The Marriage Circle (1924)
Florence Vidor
Everyone knows that silent films look different to the later talkies, and The Marriage Circle is no exception; it appears old-fashioned, some would even say "quaint". A scholar might describe this as the evolution of cinema "grammar", but that hardly helps someone who is not in the academic loop. A few examples may help to put the technique in perspective.

When The Marriage Circle opens we are presented with a view of a naked foot. It is a very vain foot, quite shapely, but with its toes curved inwards from years of wearing fashionable shoes. In fact it is an early Twentieth Century foot - the age of speed, of modernism, of the skyscraper, but also the age of the bunion.

Marie Prevost
We gaze at this appendage for what seems an eternity, but eventually its owner draws on a sock. A very elegant silk sock, but this one has a hole in it. The camera lifts and we see that the owner is Adolf Menjou, and then comes another pause as Menjou stares interminably at the hole in his sock. If this had been on TV the viewer would already have switched channels. So what on earth is going on?

One can only surmise why the director Ernst Lubitsch chose to open The Marriage Circle this funereal pace.(1) After all before he came to America, Lubitsch had started his career with some very avant garde films - one does not expect this timidity. But Lubitsch was also an extremely practical man. This film had to appeal not only to a sophisticated European audience, but also to the (then) relatively unsophisticated American mid-west.

At that time there was a school of thought that audiences had to be educated, that they found jump-cuts and other speed-orientated techniques confusing. This later proved not to be the case, but here Lubitsch is taking no chances. In the first scene of The Marriage Circle the audience is introduced to two of the central characters, Professor Josef Stock (Adophe Menjou) and his wife Mizzi (Marie Prevost), their characters, the problems with their marriage, and what Josef hopes to do about it - get a divorce. In the first scene speed is less important than getting the message across, but it is notable that the action speeds up immediately afterwards.

Another difficulty for a Twenty-first Century viewer, is the way scenes are shot in The Marriage Circle. Close-ups are rare, and most shots of the actors are either full or half-height. It takes a little getting used to, but we should remind ourselves that the modern way of shooting films may look just as old-fashioned to later audiences.

Today we are used to people in close-up, especially on TV. They argue, their faces only inches apart. But in reality, does anybody do that? Marlene Dietrich is reputed to have said that when she was face-to-face with a co-star, she had to look past him in order that she didn't apppear cross-eyed.

Lubitsch does not indulge in any fancy camera work here - although he was more than capable of it - and as a result the close-ups in the The Marriage Circle have an impact they have lost today. In a seminal scene where Dr Franz Braun (Monte Blue) and his wife Charlotte (Florence Vidor) unexpectedly bump into each other in Mizzi's hotel room, the drama of the situation is brought out purely by the use of close-ups of their faces.

Another oddity is the over-dramatic way of expressing surprise. Dr Braun's partner Dr Gustav Mueller (Creighton Hale) leaves Dr Braun's office believing he had just seen Dr Braun's wife there, but then finds her seated in the waiting room. He stops, his brows knit in puzzlement, and he goes into a spasm of rapid blinking. It looks quite absurd, especially as Creighton Hale is not very good at this particular acting technique - or any if the truth be told.

A decade or so later an actor would have done a standard double take. But the fact is both are only conventions. In reality the person who has been surprised does absolutely nothing for an instant. We freeze while our subconscious sorts out the confusion.

No doubt by now this review will have put everybody off The Marriage Circle before that have even seen it! But that would be a mistake. The Marriage Circle is one of cinema's great films. This film would make or break Lubitsch's Hollywood ambitions, and he left nothing to chance.

Every detail is meticulously right. We can place exactly where the protagonists fit in middle-class Viennese society. The Brauns live in a large detached house while the Stocks live in an apartment block, but it is Lubitsch's attention to detail that defines them more precisely.

Mizzi Stock and Charlotte Braun are old friends, but their clothes set them apart. Mizzi's are just too obvious, slightly garish. In the hotel scenes she is wearing an up-to-the-minute number with a rosette with long wide ribbons pinned to her hip. It brands her immediately as a flapper or at least a flapper-wannabe. On the other hand we have already seen Charlotte at a party wearing a dress with exactly the same rosette and ribbons, but on her dress they are not real but a tastefully embroidered motif. Mizzi's clothes are up front, in your face, but Charlotte's are always in impeccable taste and are all the better for it. The outfit with the mock flying helmet she wears when she goes to meet Mizzi is stunning.

This (presumably) is representative of the "Lubitsch touch", a phrase conjured up by those who didn't understand how Lubitsch achieved his effects. But to Lubitsch this attention to detail is just background work. What makes Lubitsch great is his ability to make an audience believe in the characters, and to root for them when they are in difficulties.

We believe in Charlotte Braun. Her reaction when Gustav attempts to flirt with her is exactly right. Her good nature is displayed by the way she smiles to herself and shakes her head. To her Franz and Josef are just boys at heart, it is all good natured play. Then when Gustav becomes more ambitious she is shocked. Her reactions are very middle class. She holds the door open: Gustav must leave immediately. He is not acting like a gentleman. But when Gustav explains that he couldn't help loving her - "Nobody could" - she almost weakens, but not long enough for Gustav to take advantage of it. With Gustav firmly out of the way, she allows herself a private smile, still remembering what Gustav had said. Nobody could help loving her.

We definitely root for Franz and Charlotte. They are young marrieds, so touchingly, deeply in love. Nobody in the audience wants to see their marriage destroyed by Mizzi. At first Mizzi is mischeviously flirting with Franz but gradually this turns into a destructive obsession - today we would say she was stalking him.

