, for some reason, has made his clockwork doll an exact duplicate of his pretty daughter Ossi (anticipating a similar plot device in the 1949 film 'The Perfect Woman'). The clockwork girl has a control panel on her back (like Julie Newmar in 'My Living Doll') and a crank to wind her up.
The real Ossi decides to do some winding up herself: playing a joke on Lancelot, she attaches the control panel and the handcrank to her own back and pretends to be the doll. Of course there are problems when the 'doll' sneezes or coughs, and eventually Ossi gets hungry and thirsty because nobody offers the doll any refreshments. (How does she handle toilet breaks?)
In a frilly outfit with a short skirt, Ossi is very pretty as both the mechanical girl and the real one. There is some surprisingly good double-exposure in a couple of camera set-ups when the real Ossi and the mechanical one are onscreen simultaneously. Brilliant camerawork throughout by the great Theodor Sparkuhl.
Remarkably, Lancelot goes from the wedding banquet to the bridal chamber without ever twigging that his clockwork bride is the genuine article. (We don't see the wedding itself; perhaps Lubitsch feared that audiences would be offended by the idea of a man exchanging wedding vows with an inhuman object ... and in fact, an insert shot of a wedding certificate establishes that the wedding was a civil ceremony, not a religious one.)
The great charm of this film is its mood of fairy-tale unreality. The coachman's horses are played by men in pantomime-horse costumes. A cat and a rooster are played by cut-out figures. The moon has a human face, looking rather too much like Oscar Levant! I enjoyed a bizarre scene in which an entire roomful of mechanical girls dance for Lancelot.
There's also a remarkable early example of pixilation (stop-action animation using actors rather than mannequins) in a gag sequence in which Hilarius's hair stands on end, then turns white.
The sequences of Ossi (the real one) dancing stiffly while pretending to be a clockwork girl remind me of the sequence in 'Metropolis' when the female robot takes her first awkward steps. (Could this film have influenced 'Metropolis'?) A comedy sequence in this film prefigures a similar sequence in Buster Keaton's 'Seven Chances', when forty women bent on matrimony pursue Lancelot through the streets.
'The Doll' is an absolute delight from beginning to end, a film that the entire family will enjoy. I regret only that the German intertitles were set in a Fraktur typeface which made them very difficult to read. I'll rate this delightful movie 10 out of 10.