Ernst Lubitsch’s The Oyster Princess is one of the first fully realized long-form comedies in film history. The story follows Ossi Oswalda as the extremely spoiled daughter of an oyster plutocrat. She really wants to get married, not for love but for social status. Her father (Victor Janson) wants that too. So they go to a matchmaker, who sets up rich industrialists’ children with bankrupted nobles. He finds an impoverished prince (Harry Liedtke) who loves gambling and drinking and carousing and who isn’t interested in getting married. So the prince, interested in the money at least, sends his servant (Julius Falkenstein) to check her out. Oswalda though, she assumes he’s the prince. All the servants are in on the joke, but they let it go ahead. She doesn’t want any explanations. She just wants to head straight to the clerk’s office so she can have her noble husband. The servant just doesn’t want her to throw a vase at him. So they get married under the prince’s name, without him knowing. After a very drunken night, when our servant gets to wine and dine plutocrat-style, he is bummed he can’t sleep with her. He’ll get over it though. The next day, when Oswalda does some social work, intervening with dipsomaniacs, who does she run into but a very drunken prince rounded up after a long night. You can guess what happens next.
The genius of this film is the masses of servants Janson has. The film begins with him in a large chair. He has 4 African man-servants, identically dressed in ridiculous costume, each with a different job. One puts a cigar in his mouth, another tea, another wipes his mouth. He’s speaking to a gigantic room for stenographers, each copying what he says. Such scenes are repeated throughout the film This sort of oversized servant staff doing the same thing doesn’t sound funny when written but works amazingly well and is a real advancement in comic cinema. There’s other wackiness too, in particular a free-for-all women’s boxing scene. Some scenes go a long a bit long–the dance scene at the wedding for instance–but it’s a pretty great film overall.