Classic Film Review: “That Uncertain Feeling” (1941) has That Lubitsch Touch

Berliner Ernst Lubitsch was a one-man-argument against the idea “Germans have no sense of humor” in the troubled 1930s and war-torn 1940s.

As an expat in Hollywood, he directed some of the enduring comedies of his day, sophisticated farces with barely a hint of “screwball” — the dominant style of those years — about them. Comedies generally don’t age well, but “Ninotchka,””The Shop Around the Corner,” “Design for Living” and “To Be or Not to Be” play so well today that if more of Hollywood was versed in its history, more of them would be remade today.

“That Uncertain Feeling,” based on a 19th century French play (“Divorçons”) first filmed by Lubitsch nearly 20 years before in Berlin, isn’t regarded as one of his or screenwriter Charles Ogden Stewart’s (“Kitty Foyle,” “The Philadelphia Story”) very best.

It’s posh, witty and bolts out of the gate only to sag in its middle acts before rallying for a fine finish. The settings are lush, luxe and limited, with just enough doors for slamming — only they never are. Because everyone’s too cultured for that. The dialogue is droll in the extreme.

“She certainly had a couple of interesting angles.”

“I didn’t notice them.”

And the cast? Merle Oberon was better known for dramas (“The Dark Angel”), costume epics (“The Scarlet Pimpernel”) and the like. Melvyn Douglas (“Ninotchka”) did the best work of his youth with Lubitsch. And stage-turned-screen actor Burgess Meredith had done some comedy, but was famous for “Of Mice and Men” by the time this UA production came along.

Oberon plays a Park Avenue sophisticate whose six year marriage to a wealthy insurer (Douglas) has turned brittle. Her dissatisfaction manifests itself in hiccup attacks. Or so it would seem. There’s nothing for it, her prattling pals insist, but to see a shrink — Dr. Vengard (Alan Mowbray).

“Most people know nothing about themselves. Nothing. Their own real personality is a complete stranger to them. Now, what I’m trying to do is to introduce you to your inner-self. I want you to get acquainted with yourself. Wouldn’t you like to meet you? Don’t you want to get to know yourself?”

“No. You see, I’m a little shy.”

The good doctor is the first to suggest that she’s not happy, that her boorish other half, who supports her in style but works too much and rarely takes in what she tells him, is to blame.

And the doctor’s office is where she might meet a solution to her problem. Sebastian (Meredith) is a pianist in what they used to call “long haired music” — the classics. He’s a misanthrope, a snob who knows art and knows, more than anything else, what he doesn’t like — which is most anything and anyone.

“Fooey,” he says to this decor, that delicacy and most people.

 “I’m against Communism, Capitalism, Fascism, Nazism. I’m against everything and everybody. I hate my fellow man and he hates me.”

Naturally, she ends up chatting with him, hanging out as a sort of pity and eventually inviting him to a dinner party gauche striver Larry is throwing for Hungarian businessfolk planning a merger and shopping for insurance.

The party, featuring comic character actor Sig Ruman, who worked with the Marx Brothers and Jack Benny (in Lubitsch’s “To Be or Not to Be”) and was comic relief in “Stalag 17,” is fun, and derailed by the egotistical Sebastian.

Larry starts to realize that he’s losing his wife to this lout, and despairs/schemes to turn things around in a game of brinkmanship with the cad and unhappy wife that gets his lawyer (Harry Davenport) and the lawyer’s secretary (Eve Arden) involved with punches to be thrown and papers to be served.

The picture still plays, almost despite itself. The post-dinner party scheming is nonsensical and cavalier and — audiences of the day must have surmised — ridiculously expensive. That is one rich insurance salesman.

Grimly-dated groaners range from “That’s mighty white of you” to an argument over a seemingly necessary slap Larry must deliver to his faithless wife for this divorce thing to pass muster in the New York courts.

Oberon holds her own, Douglas does most of the heavy-lifting and Meredith opened up a career of comic possibilities with this turn. Arden, playing an early version of the eye-rolling snarky speaker of common sense roles that she’d play all the way through “Grease,” just kills.

It’s always a delight to stumble into a comedy this dated that still delivers laughs, a tribute to a screenwriter who was Hollywood’s on-call “Noel Coward” for much of the ’30s and ’40s, to a cast that can rattle off clever banter with aplomb and a director whose “touch” was in the banter, the timing, the performances and the European sophistication and cosmopolitan milieu and supporting casts which lifted even thinner fare such as this.

Lesser Lubitsch still has “The Lubitsch Touch.”

Perhaps the biggest laugh of his career was the fact that Hollywood never nominated him for the Best Director Oscar for his very best films, and only honored him with a lifetime achievement award the year of his death.

MPA Rating: Approved, smoking, comic violence, drinking, innuendo

Cast: Merle Oberon, Melvyn Douglas, Burgess Meredith, Eve Arden, Sig Ruman, Alan Mowbray and Harry Davenport.

Credits: Directed by Ernst Lubitsch, script by Donald Ogden Stewart and Walter Reisch, based on a play by Victorien Sardou and Emile DeNajac and earlier German film by Lubitsch. Originally a United Artists release, restored and on Tubi, Google, Amazon and other streaming platforms.

Running time: 1:24

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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