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With: Pola Negri, Emil Jannings
Written by: Norbert Falk, Hanns Kräly
Directed by: Ernst Lubitsch
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 85
Date: 09/18/1919

Madame DuBarry (1919)

4 Stars (out of 4)

The Bastille Deal

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In 1919, before Ernst Lubitsch was known for his famous "touch," the master director made something like nine films--a perfect opportunity for an artist to really practice his craft. Even he had to start somewhere.

Lubitsch's costume drama, Madame Dubarry, based on the famous French courtesan, screened at San Francisco's 2001 Berlin and Beyond Film Festival in a restored print. The intertitles were in German and were translated aloud in English. Dennis James composed a new score and performed live on the Castro Theater's Mighty Wurlitzer organ. It was an amazing experience.

When the film first came to the United States, it was retitled Passion, so that audiences would not be turned off by a foreign-sounding film. (In those days, no one cared which country a film came from, so long as it wasn't obvious.)

The great German actress Pola Negri plays the title character, a poor seamstress who becomes the courtesan of King Louis XV (Emil Jannings), and forces him to promote her secret lover to lieutenant in the royal guard so that he will be close to her. The story ends in tragedy for the lovers, but also a Bastille Day triumph.

Though Lubitsch's famous "touch" is not yet in evidence, he does give a certain lightness to the usually heavy and stuffy costume genre. For decades afterwards, most costume movies would drag along and bore generations of filmgoers who would pretend to be enlightened. This time, there's no pretending. Part of the reason for this lightness is the stripped-down sets. Lubitsch rarely shows any wide shots of great opulence. But when he does, it counts for more than just showing off.

A great example is in the scene where Negri meets Mr. Dubarry, the man who she will eventually marry. She's dining with a soldier who is romantically interested in the poor seamstress. Dubarry pays a surprise visit and she hides behind a partition. She attempts to tease and tickle her date without attracting the attention of the unwanted guest. Lubitsch lets the teasing go on for a few minutes before revealing that Dubarry can see the entire episode in a conveniently placed mirror.

Madame Dubarry is not available on video, and has been up until recently seen only in battered and unsuitable prints. In the unlikely event that this new print will ever be released on video, I wanted to record my experience for posterity here.

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