Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
Released in 1921, Ernst Lubitsch’s “The Mountain Cat” (sometimes called “The Wildcat”) has little of the urbaneness of the director’s later work. It’s one of his Bavarian films, made (at least in part) on sojourns from his home base of Berlin, the body of which have a roughhewn, almost rustic quality that bespeaks a desire to unwind and cut loose. In fact, I take Lubitsch’s earlier “Meyer from Berlin” to encapsulate the aim of these pictures: It’s about a henpecked Berliner who convinces a doctor to prescribe an Alpine retreat — without his wife. Tellingly, Lubitsch himself played Meyer; it was the last time he acted in a movie. If the much discussed (perhaps overly discussed) Lubitsch “touch” can be described as a crassness that is only barely redeemed by an an overriding sense of propriety, then perhaps the Bavarian films can be taken as an indulgence of crassness; their reliance on knockabout physical comedy is only slightly removed from the work of Mack Sennett.
In “The Mountain Cat” Lubitsch alternates between two worlds, a fantastical fort inhabited by a bumbling army, and the snow-covered mountains, the realm of a band of barbarous robbers. Though the worlds present a visual contrast, their constituents mirror each other, and it’s part of the joke that both parties have the dainty sensibilities of petit bourgeois householders. Rischka, the daughter of the chief robber, is the sole exception. She terrorizes both groups with gusto, and her inevitable neutralization, the expectation that she’ll allow herself to be absorbed into one of these nutty civilizations, gives the plot its principle motivation. Played by the Polish actress Pola Negri, Rischka may be derived from Constance Talmadge’s Mountain Girl from “Intolerance.” Negri expands on Talmadge’s spunkiness by giving Rischka a fervency that seems to pour out of the actress’ enormous eyes. Though she’s little discussed today, Negri was an unlikely combination of Mary Pickford and Theda Bara. This may explain Lubitsch’s attraction to her: She embodied the balance of cheeriness and decadence that characterizes his best work.
Though “The Mountain Cat” is clearly Lubitsch in knockabout mode, it’s not a stripped-to-the-skivvies production like the roughly contemporary “Romeo and Juliet in the Snow.” At this stage in his career Lubitsch was known as the American Griffith, and it’s clear that he wanted his audience to remember why: A crowd scene staged for the introduction of the male romantic lead, in which seemingly thousands of women pour into the streets to get a piece of him, is managed with as much bravado and attention to detail as anything in the director’s earlier “Anne Boleyn” or “Madame DuBarry.” Here, though, Lubitsch uses the crowd scene for comic exaggeration. He presents it as a trope, and he keeps embroidering on it until we’re laughing more at his formal cheek than at the lowbrow sexual gags sprinkled throughout the sequence.
Much of the movie can be taken as an exercise in formal and aesthetic exaggeration. The decor of the fort is wondrously absurd. Phallic cannon poke out of circular portals, one stacked on top of the other, as though intended for decoration rather than defense. And throughout most of the movie the vignetting — vignettes are shapes overlaying the square film image, intended to emphasize certain movements and details — is so absurdly overdone that it’s hard not to wonder what Lubitsch was thinking. Is he encouraging us to laugh at the material within the vignette, or the practice of vignetting itself? (Amusing at first, the vignetting is perhaps too clever; even Lubitsch seems to tire of it after a while.) If it’s hard to determine exactly what in the picture is funny, it may be because much of its humor is generated not by content but by form. Lubitsch has an uncanny ability to draw laughs from the way in which the physical qualities of the film — staging, framing, art direction — interplay with his characters and their situations, and the peculiar rhythm of the editing gets under your skin, makes you feel a little tipsy.
Few silent films seem to yearn so enthusiastically for sound. There are two implicitly musical sequences — an absurd orchestra recital staged on ice; a deliriously baroque ball — and the movie as a whole has the bounce and sway of popular song. This is evident both in its simple back-and-forth structure and the undulating quality of its art direction, the latter almost narcotic in its impact. It’s there, too, in the physical bits, notably one in which actor Paul Heidemann, as Lieutenant Alexis, seesaws on an enormous rocking horse, daintily sampling liqueurs whenever his hand returns to the bottles. Like other Lubitsch comedies of this period, notably “The Doll” and “The Oyster Princess,” “The Mountain Cat” is a precursor of the operettas the director would go on to make at Paramount and MGM; notably, the romantic triangle that develops between Rischka, Alexis, and the daughter of the fort’s commandant anticipates the 1931 “The Smiling Lieutenant.” Unfortunately, Heidemann’s Alexis, the roué whom women cannot resist, has none of the self-aware insouciance of Maurice Chevalier. His chief weapon is a toothy grin that communicates a mixture of coarseness and malice; it’s hard to understand what the ladies see in him. But then the movie is intended to play not as romantic comedy but as slapstick. We don’t yearn for any particular couple to make a go of it, and it doesn’t matter too much that Rischka’s romantic fate is somewhat disappointing. We’re in it strictly for the gags.