The title of Ernst Lubitsch’s That Uncertain Feeling might well sum up my response to all of the director’s work. A graceful and inventive master, I nonetheless often find myself vaguely uneasy when I watch Lubitsch’s films. (His last, Cluny Brown is a glorious exception.) The source is definitely not the director’s exquisitely pellucid, deceptively simple filmmaking. Part of the problem is that romantic comedy does not interest me under the best circumstances. And indeed, my disquiet may well result from Lubitsch’s reliance on a central aspect of the genre that leaves me cold: character.
Lubitsch was an incomparable master in depicting the inconsistencies of the human animal. He does more with his characters’ quirks than just about anyone could imagine, much less approach. That doesn’t guarantee that all of his work is equally accomplished, however, and Feeling is definitely a minor effort. Jill Baker (Merle Oberon) is happily married to a dull insurance salesman, Larry (Melvyn Douglas) until she meets concert pianist Alexander Sebastian (Burgess Meredith), best described as a bundle of comic neuroses. Suitably silly and low key antagonisms ensue until the happy marriage is restored.
Lubitsch predictably gets a lot out of this set up. As just one example, Sebastian has a habit of snarling “Phooey!” to anything or anyone he dislikes, and Lubitsch makes it funny every time. It is perhaps typical of his method, however, that the high point of the story has little to do with the struggle between the three major characters. Larry invites a group of prospective Hungarian clients to dinner. To please them, he asks Jill to memorize and say “egészségre” (roughly “Cheers!” in Hungarian) at a crucial moment in the evening. Lubitsch builds inordinate comic suspense around that one word and Jill’s success with the toast is both satisfying and ridiculously funny.
The problem is, the Hungarians have little to do with the story. We see nothing more of them after the dinner. The storytelling is thus as unpredictable as the characters, running off in unexpected directions, veering between attention to the situation and ignoring it. This method can be charmingly wayward, but it does produce a certain amount of tension, since it is rarely clear why the film has changed course, or when it might get back on track. As a result, it succeeds or fails on the appeal of the characters’ eccentricities.
In That Uncertain Feeling, those idiosyncrasies are just not very engaging. Sebastian is as abrasive as he is funny, and Jill is defined more or less by her hiccups. Larry’s most unique characteristic is to poke Jill in the stomach and say “Keeks!” a running joke as annoying for the viewer as for her. It is therefore rather difficult to care whether the Bakers reconcile. Lubitsch’s handling is as nimble and ebullient as ever, but the film remains ample proof that even the ablest masters can have off days.