Since for me the Polish-German master Ernst Lubitsch (1892-1947), once internationally famous for his “Lubitsch Touch,” is high among the ten best and most influential picture-makers of the western world–one to whose work I gravitate even more as I get older–it follows that if there happens to be a Lubitsch film on TV (more than likely TCM), it’s almost automatically the best movie of the week. Based on the famous Sigmund Romberg operetta, 1927’s THE STUDENT PRINCE (In Old Heidelberg) [available, shamefully, only on VHS], one of Lubitsch’s last silent pictures, is not really typical of him–being neither a romantic comedy nor an historical drama–but rather an extremely moving sad love story. But the “Touch” is so present throughout, no one else could have made this picture: a lightly told and devastating romantic heartbreaker. It is an underappreciated work of Lubitsch’s, yet it is among his very best, coming just at the end of the glorious silent era. As Charlie Chaplin said of that lost period: “Just when we got it right, it was over.”
Still, nothing stopped Lubitsch: he jumped right in and made as his first talkie the first “all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing” book musical of the American screen, The Love Parade (1929), followed in rapid succession by four more original musicals (four available in DVD on Criterion) that remain among the finest examples of how best to do a movie musical where the suspension of disbelief is granted so willingly. Who wouldn’t want to live in Lubitsch’s world? He himself put it most succinctly when he famously said: “I’ve been to Paris, France, and I’ve been to Paris, Paramount. I think I prefer Paris, Paramount.” (More on Lubitsch at our Special Links: 5/4/11.)
When I first saw The Student Prince forty-two years ago, I top-rated it in my movie-card file as “Exceptional,” adding: “Typically sublime visit to the beautiful world of Lubitsch and his royal kingdoms, about a crown prince who falls in love with a barmaid and cannot marry her. Full-bodied and eloquent performances by Norma Shearer, Ramon Novarro, Jean Hersholt and the rest of the cast. A lovely movie and a minor masterpiece.” Today I would certainly remove the patronizing “minor."
About fifteen years later (after I myself had been through a tragic love affair), I saw The Student Prince again and it killed me. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a picture that as brilliantly (without words, remember) captures the intoxicated, overpowering feeling of two people falling in love as the first few scenes between Shearer’s tavern maid and Novarro’s title character. The gestures, body language and looks that pass from one to the other are astonishingly fresh and evocative–superbly modulated, choreographed, photographed and edited by the master at the top of his game.
This is the picture that moved the status of Norma Shearer (1900-1982) substantially upward; within three years she would win a Best Actress Oscar (for 1930’s dismal The Divorcee) as well as five more Academy nominations in the same decade. Absolutely her most beguiling and emotional work, however, is in The Student Prince. Just as this Lubitsch portrait of turn-of-the-century Old Heidelberg is also the zenith in the career of Mexican-born Ramon Novarro (1899-1968). A 1920’s heartthrob in the Valentino vein, his biggest success was in the original Ben-Hur (1926), but he never before or since displayed the sensitive range and subtlety of his work for Lubitsch.
As for Danish character-man Jean Hersholt (1886-1956), his name today may only be familiar because the Academy annually (since 1956) presents a Special Oscar called the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, named to commemorate the actor’s outstanding humanitarian activities. If any performance sums up this Hersholt image, it’s here as the self-effacing, benevolently loving tutor to the crown prince. All three stars don’t seem to be acting in this movie; their characters’ actual existence becomes palpable.
One sequence Lubitsch didn’t shoot was inserted at the insistence of MGM chief L.B. Mayer, who felt there needed to be a more obvious romantic interlude, Lubitsch’s version being more circuitous and understated. This scene, directed by later weepies veteran John M. Stahl (who had considerable distinction), brings Shearer and Novarro for a tryst onto a pretty obviously fake hill of budding, rustling flowers. Although the sequence seems totally out of character for the film–and nearly an archetypal example of Kitschy silent-movie sentimentality–one’s affection for Shearer and Novarro is so strong by this point in the movie that you don’t really mind too much.
While he bewitchingly conveys the heady beauty of blossoming love, Lubitsch also quite devastatingly expresses the crushing anguish of lovers’ parting and loss. Seeing The Student Prince brings with it a kind of shock of recognition: Yes, the movies really can tell you so much about human beings without the use of words. How to describe the delight in watching Shearer innocently edge all the way around behind Novarro when she’s first looking him over, or the way she walks purposefully but with no reason about his room before leaving the first time? Lubitsch reminds us that once upon a time pictures were about feelings, and they had a heart.