Saturday 3 February 2024

The Marriage Circle (1924)

Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Writer: Paul Bern, based on the play Only a Dream by Lothar Schmidt
Stars: Monte Blue, Florence Vidor, Creighton Hale, Adolphe Menjou, Marie Prevost, harry Myers and Dale Fuller

There must have been something in the air in early 1924, because two out of the first four films have been outright comedies that verge on the screwball. Finances of the Grand Duke was directed by an unlikely German, F. W. Murnau, but The Marriage Circle by a far more likely one, Ernst Lubitsch, though this was a Hollywood feature, his second after 1923’s Rosita.

He made that while under contract to Mary Pickford but, while the film was a success with both the critics and the public, they clashed in production enough that he was able to sign to a Warner Brothers contract instead, one that unusually allowed him complete creative and casting control.

Whatever reasons Jack Warner had for that, it worked, because this is a treat of a comedy. Yes, we ache to slap some sense into Dr. Franz Braun for most of the running time, but that’s fine. If he had the requisite amount of sense to begin with, this would be a five minute short.

We’re in Vienna, which an introductory title confidently tells us is “the city of laughter and light romance”. There’s laughter and romance in this film, but not so much as we might think for a comedy about relationships. We’re doing all the laughing while the characters get into more and more outrageous misconceptions.

It’s the Stocks that we meet first, Prof. Josef Stock and his wife Mitzi. He’s as dapper as you might expect for a young Adolphe Menjou and she’s as beautiful as you might expect for the ascendant Marie Provost. However, the many capable sight gags underline that she’s utterly selfish, so much so that, after being ruthlessly insensitive to him throughout the first scene, she then has the audacity to complain about his cruelty. He hasn’t done a thing except let her shenanigans go uncommented.

They’ve only been in Vienna for a couple of months and the smile we see him raise comes after Mitzi leaves to visit Charlotte. She steals someone else’s reserved taxi but, with Josef at the window watching everything, offers him a lift so she can flirt outrageously with him. The professor assumes an affair for her and maybe an escape for him from their marriage.

Charlotte is an old friend of Mitzi’s who isn’t remotely like her. She’s hurt that Mitzi hasn’t come to see her since arriving in Vienna and she mails her to invite the Stocks to meet the Brauns. If you’re paying attention, yes, she’s the wife of Dr. Franz Braun, who also happens to have just had his taxi stolen.

The shenanigans have begun and they don’t end until the film does and, if there’s ever an opportunity for a character to misconstrue an event, the script leaps at it with wild abandon. Even this taxi ride can’t avoid that. Franz can’t stand Mitzi, so escapes, pretending he’s where he needs to be and entering a building to give that impression legs. Mitzi continues on to see Charlotte, presenting her the bunch of flowers that Franz left behind in the taxi in his quest to escape. Then in waltzes Franz, who knows just where those flowers came from.

It’s hard not to like Charlotte, at least early on when she’s entirely sympathetic, an honest and loving wife played by Florence Vidor, the separated wife of director King Vidor, whose Wild Oranges had reached theatres a couple of weeks earlier. They finally divorced in 1924.

It’s hard not to like Franz either, in the form of Monte Blue, though the deeper the hole he digs by not telling the wife he adores that her friend is hitting on him, the less sympathy we have. He remains a good guy, but he comes far too close to succumbing to Mitzi’s wiles and a professional doctor who specialises in nervous and hysterical women really ought to be able to match this vamp in a battle of wits. He’s too nice, sure, but that excuse only goes so far.

The fifth wheel in this marriage circle is Dr. Müller, Franz’s business partner, played by the ever-reliable Creighton Hale. He calls to pick up Franz every morning but it’s really just an excuse so he can see Charlotte, for whom he has an intense crush. Another accidental slip with flowers prompts him to believe that she returns his affection and the game is all set.

So, in case you’re not taking notes... Mitzi is married to Josef, who suspects she’s having an affair and wants a divorce, which she doesn’t realise. She has the hots for Franz, married to her friend Charlotte, who doesn’t have a clue. Franz’s business partner, Dr. Müller, aches for Charlotte, while Franz doesn’t suspect a thing. What a tangled web we weave!

And just wait until Franz’s rejection of Mitzi prompts her to escalate things so that she has Charlotte suspect he’s after Pauline Hofer and relies on Mitzi to get between them. I should add that Josef hires a detective to tail Franz in quest of proof of Mitzi’s adultery. Soon, simply calling this web tangled just doesn’t cut it any more and we need entirely new words.

The Marriage Circle was a 1921 play by Lothar Schmidt called Only a Dream that was adapted to the screen by Paul Bern, later to become the right hand man of Irving Thalberg at MGM. He would also be Jean Harlow’s second husband; he supposedly committed suicide two months later but may well have been murdered by his previous partner, sanatorium inmate Dorothy Millette. Tangled webs weren’t only reserved for the movie screen.

I loved this comedy of errors from the early scenes with Menjou doing a great job not only as an actor in a silent film but a mostly silent actor in a silent film. Prevost does all the work but he steals all the moments in subtle facial expressions. He continues to be the happiest character in the film because he believes that he’s about to be able to sue for divorce.

Blue is the unhappiest character in the film, even though he’s happily married to a happily loving wife. Mitzi torments Franz so ruthlessly that he can’t figure out what to do in response and every decision he makes is inevitably the wrong one. My favourite scene is one of his, but it’s with Müller rather than Mitzi, as a few more misconceptions lead to them walking on eggshells around each other for an entire day, each mistakenly expecting the other to think the very worst of them.

Of course, there’s eventually a happy ending and, in fact, quite a few of them, but not one of them is as straightforward as you’re expecting from all this. It’s a funny film built on a funny script and it’s entirely interactive, because we find ourselves shouting at the screen through the vast majority of it.

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