I am absolutely flabbergasted at the maturity of the comedy in Ernst Lubitsch’s brilliant satire of love and fidelity. The movie is quite the opposite of most ensemble comedies of the silent era: it has a host of intelligent humor with only a few silly moments sprinkled throughout.
The story is best described by the title. Mr. Stock hires a private investigator to find proof against his wife, Mizzi, so he can get a divorce. Mizzi’s friend Charlotte has a seemingly perfect marriage to Dr. Franz Braun. Braun’s best friend is secretly in love with Charlotte, and then Mizzi falls for Dr. Braun, but Charlotte suspects her husband is interested in Miss Hofer… and around and around we go.
What makes the humor so punchy is the restraint used by the actors and in the subtle (if not ingenious) scenarios. There are plenty of chuckles and guffaws from simple facial expressions – or in Adolphe Menjou’s case (as Mr. Stock), some excellent Keatonesque non-expressions. Mr. Stock, thoroughly convinced that his marriage is over, is shocked when his wife Mizzi tells him that she “needs love”. He stares, petrified, as she puts her arms around him in loving embrace. He pats her awkwardly on the back. Meanwhile, Mizzi slides an object out of view with her foot; it is the gun she had just used to threaten suicide when her would-be lover Dr. Braun, gone but a few minutes, told her he does not love her.
Screenwriter Paul Bern avoids the absurd by keeping the characters respectable, even when they are behaving foolishly. When Charlotte mistakenly believes that her husband Dr. Braun is interested in the blond Miss Hofer, Braun protests but doesn’t go diving into rooms to avoid being seen with the young woman. He does, however, get stuck in an amusing catch-22 with the seating arrangement and Miss Hofer. We find ourselves laughing not at the characters as much as at the recognition of ourselves and our own bizarre behavior in similar situations. This is a key difference between watching clownishness and an ensemble of actors doing comedy.
The bad-girl sexuality of Marie Prevost’s “Mizzi” extends the comedy into another, higher realm. You don’t have to hear her words or see her bare skin to feel the waves of sexual innuendo flowing from each sultry glance and naughty smirk. Her advances on Dr. Braun inject an electricity that validates the melodrama. This vampish quality also lifts the innocence of poor Charlotte to semi-tragic levels; we feel like Charlotte’s only hope is for Lady Luck to step forward and save her from a swarm of savvy devils.
The “Lubitsch Touch” is present in several small moments, such as a mesmerizing shot of an intimate kiss over breakfast… that we don’t even see. The shot is of Braun’s hard-boiled egg in its holder as he cracks it with a spoon, and of Charlotte’s coffee cup as she stirs in the cream. We see their bodies lean together for a moment, ostensibly for a smooch. Then they move closer, and their hands stop moving altogether, and we are left to imagine what they are up to.
“The Marriage Circle” stands strong in the pantheon of silent comedy and high in Lubitsch’s filmography.