Because of Mizzi's actions, the young couple misunderstand each other and quarrel. At one point it even appears as if Franz could go off with Mizzi while Charlotte would accept comfort from the predatory Gustav. But no, both Franz and Charlotte have too much character for that, and a happy ending seems likely.

But then in a touch of brilliance Lubitsch stands everything on its head. Having lost Franz, Mizzi turns back to her husband. "Josef! I need love!" she says, holding him close as if seeking forgiveness. Josef of course is thunderstruck, but then we can see him thinking. There are no obtrusive title cards to make this explicit, they are uneccessary. Josef is remembering why he fell for Mizzi in the first place. We see Josef soften and begin to smile. He pats her shoulder; everything will be all right once again.

A romantic night is ahead. Mizzi is on Josef's lap and they kiss. But then there is an interruption. Josef's hired detective has arrived and he brings proof of Mizzi's infidelity. Only a few minutes before Mizzi had thrown herself into Josef's arms, Franz Braun had been in the apartment. This is the divorce evidence Josef had always wanted, but now he would do anything not to believe it.

There then follows a gut-wrenching moment that only Lubitsch - with the help of Adolphe Menjou - could have brought off. Mizzi is in bed, being girlish as she waits for Josef. He enters the room, still one feels making up his mind. He could forget all about the transgression, and perhaps in future things would work out... But he steels himself for the reality. Mizzi is stunned when she hears his announcement: "Pack your things."

Of course the story of The Marriage Circle does not end there. It is an ABC story - Attraction, Breakdown, Conciliation. We have seen the young couples' attraction to each other, and breakdown comes when Charlotte believes she has discovered her husband has been having an affair. Conciliation occurs when Charlotte realizes the truth, the infatuation was all on Mizzi's side and Franz was innocent.

That is where one would expect the story to end. Josef gets his divorce, Mizzi is sent packing, and the young couple fall into each other's arms. But it doesn't happen like that, and perhaps this is where Lubitsch betrays a weakness - his love of the private joke.

Without access to the original play by Lothar, it is impossible to say how much Lubitsch influenced the ending. But it has all the hall marks of Lubitsch.

Throughout The Marriage Circle Charlotte has been portrayed as a very middleclass young woman. Everything is in proportion and she would never do anything to extremes. She is sweet-tempered, affectionate, and rather naive. But Lubitsch likes his women strong. The metamorphosis of Charlotte the 'Sweet Young Thing' to the Charlotte who takes charge and is determined to teach Franz a lesson is rather unlikely, although the 'Lubitsch Touch' is assured enough to carry it off.

Lubitsch loves his jokes. Jokes about doors abound in all Lubitsch's films. A door closes and we hold our breath - something unexpected will appear when it opens. When the Stocks quarrel as Josef is doing his morning exercises, Mizzi storms out and slams the door. But then it opens again and her head appears to berate Josef because Mizzi is the type to always have the last word. Then we see Josef - is he still doing his morning exercises? Is he merely touching his toes? Or is it the time-honoured gesture of showing someone your bum?

But Lubitsch's door jokes are public jokes - anyone can get the point. But there is a private joke hidden in the film - something for Lubitsch and his cronies to snigger about after the film is released.

Lubitsch had satirized Americans in his 1919 film Die Austernprinzessin (The Oyster Princess), and in The Marriage Circle he is having another gentle dig. The studio had suggested Warner Baxter for the role of Franz, but to Lubitsch he didn't look the part. Instead he chose Monte Blue, tall, handsome, part Cherokee it was said, and indisputably an American.

Monte Blue does extremely well in the part. He manages to convey the Old World charm and dignity that a real Viennese doctor would be expected to have. And yet the direction seems to stress his New World origins. When he leaves the house to attend to a late night call from the apparently ill Mizzi, he shakes hands with his wife as if he is taking leave of a pal before heading to the Alamo. In fact they shake hands several times, and always in a distinctively American way. And there is another signal: Franz eats a boiled egg for his breakfast, hardly a typical Viennese start to the day.

It is possible that Lubitsch was merely trying to make the lead characters more sympathetic to an American audience. But I suspect it was one of Lubitsch and his co-writer Hans Kräly's private jokes. Charlotte and Franz are shown as naive young lovers out of their depth, rather like trusting Americans lost in the wicked ways of the Old World. Franz has always displayed great dignity in his problems with Mizzi, but at the end he too inexplicably changes. Whereas Charlotte has become stronger, he becomes weaker. Franz has been proved virtuous and unjustly accused, but instead of Charlotte making a fuss over him, she makes him into a fool. He has become a chump, an American putz. The first in a long line of similar Americans that can be traced through the films of Lubitsch and then his accolite, Billy Wilder, especially in his films with Jack Lemon. Lemon played a putz most of his life, terminating with the last line of Grumpy Old Men as spoken by Walter Matthau as Lemon drives off with Ann-Margret - "Putz!"

Lubitsch would have enjoyed the joke.

Staring interminably at his sock is in keeping with Adolphe Menjou's acting style in his early films. He had a habit of remaining absolutely motionless to give the impression he was deep in thought. Conceivably this was an advance on the over-the-top furrowing of the brows and grimaces that other actors used to give this effect, but Menjou took the technique to extremes. In The Sheik (1921), he took so long in deciding whether to answer an awkward question from Agnes Ayres that she appears to be at a loss what to do while waiting to say her next line.

However the lack of pace in the opening to The Marriage Circle cannot be attributed to Menjou. Lubitsch controlled his actors rigorously and he had control of the editing, so the effect must have been what Lubitsch wanted.