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Monday, 24 September 2007

The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927) Ernst Lubitsch

If you couldn't tell that Old Heidelberg was Germanic from the name, you'd soon work it out from the beer steins. We don't find our way there until later though. We start in Karlsburg where everyone is awaiting their Crown Prince, Karl Heinrich, a young boy who who arrives in his prissy sailor suit and lipstick to much fanfare. Of course everyone wants to be him, while in turn he just wants to be everyone else, the palace of King Karl VII being little more than a prison to him, even with Jean Hersholt as a tutor. He grows up into Ramon Novarro and after passing his exams, he and his tutor, Dr Jüttner, head off to Heidelberg to university.

Naturally, after such a sheltered and cloistered upbringing, he falls in love with the first woman he meets, namely a barmaid called Kathi, played by Norma Shearer, even though he's naturally shocked to see her drink beer. She falls for him too, though she's technically engaged. To complicate matters King Karl selects a consort for his son, Princess Ilse of Altenberg, and promptly dies before he can defy him. Karl Heinrich is summoned back home to assume the reins of government while his father is seriously ill, and then on his death remains to take over his role as king. Meanwhile he pines and Kathi waits.

I've come to really enjoy Ramon Novarro's work, especially as a silent star but even into the sound era, though his films weren't always up to the standards of his performances. This one falls within one of his best periods, soon after Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ and soon before Across to Singapore, my two favourites of the nine Novarros I've seen thus far. He's not as great here, probably because there's precious little for him to do. I always preferred Shearer in the silents too, though I've only seen one silent film of hers to match A Free Soul and The Women: the Lon Chaney vehicle, He Who Gets Slapped.

Director Ernst Lubitsch though I much prefer after the advent of sound, films like The Shop Around the Corner, Ninotchka and To Be or Not to Be being a few classes above something like The Eyes of the Mummy. Maybe as I catch more of his work from the 1920s I'll change that opinion, but for now it's definitely sound Lubitsch over silent Lubitsch.

Both Novarro and Shearer are fine here, but the happy couple seem a little overhappy. Giddy is the word, I believe, but consistently in-the-moment giddy for entire scenes, which is not that believable. Even less believable are the long moon face scenes which seem to take up half the film. There's so much palpable emotion that you can just see the women sitting in theatres in 1927 bawling their eyes out. However on the flip side, what's really believable is the atmosphere at Heidelberg, which involves students getting drunk and flirting with barmaids, which of course hasn't changed an iota in the intervening eighty years. As for Lubitsch this is a capable movie, for sure, but given that 1927 was the year of such stunning visual films as Sunrise and Metropolis, this falls a long way short.

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