Sometimes a little ignorance can be helpful in creating your own ideas. A VHS tape of Ernst Lubitsch was available to me thirty years ago. “That Uncertain Feeling”(1941) to make up the gap in my knowledge of his groundbreaking Hollywood sex comedies. Although it was widely considered to be one of his weakest films I fell in love with it right away. I still consider it his greatest, most pure, and wildest masterpiece. This month’s Criterion Channel stream of That Uncertain Feeling will be available. I offer an illuminating cinematic challenge. Compare this film made under the Hays Code censorship regime of 1940 to each Lubitsch’s precode comedies. See where he can get away with more outrageous sexual freedom claims and blatant erotic innuendos.
“That Uncertain Felting” is about Jill Baker and Larry Baker (Merle Oberon & Melvyn Douglas). Although they are referred to as “the happy bakers”, their happiness turns out not to be real. Jill, who has long suffered from hiccups which her high-ranking friends claim were caused by Dr. Vengard (Alan Mowbray), is able to be treated. Jill is stubborn and insists that she is “normal”. She is acutely aware of the tendency of analysis to cause marital discord through the constant force of her revelations and she is determined to find a cure. In his office, she confesses that she has difficulties reporting her symptoms, as she believes, “If you come, it’ll work” and, “If you go, it’ll come.” It’s incredible to see what the censors didn’t think.
Just minutes after the film started, this medical confession sets the absurd tone of sexual frustration. It is accompanied by the thick layers and comforts of social grace and material wealth that cover it. Vengard uses ironic dialogues to get Jill to admit (or claim) that she is twenty-four. She also claims that she has sleepless nights with her husband, a busy thirty five-year-old insurance executive, while he sleeps peacefully. Jill uses her insight to try and wake him up. This cunning and symbolic strategy involved the family dog. Adultery is the solution. Alexander Sebastian (Burgess Meredith), a mentally contentious and absurdly misanthropic pianist/composer, comes to Jill’s rescue. His attention fills Jill with cultural sophistication and frenzy, new romance. Larry discovers their affair in a remarkable deal that involves a mix-up. He decides to quickly and cleanly divorce her in the hopes of winning her heart.
The frame of “That Uncertain Feeling”This is based upon a silent film by Lubitsch “Kiss Me Again”From 1925, which is in turn based on a French farce from the 19th century “Divorçons!”. (“Let’s get a divorce!” (The original film, which was long thought to be lost, was well-received at the time of its publication, even in the pages of The New Yorker. Donald Ogden Stewart wrote the screenplay. Lubitsch was his own producer. This film was the first to be released by his production company. The Uncertain Feeling was shot with a smaller budget than studio films. It also features a limited number of actors and locations. Lubitsch is able to perform a series of dazzling and manipulatively aluding acts of power and desire within these sparsely decorated sets. This is made all the more impressive by the film’s relaxing quality and its humane rounding off of its exact mechanisms. Not least because of the expressiveness of the actors who easily sit on the edge of anger, pain and conflict.
Lubitsch’s glowing, acute close-ups capture Oberon’s fleeting glances, Douglas’s frozen smile of good nature, and Meredith’s feverish angularity in a series of sharp, astute close ups. Larry’s confident step into the Bakers’ living room as Jill chats with friends, or his similar confident steps across the room when Sebastian is there, evokes that Shop’s absent-mindedness. The successful and wealthy Larry, who Jones (Harry Davenport), describes as the best salesman in business, is also a romantic figure. Jill’s most intense physical confrontation was when he poked her in the waist, and then screeching. “Keeks!”. (She is able to speak after Vengard sessions. Larry’s most energetic interaction with Jill involves planning a dinner at their home for some potential clients, furniture makers who happen to be from Hungary (and who happen to be the resonant names of Kafka and Janáček ). He trains her to utter the warm Hungarian invitation “Egészségedre” (“To your health”) and encourages her to do so with the cheeky emptiness of a wind-up doll, suggesting how impersonally he has attended her after only six years of marriage.
Sebastian, Sebastian’s new love is not the epitome virtue and charm. He boastfully claims that his neurosis affects the concert hall. His neurosis may be more intimate than he claims. Jill captured this in a surrealist photograph. He was noticed by an ex-artist. Sebastian, a picky guest and esthete, demands that a vase be taken from the Baker house table and placed in a drawer. Larry’s Hungarian instrumental album is so offensive to him that he made a mistake and tried to scratch it. After being disoriented by the appearance of a woman guest at his piano, Larry orders her to be removed. He is nicknamed “Phooey!” Sebastian Jill is a bit antiquated in his hostility but he gives her the impression that at least he listens. (The story of what happens when an affair turns into coexistence is another shockingly funny comedy.
Lubitsch staged scenes such as Sebastian’s postprandial living-room piano concerto for Larry’s Hungarian Perspectives. This was done with an extraordinary theatrical gesture: panning shots of characters across the room, meaningfully complicated changes of gaze, and a totemic understanding of objects (a record, a vase, cupboard, record etc. He reveals how even the most mundane social activities can have profound psychological effects. Despite the slapstick portrayal of the patient and analyst relationship, “That Uncertain Feeling”It is not a parody or psychoanalysis. Lubitsch’s symbolic representations of hidden wants, unspoken motif and distracted attentions – the cold cinematic embodiments of indescribable surging passions–plays like psychoanalysis in photos. His vision of the power of analysis includes the analysis and control of power. Lubitsch was born in Berlin to a Jewish family. He began his career in Germany and then moved to Hollywood in the early 20s.
Because he shot “That Uncertain Feeling”Lubitsch was able to work with a limited budget without relying on the lavish feel and opulence of his other, highly acclaimed film duo. “Ninotschka” “The Shop Around the Corner”The Eurocentric Glamor of “Trouble In” Paradise ”or its four features with Maurice Chevalier. He reduced and melted much his cinematic structure to reveal his methods and the underlying erotic thoughts with an exceptional, self-revealing clarity. Oddly enough, “That Uncertain feeling”, which was published April 1941, was reviewed in The Times on May 2nd, in a brief piece that was overshadowed by a long review on the same page in “Citizen Kane”. No one can deny the cinematic modernity of Orson Wels’ expressive, extravagant debut film. Lubitsch is no less impressive for his use of allusions, indirections, and other sly quips. Modern filmmakers such as Sofia Coppola and Wes Anderson are able to see the truths and illusions in the exquisite subtleties of their films. Or Jia Zhangke whose political situations are symbolic representations of something that cannot be discussed openly. Lubitsch’s use of metaphor and understatement in today’s age of directness and boldness reflects the difficulty of self-knowledge as well as the inadequacy and lack of self-expression. The unsettling uncertainties of deepest reality are masked by the dizzying beauty of its aesthetic.
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