Bright Lights Film Journal

The Great Marriage Debate of 1924: Lubitsch’s Masterful Silent on DVD

A pioneering entry in a rare genre: the screwball comedy of manners

At the very outset of Ernst Lubitsch’s elegantly eloquent The Marriage Circle, we are introduced to two married couples. One blissful pair, Dr Franz and Charlotte Braun (Monte Blue, Florence Vidor) sit at the piano, crooning Eduoard Greig’s “I Love Thee” into each others’ eyes. The other are far more mundane, a seemingly neglectful and uninterested Professor Josef Stock (Adolphe Menjou) attempting to shave, and his scheming vamp of a wife, Mizzi (Marie Prevost), who selfishly gloms his mirror while his face is still completely lathered. A comedy of manners is indicated and Lubitsch prescribes a tonic both intoxicating and sanctifying for the loose-moraled Jazz Age.

Mizzi plots, as any film vamp of the era would — simply as a function of form. We are never enlightened as to her motivation, but must find it believable; otherwise this brilliant film is obscured by historical advantagism. She sneaks into Franz’s cab, ignorant that this man who is also going to accidentally give her flowers1 is her best friend’s husband. Being a bad girl, this discovery will later only make her misbehavior more attractive, more pronounced. The obviously miserable Josef watches them board and quickly hires a private detective (Harry Myers) to collect evidence for a divorce.

The facts unfold at a snail’s pace. Lubitsch grants the viewer plenty of time to absorb, digest, and relate. This is no madcap sprint through the wacky world of coupling that we all know and love from Lubitsch films. Here, time is taken to construct electrifyingly symbolic frames and pause for the ever-involving reaction shot.

Halfway through the film, and long before Charlotte has learned of Josef’s apparent infidelity, we are given a poignant view of the faith of this couple’s love. A shot like this would seem ridiculous today. But the viewer is forced to take time to see a single close-up of, first, a coffee cup and a minute egg. The male hand reaches down, taps the egg, and the woman’s hand stirs the coffee. The man’s hand gingerly pushes the breakfast dishes toward us, and reaches up and out of frame. The woman’s hand continues to stir the coffee but slows, pauses, then stops, finally grasping upwards. The viewer is then treated to the most romantic shot of a suit jacket and breakfast dishes in film history.

Bliss interrupted by Dr. Gustav Mueller’s carpool arrival, the romance significantly stops. An intertitle proclaiming Charlotte as his sole motivation introduces this base individual, parallel to Mizzi and portrayed by an oozing Creighton Hale.

As The Marriage Circle continues to spin out of control, the forlornly stone-faced Josef and the thoroughly wicked Mizzi struggle alongside the better-matched couple. Dramatic irony abounds as the facts unfold at a respectfully slackened pace. Lubitsch was a masterful filmmaker by this point in his career, and involving the viewer is his major concern (and triumph).

Everything ends tightly crammed into a brightly ribboned package, most of the principals safely paired with their counterparts. They get what they deserve. Like the viewer, the professor is left alone to either learn the things one can only learn alone or to find a more suitable partner.

But the viewer is left wondering whether marriage is really more than a security measure for modern civilization; and that Lubitsch inspires this deep and revolutionary a question speaks volumes of praise alone for The Marriage Circle, a relaxing, thought-provoking, and utterly victorious piece of silent filmmaking.

  1. Another trope of this type of film, objects and sometimes pets taking on a life to reflect the chaos of the Screwball Comedy, a diegesis where anything can happen just for the sake of a gag or plot device. []